Like a lot of people, I would like to lose weight, but I never found diet and exercise programs to be the easiest undertakings in the world. They always seem to require a great amount of self-discipline to get real results. A while ago, I began to wonder to myself, “Why is success with diet and exercise so difficult, when skipping dessert and working out just once or twice seem easy enough?” The answer is actually simple: getting results from diet and exercise is difficult because one or two lone instances of self-discipline are not enough where weight loss and health are concerned. If someone really wants results, he must be consistently disciplined, committed to working out not just once, twice, or ten times, but regularly and all the time. This is essentially why I, an ill-disciplined human, personally find weight loss hard.
You may now be wondering how this relates to God. Personal disciplines in the form of penances, done to please God, are definitely encouraged, even mandated by the Church, but the approach of self-deprivation for God’s sake is different from self-deprivation for earthly reasons. The biggest distinction that I see between the secular aims of weight loss and care for the body and the religious realm of penance is that in order for a penance to be good it does not need to be large, consistent, or even repeated once, but simply done in the spirit of charity. The tiniest good act, done even once, like helping someone cross the street, gives no outward result, but it can be a precious gift to help advance the kingdom of God. For a penance, what matters is less what is done and more why it is done.
Our Effort Counts
There are several reasons for this inherent difference between physically positive acts and spiritually positive. First, our bodies can be so stubborn when it comes to losing weight that they will frequently need a lot of work to change as we desire. Second, though large penances make enough sense, how can such little penances still make a difference to God? They matter because penance is done purely for its own sake, is motivated by charity, so it reflects some amount of love of God. This love of God is thus an inward change, a change known to none save Him, and it pleases Him. No matter how small, if we welcome this change, it can then be a building block that later grows into greater and greater love. This by itself is not just good but vital, as a love of God is the essential component of eternal life.
Then, too, there is the similar component of mortification, since even little denials become easier with practice. Again, viewed through a purely natural frame, there is not much reason for such denials. Easy or not, they do not cause an outward change, except if they are viewed as a stepping-stone to the larger or more consistent denials that do come with change. Finally, there is the supernatural element. Specifically, God, in His omnipotence, can take our tiny penances and use them to cause a great amount of good. This boils down to a common idea of Catholic spirituality, that humans without God can do comparatively little, but in cooperation with Him, we can do much good. We, humans, are just that—humans, and live in a world filled with sin.
God, on the other hand, is Goodness Itself but has chosen to give us, flawed and poor as we are, a way to assist in His life-giving work. If I recall correctly, Therese of Lisieux wrote of how the souls He had created to be little should be content with their littleness and even called her personal method for attaining Heaven “the little way,” treating Christ as the elevator that would lift her little soul up to Heaven. Even if all we do seems like “little” to us, our effort is still pleasing to Him.
Don’t Give Up
That being said, we should avoid treating penances the same way we do diet and exercise programs. Not that large penances, accomplished successfully and with the proper disposition, aren’t appropriate and wonderfully pleasing to God; they certainly are, and for those who stick to them, it benefits themselves and any intentions for which they choose to offer it. For a more common scenario, imagine a woman named Sally who desperately wants to do big penances for the sake of herself and others. Unfortunately, Sally doesn’t have as strong a will as she would like, and a week or so after she makes her resolutions, she breaks most of them. If you are in a position like Sally’s, definitely do not tell yourself, “I guess I just can’t do penance,” and give up, as is easy to do. Rather, pick yourself up and start again, or, if you prefer, scale back your expected penances to smaller ones that you can observe better. No effort is too small if done with a heart pointed toward God.