In this life, we are surrounded by distractions and temptations, but there are as many distractions and temptations arising from our own hearts and minds daily. The Christian life requires constant vigilance and self-control.
Often, the simple, natural motives for virtuous behavior are not sufficient to effect us. We find ourselves stuck in bad habits that we do not take pleasure in, but also don’t stop. We may eat more than we should, and we may feel stuffed after eating, even make ourselves sick. Yet, we do it again. We may sleep more than we need to and regret doing so later in the day. Yet, we do it again. We may waste time watching sports or gossip news, or scrolling through social media and regret doing so. Yet, we do it again.
The natural and rational motives to end these bad habits is not sufficient to move us to do it.
This is where religious promises can help us.
Assuming that one has faith and fears the Lord, a religious promise can raise the stakes and help us to break from a bad habit. The behavior then becomes a matter of religion and not mere health or morals.
For example, if I am struggling with glutton, I can make a resolution and say:
“I promise God that I will eat between the hours of 4 and 6pm and no more, except for black coffee and water.”
Now, when the temptation arises, it is not resisted with thoughts of keeping our weight down, or being “healthy”, but honoring a promise we made to God. It becomes religious and more meritorious an action because it is a religious action.
I have found making religious promises helpful in my life. I write them out on a post-it note, sign and date them and stick them on my desk, keeping them before my eyes. I have made religious promises concerning the use of social media, concerning eating and drinking, concerning pastimes, and more. I will struggle with simple motives to virtuous behavior, but I will struggle much less when it is a matter of religion.
This is not some private idea, but is a part of the Catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the use of religious promises, distinguishing them from more formal “vows”:
“In many circumstances, the Christian is called to make promises to God. Baptism and Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders always entail promises. Out of personal devotion, the Christian may also promise to God this action, that prayer, this alms-giving, that pilgrimage, and so forth. Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2101