The three steps are interconnected. We cannot complete the first step perfectly before we move on to the second, and likewise with the second and third. In the spiritual life, we will pass through all three steps and repeat them often as we strive for perfection.
This repetition is needed because the later steps are needed to perfect the earlier steps.
On the first step, we stop sinning. This is difficult, but it is especially challenging if we do not have something to replace the sinful behavior with. We cannot live our lives without any action. So, as we stop sinning, we need to add in virtuous actions to fill the void.
Jesus warns us about this. In Matthew 12, He describes a demon leaving a person. The demon roams the world and then returns. If it finds the person’s soul empty, it brings back seven other demons, and the person is far worse than when they started.
If we regularly commit a sin, and we stop, we need to replace that vice with something good. Otherwise, we will eventually fall back into that sin and descend much deeper into it. So, as we make progress in the first step, we need to immediately start progressing on the second step.
The same is true of the second and third step. The third step is attaining peace. This is a supernatural step. We cannot choose to be at peace our own. We need God’s help. We have free will to choose our actions with the first two steps, but the third is a gift from God.
So, what does the third step look like? Peace sounds really good, but we do not always recognize it as a gift from God. In the spiritual journey, peace is a gift to help us continue to progress.
If we have a vice, then we have become attached to a sin. It is a habit or addiction, and stopping it is difficult. We may long for the vice when we stop. Then, as we start a new virtue, we find practicing that virtue difficult. We are far from peace at this stage. We feel temptations, longings, anxiety, and fear.
In the third step, we begin to enter into the peace of Jesus. This happens as our desires change. We begin to love our virtues and detest our vices. This is essential to perfecting virtue since it is exhausting to fight against our desires.
Now, imagine how incredible this journey is. We start on the wrong path and stop. It hurts to stop our sins, but we work to replace them with good works. This is hard work because the new good behaviors are not yet habits. Then, as we continue on this path, struggling with much effort, we begin to develop the habits of doing good and begin to enjoy those habits. One day, we realize that we would hate to go back to our former life, and we know that giving up our virtues would be painful.
Through this journey, we continually hear the voice of the enemy discouraging us. The journey gets easier and easier, but we hear the enemy tell us that it will always be difficult, that we will never be happy, and that we will fail. We hear temptations pulling us back to the sins that we gave up. We must persevere for just a short time because the path to virtue will get easier. We must also trust in the grace of God to help us.