The battle against temptation in our lives is, of course, an ongoing struggle. Some moments and periods of our life provide more temptation than others, but no day goes by without at least some sort of temptation. While it is important to battle temptation in the moment, it is also important to build ourselves up by grace so that in moments of temptation we can draw on that strength and preparation to more easily win the battle.
Obviously, recourse to prayer, the Sacraments, and the Scriptures are essential in building ourselves up. But it is also instructive for us to observe how Jesus prepared Himself for the temptations that He faced. The Scripture affirms that He was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin (cf Heb 4:15). Two important moments of temptation for Jesus that are depicted in the Scriptures are at the end of His time in the desert and in the garden of Gethsemane.
Let’s look in particular at what Jesus did to prepare Himself for the devil’s onslaught toward the end of His forty days in the desert. We can distinguish several important things He did to prepare for the moment of the devil’s attack.
I. In accepting baptism by John in the Jordan River for our sake, Jesus illustrates that it is important for us to deepen our own baptismal renewal by the Holy Spirit, and the experience of God’s love. Though Jesus did not have any sins that needed to be washed away, He humbly entered the Jordan for our sake, bringing into the water His mystical Body, which includes us. There He acquired for us, in a kind of prevenient way, the cleansing of our sins by repentance and baptism. He also prefigured for us the coming of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and the Father’s great love for us, calling us his beloved sons and daughters.
Each of these gifts is important for us to frequently renew and meditate upon as a way of strengthening us against temptations that will come.
A. We must learn to appreciate the beautiful gift of being cleansed of our sins. We must learn to esteem the baptismal innocence which was ours as we came through those waters cleansed and beautifully renewed. What a precious gift to appreciate and to seek to preserve by daily repenting of our sins, calling on the Lord’s mercy, and frequently celebrating the Sacrament of Confession. This is a great help against temptation since, learning to more fully esteem the great gift of baptismal innocence, we are motivated to preserve it through the grace of the Sacraments.
B. Jesus also acquired for us in the river Jordan the great gift of the Holy Spirit, who descended upon Him like a dove. What a magnificent gift: that we would become temples of the Holy Spirit, who lives within us, sanctifying us and offering us every good grace. Yet too easily we forget this, for the Spirit dwells within us quietly, respectfully doing his work as does a careful surgeon. It is for us to ask for an anointing of the Spirit, to be aware of and respectful of His wonderful, mysterious, and powerful work within us. As we grow in knowledge and appreciation of this tremendous gift, we are enabled to draw consciously upon the grace and strength of the Spirit and see our lives gradually transformed. Here too is a great help in making us stronger so that when temptations arise, they are more easily conquered.
C. Jesus also receives for us the beautiful love of the Father. For as the Father looks to Jesus he says, Here is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. And yet, mysteriously, this great acclamation extends also to us, who are in Christ. It is such a beautiful and necessary gift that we should experience God’s tender love for us. How encouraging and transformative it is for us to experience that we are beloved, that the Father has a tender love for us. Experiencing this love, we are equipped to respond with love and the holy reverence that makes us fear to ever offend the Father whom we love so much. When we love God, we love what God loves, and we love those whom God loves. And thus we desire to keep His Commandments not because we have to, but because we want to. And here is yet another way to see ourselves built up in love, so as to better avoid and have victory in moments of temptation.
After His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus continues to demonstrate for us other ways to build ourselves up so as to prepare for and have victory over temptation.
II. The Forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert. There are three keywords here; let’s look at them in reverse order.
A. The desert is a symbol of completely separating oneself from the world, of drawing apart from the world with all of its seductions, its lust of the eyes, and its desire for power and comfort. In the desert, one feels anything but powerful. Just a few minutes in the hot desert will humble even the strongest of persons. The spiritual desert is devoid of most of the luxuries and comforts of the world. It is a place of great simplicity, a place where less is more. Trying to carry around many things in the desert is quite foolish and results in needless expenditure of energy and depletion of necessary hydration. In the desert, essentials are emphasized and extraneous things are shed. Although the Church emphasizes this during Lent, one does well to embrace desert experiences throughout the year. As we gradually renounce the world and develop a capacity for the simplicity of the desert, fewer of the things of this world tempt us. And when they do tempt us, we see more clearly the lies of the world and prefer the simplicity and clarity of the desert.
B. Prayer – The prayer that assists us in overcoming temptation is not so much intercessory prayer (in which we tell God what we want or need), but rather prayer understood as the prayer of union, in which we seek to unite and align our heart with the heart, the mind, and the will of God. This is not the prayer that asks for what we want, but the prayer that asks God what He wants. As we enter into deeper union with God through this prayer, our heart, mind, and will begin to align with God’s great vision for our life. Through this sort of prayer, we love the beauty and goodness of God’s truth and begin to abhor injustice. We begin to desire holiness and find the sinful attitudes and perceptions of the world increasingly obnoxious and unattractive. Thus we are assisted in battling temptations to sin as our desires become more conformed to divine will.
C. Fasting – We may think first here of food. But spiritually it may involve other things. Perhaps it means intentionally removing some of the things in our life that clutter it: television (a terrible time bandit), the news, politics, etc. Perhaps, even for just a few days, we can create something of a fasting experience by intentionally screening these areas off and using the time and mental faculties for spiritual reading, recollection, and so forth. Fasting helps strengthen us against temptations because it trains us in certain forms of self-mastery. Giving up or setting aside certain lawful pleasures or interests, even for a relatively short time, is a good way to train ourselves to resist unlawful pleasures and interests.
Resisting the temptation to sin is easier for those who have spent time in the desert and in fasting, for in going into the wilderness we learn to lean on the Lord, and in fasting we learn to shed some of the unnecessary excesses of a worldly life.
Here then are some teachings of Jesus on how to be stronger so as to avoid temptation and to be prepared for the temptations that will still inevitably come. We are not simply to be sitting ducks. We need to be prepared ahead of time for the temptations that surely await us.
Jesus, though sinless, was still tempted, and He gives us very good picture of what it means to be prepared and ready for the temptations of life.
This song by Tallis is “In Jeiunio et Fletu” (In fasting and weeping). The singers are all wearing coats in the chapel of this old castle. Perhaps the singers (or the owner of the castle) are fasting from heat or other creature comforts as they sing this lament for sin and seek strength against temptation!