Temptation is a universal human experience. And because it’s so directly associated with sin, many too easily equate being tempted with sinning. But temptation is not the same as sin. If it were, how could the Scriptures say to us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are and yet was without sin? (Heb 4:15) Hence, the simple experience of temptation is not sin. It is true, however, that our past indulgence in sin can make us more susceptible to temptation.
However, properly understood, temptation is a form of suffering—even a kind of martyrdom—that the faithful must endure, and through it bear witness to the abiding and surpassing power of God’s grace.
Yes, temptation is a form of suffering that we must endure daily. Too many people, however, feel guilty merely for being tempted. Perhaps they think they are already sinning simply because the thought of sin comes to mind. To be sure, temptation does speak to our desires and hence presents what at least seems to be a pleasurable prospect. It would not be temptation if it did not have this quality. We are not tempted by something odious or by something that has no pleasurable dimension. Nevertheless, feeling tempted is not a sin. And thus in temptation the Christian should not think of himself or herself as somehow displeasing to God. Rather, we should remember that God is our helper, someone to whom we should turn in times of temptation. We should not feel ashamed or afraid of running to God and asking for His deliverance.
In a reading from last week’s Office, St. Ambrose quite eloquently spoke to the martyrdom of temptation. I’d like to present some excerpts from his writing (in bold italics) and make some comments of my own (in red).
As there are many kinds of persecution, so there are many kinds of martyrdom. Every day you are a witness to Christ:
- You were tempted by the spirit of fornication, but feared the coming judgment of Christ and did not want your purity of mind and body to be defiled: you are a martyr for Christ. Yes, for you reverently feared God and considered the judgment of wrath that comes upon fornicators. You loved God’s rewards more than passing pleasures!
- You were tempted by the spirit of avarice to seize the property of a child and violate the rights of a defenseless widow, but remembered God’s law and saw your duty to give help, not act unjustly: you are a witness to Christ. Christ wants witnesses like this to stand ready, as Scripture says: Do justice for the orphan and defend the widow. And here again, you considered God’s love for the poor and that remembered that giving alms covers a multitude of sins (Lk 11:41). God dismisses those who did not feed, clothe, or give assistance to the poor into everlasting flames (Matt 25:31ff). And thus, like a martyr, you resisted the pull of greed gave until it cost you.
- You were tempted by the spirit of pride but saw the poor and the needy and looked with loving compassion on them, and loved humility rather than arrogance: you are a witness to Christ. What is more, your witness was not in word only but also in deed. Yes, you considered that we are all blind beggars before God and that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us (Lk 6:38). You considered that the merciful will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7) and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).
How many hidden martyrs there are, bearing witness to Christ each day and acknowledging Jesus as the Lord! … Be faithful and courageous when you are persecuted within … in those unseen persecutions there are kings and governors, judges with terrible power. You have an example in the temptation endured by the Lord. Indeed, temptations are a kind of persecution, and the proper response to persecution is willing martyrdom.
In another place we read: Do not let sin be king in your mortal body (Romans 6:12). You see the kings before whom you are made to stand, those who sit in judgment over sinners … There are as many kings as there are sins and vices; it is before these kings that we are led and before these we stand. These kings have their thrones in many hearts. Sinful temptations seek to rule our hearts like despots. But do not fear even the many kings arrayed about you. Stand before them with courage, even unto death. For though they can destroy your body, they cannot destroy your soul or take your spiritual freedom unless you let them. What is the worst they can do? Kill you? But this is pathetic, for then you go home victorious to Christ. Resist these domineering kings (of temptation), even unto death. For in dying faithfully you are born to eternal life!
But if anyone acknowledges Christ, he immediately makes a prisoner of this kind of king and casts him down from the throne of his own heart. How shall the devil maintain his throne in one who builds a throne for Christ in his heart? Amen. As servants of Christ, we escape slavery to the kings of the world, to the flesh, and to the devil.
From a commentary on Psalm 118 by Saint Ambrose, bishop
(Sermo 20, 47-50; CSEL 62, 467-469)
And thus we see that temptation is a form of suffering, even of martyrdom, if we engage in battle and refused to be mastered. Our martyrdom makes us witnesses to the surpassing value of what God offers as compared to the trinkets and passing pleasures of this world.
Temptation is a form of suffering, but to endure it brings us a share in the crown of martyrs. As St. Paul beautifully said near the end of his life,
For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Ti 4:6–8).
Do not be ashamed of your temptations; do not be fearful that on account of them you have already sinned or that God is displeased. Rather, see them as a summons to battle and to glorious martyrdom. Let it not be said of you, In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).
In every temptation, hear the battle cry. Take to the field manfully and resist. Win through to the victory and remember the glory of the martyrs, whose company, through temptation, you are able to join.