This is part two of an article on temptation. See yesterday’s post for part one.
How can we overcome temptation?
Remote Battles are Essential! When people ask about overcoming temptation they most often have in mind what to do “in the moment” of temptation. But if we focus merely on the moment of temptation we are missing the bulk of the work that needs to be done. For in order to become more successful in withstanding temptation, a strong foundation needs to be established. There is much “remote” work to be done such as growing in virtue, undertaking active purifications and mortifications, deepening our prayer life and relationship with God, learning to avoid common occasions of sin, rooting our thought life less in the world and more in what matters to God, and so forth.
Faithfully and steadily laying this foundation is really most of the battle and it goes a long way toward crowding out what is evil and lacking with what is good and more perfect. If we do this, what tempts us will decrease and the intensity of what temptation remains will be weaker. If we simply seek quick advice about how to ignore or withstand lustful thoughts or how to avoid gossip in the moment we may get a few good suggestions, but without a good foundation the results can be pretty discouraging.
Consider an example. Suppose we come upon a man in an alley who has clearly been assaulted by thugs. He is bloody, beaten, and unconscious—clearly the victim of a crime. However, if all we do is think about how terrible what has happened is, we may be missing a lot of background information that is important in understanding how this man fell victim. Why did he go down this alley in the first place? Why was he in a dangerous place alone? Did he have no means of escape? Did he know how to defend himself? Were his attackers people he knew who turned on him? Was he a good judge of character? While none of these factors excuse what happened to him, they do show that many things may have contributed to his sorry state.
And thus similar questions are significant in our battle against temptation. The “thugs” are demons, or the hucksters of this world, or our own unruly passions. When one of these thugs assault us, it is good to have some strategies to deal with it in the moment, but we also do well to ask ourselves other questions. How did I end up in this situation of temptation? Could it reasonably have been avoided? Do I know how to escape if I see trouble coming? Am I careful enough about where I go, whom I know, and what I allow to influence me? Where is God and how strong is my love for Him and my relationship with Him? How serious have I been about growing in virtue in my life and limiting the influence and power of vice? What strengths am I cultivating in remote moments that can help me in these critical moments of temptation?
Thus, much work is necessary that is remote to the moments of temptation if we are to stand a better chance of overcoming temptation in the heat of the moment. Fight the good fight of the faith (1 Tim 6:12).
Spiritual and moral theologians speak of a number of ongoing practices that help us to overcome temptations. These cannot be fully described and explained here, but here they are, briefly:
1. Growth in self-knowledge and knowledge of God – wherein we come to know our strengths and weaknesses as God reveals them to us. We consider who we really are before God and in the light of His Divine mercy. Learning of our nothingness without God and our status as blind beggars, we seek His grace and enlightenment and make steady progress out of pride and into true humility, gratitude, and dependence on God.
2. Mortifications – wherein we learn to apply the Lord’s counsel that we should deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. We learn to lose our life in order to find it. Mortifications involve putting to death, by God’s grace, the inordinate (unreasonable) demands of the flesh and sinful attitudes such as vengeance and hatred. One may even eliminate lawful pleasures completely as a way of gaining increased self-mastery and authority over the passions.
3. Focusing on the roots of sin – wherein we look especially to the seven cardinal (or capital) sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth, along with other drives such as fear and ingratitude. We seek to understand what they are and learn their moves. Naming them and seeing how they subtly work is a journey toward gaining greater mastery over them by God’s grace.
4. Predominant fault(s) – wherein we seek to learn our most common tendencies and weaknesses and place special emphasis on learning to master and overcome such tendencies. This is joined to the practice of a “particular examen” in which we focus on and look in depth at these predominant faults as we prepare for confession and undertake our daily examen.
5. Growth in all the virtues – St. Thomas emphasizes two in regard to temptations. Now the human will is hindered in two ways from following the rectitude of reason. First, through being drawn by some object of pleasure to something other than what the rectitude of reason requires; and this obstacle is removed by the virtue of temperance. Secondly, through the will being disinclined to follow that which is in accordance with reason, on account of some difficulty that presents itself. In order to remove this obstacle fortitude of the mind is requisite, whereby to resist the aforesaid difficulty even as a man, by fortitude of body, overcomes and removes bodily obstacles” (II IIae 123.1).
5. Active purifications of
A. The Senses – such as custody of the eyes and ears and our excessive need for comforts and bodily pleasures.
B. The Imagination – wherein we seek to inject increasingly holy thoughts into our mental landscape in order to crowd out foolish, impure, and unholy thoughts.
C. The Memory – wherein the memory of our past sins is increasingly expunged by not dwelling on them and by replacing these memories with better and more holy things. We must feed that which is holy and starve that which is painful or sinful. Good thought becomes our interest; evil thoughts and memories are increasingly robbed of oxygen and wither. Here, too, is the laudable practice of praying for the gift of holy tears, wherein we weep for our sins not to dwell on them but to develop an aversion to and avoidance of thinking back on them with any delight whatsoever.
D. The Intellect – wherein we study frequently the Holy Wisdom of God, Scripture, good theological and spiritual books, the lives the saints, etc. We are less conformed to the folly of the world and more transformed by the renewal of our minds and fresh, spiritual ways of thinking rooted in God’s wisdom. Note that Jesus had recourse to Scripture to refute every temptation in the desert. And thus He teaches that our intellect is to be steeped in God’s wisdom so as to refute the Devil, the flesh, and the world. Scripture says, For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you (Prov 2:10-11).
E. The Will – wherein we increasingly and intentionally practice virtue, reinforcing it and crowding out bad tendencies (vices). We seek to grow in love of God and neighbor and to act less out of self-love. As virtue grows it becomes more natural and we do good things with grater ease. Vices thereby attenuate (weaken).
6. Regular confession and Holy Communion – wherein we receive grace to avoid sin and grow in holiness and desire for God rather than sin. In Holy Communion, especially, we become more and more like the One we receive. These are like both medicine and food, healing us and strengthening us.
7. Prayer – here understood not as mere recitation but rather as ever-deepening union with God, whose love transforms us so that we have a disgust for sin and a love for goodness, beauty, and truth. Scripture says, With flattery the devil will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him (Dan 11:32).
And thus we see that ongoing remote preparation is necessary long before the moment of temptation if we are to avoid some temptations altogether and are to be better equipped to avoid those that do come.
Virtue is its own reward! It is evident that those who have lived lives that were deeply mired in sin are going to face a lot more temptations going forward, even if they have repented. Thus we see the preventative role of virtue and of developing good habits early in life. Scripture says, Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the foolish go on and suffer for it. Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep far from them (Prov 22:4-6). And thus we see how sin begets sin and ushers in a greater urgency for its ways. Learning virtue and practicing it faithfully is a great means of avoiding a multitude of temptations. Sadly, many parents today attend too little to the moral life of their children. Sometimes a parent will say, “He’ll grow out it” or, “He’ll learn.” But more often it is just the opposite, as children become mired in sin and temptation early on and then follow this path more intensely all their lives.
Lay up good alternatives – It is typical when trying to lose weight that one is advised to remove poor food choices and lay up reserves of good foods that one likes but are better choices. Out with the Oreos and in with the fruit; out with the pasta and in with the vegetables. In other areas it’s out with cable TV and in with good movies or dedicated channels and entertainment alternatives. Stock up on good reading and audio materials that you like and have greater recourse to these. Spend the time learning and growing in the finer things of life that most appeal to you. Often one fine thing leads to other related interests. Do not make the mistake of simply removing things from your life; unhealthy vacuums are created. Instead, “crowd out” the bad stuff with better stuff, starting with what you like and letting the good things lead to other good things you might not like now but will later.
And then what? – None of us escapes fully all temptation. In those moments are there any recommendations to withstand the moment of attack? Try a few of these things:
1. Age quod agis (do what you are doing). In other words, develop the habit of starting and focusing on what you are doing and of not being easily distracted. Being mindful and intentional is a way of disciplining our minds. Learning this discipline assists us when temptations arise (many of which are forms of distraction). To the degree possible, stay focused and clear on what you are doing at any moment. Our mind can be affected and assisted even by the physical discipline of cleaning a kitchen or writing a paper.
2. Remember, one victory helps pave the way for others. We are not going to win every battle especially at first. But win the ones you can and be grateful. An old song says, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin; each victory will help you, some other to win!” So don’t be discouraged; win what you can and when you fall, fall on Jesus and get right back up and try to win the next one. Strength builds, one victory at a time.
3. Consider that sin is a passing pleasure but the bill inevitably comes due later. Resisting temptation requires effort now but brings rewards (and no bill) later. Scripture says, Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).
4. Call on Jesus! Scripture says, Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:18). Note that he is ABLE to help. An old song says that “King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long, to hear some sinner pray.” Ask to trust and act on His word, which says, Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
5. Stay alert and sober (i.e., possessed of a clear mind that knows what is going on from moment to moment). Stay prayerfully aware of God, too. Most people live life in reaction mode rather than reflection mode. Those who reflect can walk up to a group of gossipers, grasp what is going on, and then stand back from cooperating in it, perhaps even directing the conversation elsewhere. Those in reaction mode just join right in without thinking. Jesus says, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).
6. Accept that you are going to have to suffer at times to resist temptation. It is easy and often pleasant to sin. It is hard and sometimes unpleasant to resist its urges. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood … Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:4,7-11).
7. If something causes you to sin frequently, be willing to part from it even if it is hard. Resolve to do so if necessary. Scripture says, If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire (Matt 18:8). If cable TV is a problem for you, get rid it, etc.
8. Many temptations occur at night when trying to retire. The Church bids us in night prayer to mediate on death. An ancient night prayer song says, “Teach me to live that I may dread, the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die so that I may, rise glorious on the awful day.” It may seem strange but it works.
9. Love God and ask Him in moments of temptation for the grace to love Him more than the sin, more than yourself, and more than your pleasure. See the moment of temptation as a time to show that your love for God is greater than for the world. Accept the challenge and realize that each victory will tend to increase your love for God and His truth.
10. In some temptations (such as addictions) it is good to have a sponsor or friend we can call when we are struggling. They help to support us and also to hold us accountable.
Please note that these suggestions may help but they may also come off as trite and sloganish if we are not doing the remote work spoken of above. True victory builds when our foundation is strong. Keep building the foundation and remember that holiness is a long-term gain. The modern world likes microwaves but God’s way is more like a crockpot. Learn to savor the steady growth of holiness and watch as temptations decrease and become less vexing. Temptations will never cease this side of the veil, but they can significantly decrease and lose their power to disturb us so much … by God’s grace, and in God’s time.
This song speaks of the virtues in the Garden of King Jesus, virtues such as chastity, patience, obedience, charity and humility….