Sunday’s Gospel about the temptation of Jesus in the desert by Satan evokes several questions. The answers I propose are not intended to be a theological treatise, but rather a pastoral reflection.
I. Why does God permit temptation? God does not permit any evil or problem unless it can serve some greater good. In the case of temptation, He permits it because it summons us to love Him while giving us the freedom to reject or accept that call. God seeks sons and daughters who can love Him freely.
Of God’s creatures, only angels and humans possess free will. We are summoned to love, but love requires the freedom to make choices. In giving us freedom, God permits alternatives to saying “yes” to Him. These alternatives present themselves as temptations.
Temptation existed even in Eden, in paradise; and prior to that, the angels had a sweeping choice for or against God. Scripture hints that one third of them fell to the earth and are what now called demons (see Rev 12:4). Our “yes” to God must be very precious indeed, because in granting this freedom He permits that some, indeed many, choose to reject Him.
A second reason God permits temptation is that it tests and strengthens us. An old saying reminds us, “Things do by opposition grow.” Temptation is a kind of opposition we must learn to endure. In enduring, though, we become stronger. The spiritual life is like the physical life in that we grow stronger through repeated action. After lifting weights repeatedly, our physical strength increases and we can overcome increasingly more difficult physical challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. An old gospel song says, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win.” Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee (James 4:7). Resisting implies ongoing effort, standing up to the devil repeatedly. It’s not a one-time battle, but an ongoing war in which each small victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. As we grow stronger, the devil eventually stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas. At times the battle may weary us, but in the long run, it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this in his three-fold battle with Satan in the desert.
II. What are the sources of temptation? There is a tendency to attribute temptation and struggles to the devil, but tradition speaks to two additional sources: the world and the flesh. (Note that the flesh is not merely our body; it is a term that describes our rebellious tendency to sin and be prideful.) Scripture affirms these different sources, for not only are there passages in which the devil directly tempts (e.g., Adam and Eve in the Garden, Jesus in the desert), but there are ones that speak to the temptations of the world and the flesh: For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:16).
Frankly, many people do not need direct demonic temptation; they do a pretty good job of exposing themselves to temptation by indulging the flesh and embracing the world. The devil can pretty much leave them alone and monitor their self-destruction from a distance.
This is one reason those striving to convert and return to the Lord are often the target of demonic attacks. As long as they were traveling on the road to destruction and Hell, they barely noticed the devil, because he was walking right behind them. When they began to turn around, though, they ran right into him. While the devil can and does manipulate and influence both the flesh and the world, we do better to look first to these two sources before ascribing temptations directly to the devil himself.
The influence of the flesh and the world are more under our control and thus should be the main focus of our battle. We do well to limit our exposure to the world and to spend more time with heavenly influences such as Scripture, the liturgy, prayer, and healthy, godly relationships. We should also focus more attention on self-mastery, through frequent confession, practicing virtue, and keeping careful custody of our mind and heart. Thus we see that Jesus is in the desert engaged in deep prayer, mortifying the flesh, and stepping away from the world.
III. What is the chief weapon Jesus uses in refusing temptation and how can it help us? Temptation is ultimately about influence and the battlefield is the mind. In the story of Jesus’ temptations, he answers every sinful suggestion by the devil with Scripture.
- It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
- Again it is written: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.
- It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.
To every foolish and sinful thought Jesus replies, “It is written …”
Because the battle in temptation is about influence, the following question arises: What most influences you: the world, the flesh, the devil, or God?
We must actively seek to be influenced by God, by godly thoughts and godly truth.
There is an old saying, “Sin makes you stupid.” And indeed it does. Sin darkens our intellect and leads us to make convoluted justifications and rationalizations of attitudes and behaviors that any child can see are wrong and defy common sense. St. Paul describes sin-induced stupidity when writing about the people of his time who suppressed the truth about God; claiming to be wise, they became fools, and their senseless minds were darkened (see Rom 1:18-22). He also advises us, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2). Nothing can so renew our minds as the very Word of God. By it we are called to see and judge all other things.
Thus, an essential antidote to temptation is to be deeply rooted in the truth of God. This does not mean merely mechanically quoting verses during an argument. Rather, it means being transformed by God’s Word and watching how it performs in our life. I have been reading Scripture every day for the last thirty years. The Word of God has changed me and has been instrumental (along with sacraments, prayer, and godly fellowship) in putting down sin and resisting the temptations that precede it. Some things that used to tempt me no longer do; other temptations that were once strong are now weaker. Still other temptations remain, but the battle is engaged! Jesus is right: the Faith and the Word of God are a strong shield to protect against the fiery darts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Temptation is an ongoing battle for all of us until the day we die. All the more reason to permit the Lord to teach us its causes, the way it operates, and the ways to resist it.