Tackle Temptation or Risk Ruination – A Reflection on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today says that Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. Hebrews 4:15  also affirms: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

How exactly a divine person, with a sinless human nature, experiences temptation is somewhat mysterious to us. And yet the text affirms that He does experience it. A Lenten antiphon from the Breviary teaches that he did this, or allowed this for our sake: Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering (Invitatory Antiphon for Lent). Hence, even without pondering too deeply the mystery of how he was tempted or experienced it, we can still learn what Jesus teaches us about how to endure temptation and be victorious over it. (More on the question of how Christ was tempted HERE).

Before we look at each temptation we might learn a few general aspects of what the Lord teaches us in electing to endure temptation.

 1. Temptation and Sin – The fact that the Lord is tempted, but did not sin tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, makes us feel that we have already sinned. But that is not necessarily the case. For Jesus, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore experiencing temptation is not simply to be equated with sin. One of the tactics of the Devil is to discourage us into thinking that the mere experience of temptation is already sin. It may be true that some of our past sins influence the amount and degree to which we feel tempted, but, of itself, we need not conclude that we have already sinned, or newly sinned, merely because we are tempted. Rather than to feel shame and run from God, we ought to run to him with confidence and seek his help. But do not conclude you have sinned merely because you are tempted.

2. Temptation and Scripture – Notice how, to every temptation, Jesus responds with Scripture. This is not to be merely equated with proof texting, or pronouncing biblical slogans. Rather we ought to see it as indicative of the fact that Jesus was deeply rooted in Scripture, in the wisdom of the Biblical vision. In rebuking temptation in this way, Jesus is teach us to do the same. It will not be enough for us to know a few biblical sayings. But, to the degree that we are deeply rooted in the wisdom of God’s truth available to us through Scripture, and the teachings of the Church, we are able to strongly rebuke unholy, worldly or fleshly thinking. Half the battle to defeating temptation is to know instinctively its erroneous vision and stupidity. Having our minds transformed by the teachings of Scripture and the Church is an essential weapon in fighting temptation. Scripture says, 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 (Romans 12:2). Ephesian 6:17 also speaks of the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit”  with which we are properly armed for spiritual warfare. Thus, we are taught here by the Lord to be deeply rooted in his Word.

3. Temptation and Strength – Notice that Jesus is tempted three times, after which the devil leaves him. In a certain way 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 are able to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. And old Gospel songs 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). We need not conclude here that Jesus needed to be strengthened (he did not) in order to understand that he is still teaching us what WE need to do. The battle against temptation is not a “one and you’re done” scenario, but an on-going battle wherein each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. Eventually he stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas, as we grow stronger. At times, the battle may weary us but, in the long run, it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this with his three-fold battle with Satan.

Having review a few general principles, let’s look at the three temptation scenes.

Scene I: The Temptation of Passions. The text says. At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted for forty days and forty nights,  and afterwards he was hungry.  The tempter approached and said to him,  “If you are the Son of God,  command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone,  but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

Hunger, as a desire, is a passion.  It is not evil per se, for without it we would perish. The same is true with other natural desires for things like: life, drink, and propagation (sexuality). Others sorts of passion also exist in us such as: anger and love, joy, aversion, hatred, hope, despair, fear, courage and so forth. Of themselves these passions are neither good nor bad in themselves, but become so only in relation to their object, or insofar as we allow them to become inordinate.

Hence there is nothing wrong with Jesus as he experiences hunger. What the devil tries to do it to draw Jesus into sin by yielding to his hunger and to use his power inappropriately. Remember, Jesus had been led into the desert to fast and pray by the Spirit. This is his call. His hunger is real and without sin, but now he is tempted to set aside his call, and to yield to his hunger in an inappropriate way, by rejecting his call to fast. He is tempted to serve himself. Now he has the power to do this, to turn stones into bread, and so a second aspect of the temptation is to use his power inappropriately, not to glorify His Father, but to gratify and serve himself.

What about us? We too have passions. And they are not wrong in themselves. But what can happen is that we freely allow them to become inordinate, or we can gratify them in unlawful ways. Remember we, like Jesus, are called to fast. Our fast is from things like: sin, injustice, unrighteousness, sexual impurity, and unlawful pleasures, excessive indulgence,  and so forth. And we too have it have it in our power to choose to reject our fast and to gratify our desires by rejecting our call to serve God. And the devil says: reject your call and use your power to gratify your passions: lie, cheat, steal, vent your anger, fornicate, be gluttonous, greedy… and so forth.

But notice how Jesus has recourse to God’s Word: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus says to Satan that He would rather live and be sustained by the Word. That his food is to do the will of his Father.

What about us? Can we say with Job: Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Can we, like Jesus, say that God’s Word is more to me than my desires for: satisfaction, sex, self preservation, popularity, worldly joys, power, prestige, or possessions. My strongest desire is for God and things waiting for me in heaven and I will gladly forsake all I have for it.

Scene II. The Temptation of Presumption – The text says, Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:  He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

There is a value in trusting God, but this is not an invitation to act recklessly. There will come a time when Jesus will throw himself down on the Cross in complete assurance that the Father will raise him. He has this command from his Father. But now is not that time and he must act to preserve and protect his life so as to accomplish his full mission.

For us, too there is no sin in trusting in God’s care for us. But that is not a license to act recklessly. Presumption is a terrible problem today. Too many people think that they can go on sinning and there will be, or should be, no consequences. This is true in worldly ways and in spiritual ways as well. Too many people engage in risky and ruinous behavior and figure, “I’ll be OK….I’ll escape….I won’t be a statistic….I won’t get caught….I won’t lose my job. Many say, “I can use drugs and not get addicted, I can have evil friends and still stay good and live morally,  I can skip school and still get good grades and get into college, I can be promiscuous and won’t get STD’s or AIDS….I won’t get pregnant. They think, I can drive recklessly and won’t have an accident or kill someone…I can be disrespectful and still be treated with respect.” In all this people are simply crusin’ for a brusin’

And regarding the moral presumptiveness of thinking that no matter what I or others do, heaven will still be the result, the Lord warns:

  1. Sirach 5:4 Say not I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bides his time. But of forgiveness be not overconfident adding sin upon sin. …Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day for mercy and justice are alike with him.
  2. Gal 6:7  Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.  For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary in well‑doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
  3. Hosea 8:7  For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
  4. Psalm 81:11  “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.  “If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways,   how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!

God is clear to warn us that sin sets us on a path that hardens our heart and makes our final conversion increasingly unlikely. He is pleading with us in this Lenten season to be serious about sin and its consequences. Sin renders us not only unfit for heaven, but simply incapable of entering it.

Bad idea – Simply presuming that everything will be fine is not only a poor strategy, it is a temptation and snare of the devil who seeks to cloud our mind with false hope and unreasonable expectations. Jesus has a very clear message for the devil and for any of us who would engage in presumption (a VERY common sin today): “Don’t you dare put the Lord your God to the test in this way. Obey him out of love, but do not put Him to the test.” Presumption is a very bad and foolish idea.

Scene III. The Temptation of Possessions – The text says, Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”  At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan!  It is written:  The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” 

 There is here the obvious temptation of worldly possessions. Everything, EVERYTHING, is offered to Jesus in exchange for a little worship of the devil. Now, it may seem strong to us that having an abundance of things would be linked to worshiping the devil and forsaking God. But scripture attests to the connection elsewhere:

  1. Adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
  2. Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
  3. No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24)

All pretty blunt. We want to have both but the Lord is clear in rebuking the temptation by insisting that we have to serve God alone, adore God alone. The inordinate love of this world causes us to hate God more and more and to bow before Satan in order to get it. Don’t kid yourself. If this seems extreme then we are calling God an extremist. The Lord is warning us that there is a major conflict here that steals our heart. For where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart (Matt 6:21). It is not wrong to desire what we really need to live, but it is our wants that get us into trouble. And the desire for riches ruins us and makes God seem as a thief, rather than a savior. This is a very severe temptation and Jesus rebukes it forcefully. Him ALONE shall you serve.

We need to beg God for a single-hearted devotion of him. The Book of Proverbs has a nice prayer in this regard: Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest in my poverty I steal or in my riches I say “Who is the Lord?” (Prov 30:8-9 gloss).

In the end, temptations are real and we either accept God’s grace to fight them or we are going down. The Lord wants to teach us today about the reality of temptation and how to fight it, by his grace. Remember, the battle is the Lord’s and no weapon waged against us will prosper if we cling to God’s grace. But in the end, the choice is clear: either Tackle temptation (by God’s grace) or risk ruination (by Satan’s “ministrations”).

(Photo credit above right: Evolutionary Times (right click on photo for URL))

This song says, Yield not  to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Fight valiantly onward. Evil passions subdue. Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through. Ask the Savior to help you, comfort strengthen and keep you; he is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.

24 Replies to “Tackle Temptation or Risk Ruination – A Reflection on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent”

  1. It would appear that as fallen descendants of Adam and Eve who chose the temptations of the devil, we live in the kingdom offered to Jesus during His temptation by the devil. It would also appear that the interactive relation with the devil is in the body/ mind where as the interactive relation with God is in the Holy Spirit/ mind. My point is that what took place between Jesus and the devil would appear to have been on a mental struggle with physical passions verses mental struggle with spiritual passion. Three valid aspects in one person just as we find ourselves in a delemna with sin. My point is that the experience of Jesus with the devil was probably not so childish a vision as childrens fable as it is most likely as we find ourselves interacting with the devil and temptation. Many would argue that scripture is describing an encounter between two separate physical beings when realistically its more like six degrees of separation occuring in one bodily point of reference. I would agree as you say our salvation is not a result of moralism but rather a blessed gift based upon the focus of our passion. Living in the body of Christ.

    1. Scripture is describing an encounter between two separate physical beings.
      That is because they are two distinctly separate physical entities Robert, who infact have nothing in common.

      Nothing what so ever.
      Just so we are clear on that matter.

      You sounded a little confused there for a while.

      1. My point is not to sound profound or confusing but simply that all temptations take place first on the mental level. As Christ said that if you even feel lust or passion in your thoughts, you have already sinnned. Relation with God or the devil is an introspective activity.

  2. Dear Monsignore. I have pondered your words and for some reason I am thinking this:
    All in all, none of Satans “temptations” were really that tempting.

    The first one was regarding hunger.
    That might have been tempting if the Lord was not there to fast to begin with.

    The second one was about self destruction.
    The Lord allready knew what kind of death his mission required, so bringing it to an early end would probably not be that tempting either.

    The third one was about world domination.
    This would not really be that tempting either, as The Lord does not think highly of the world to begin with.

    So I think dealing with temptations are not really that hard if you manage to see them for what they are.
    Then they appear more like mind-games than real temptations.

    So I think the moral of the story is what you pointed out with regards to scripture.
    If people got scripture under their skin, they are less likely to fall for devilish tricks.

    And if people got scripture under their skin, they would be more likely to recognise devilish tricks.
    I often find myself reacting to things on a gut feeling, and if I feel something is not quite right I tend to react quite fiercesly.

    Luckily, most of the time, I later find some support for my reations in scripture.
    Another helpful thing that people can do when uncertain is simply call for a timeout.

    People, when feeling insecure about correct responses, could get into the habbit of checking scripture for help. And they could just say, “Hm, I feel something is not quite right about this picture, let me check scripture and get back to you.”

    What I often have experienced as difficult are time-preassure tricks.
    People demanding your answer right here, right now.

    So taking time-outs to consult scripture on matters are a good idea.
    Or, these days, if uncertain, one could even consult a great priest directly at http://blog.adw.org. 🙂

    Love your work Monsignore. I really do.

      1. The priest at the parish we visited in OC this morning pointed out that it took six verses before Eve gave in to temptation, but only one verse for Adam to give in to the forbidden fruit. 😉

  3. Item #1 is my particular buggaboo. And the feeling persists and God seems to disappear. I wish you would address this particular problem in greater depth some time. I think the problem centers on the fact that there is always some pleasure involved no matter how brief the inordinate feeling or thought or desire. They almost always come ” out of the blue ” so to speak and most often when I am least alert or prepared. That is what I can’t deal with. If it weren’t for that momentary pleasure or sense of relishing it, I might be able to accept these assaults as mere temptations.

  4. I am an anchorite and a spouse of the Eternal Triune God. I remain enclosed most of the time to avoid temptation. I gave up my last imperfection, smoking cigarettes. But I know I will always have temptation: temptation from other to give up my vows and temptation from my body to return to cigarettes. I have little support from anyone in my vocation, even my spiritual director. I will keep on, though, because I gave my word to Jesus, “forever”, and I mean it. No one can take away my vows but me, and that will never happen. It has been twelve happy years with the Lord and I require nothing to maintain my vows, absolutely nothing, because even if I had to leave this place, I would still be an anchorite and a spouse of the Eternal Triune God. That has already been tested again and again. I will not give in to temptation, even should someone threaten my very life.

    1. Well, “Victoria” does mean “Victory” 🙂
      Makes me very glad to hear you speak, Victoria.
      I remember your other posts on this site, and I know life has not been easy for you.
      But you have conquered.
      How lucky the Lord is. To have a girl like you.

    2. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but as it sounds, you believe you are now “imperfection free”, something which we never are as long as we are here on earth. To assert this would be a statement of immense pride (the WORST imperfection possible), so I’m sure yours was just a poor choice of words. Maybe you meant the last imperfection of a conscious CHOOSING…one which we know we should not do, but do anyway. To give that up, I would say congratulations on your choice.

  5. Msgr.,
    Great article on temptation!
    I particularly like your discussion of “Temptation and Scripture” early on in the article.
    One thing that strikes me (something you hinted at) is that Christ quotes the Scriptures to overcome temptation, but this is not any mere “proof-texting”, for the Lord interprets the particular passages in union with the whole Faith.
    Satan also quotes Scripture in two of the temptations — but he is “proof-texting”. I mean to say that the Devil plucks lines of Scripture out of context and out of union with the Faith, in order to try to lead Christ astray…
    … Indeed, the temptation in the desert teaches us quite a bit about how to study the Bible!

    (Also, thanks for linking to my article on how Christ could be tempted. As you say, it is a great mystery, the surface of which we can only just begin to scratch.)
    Peace! +

    1. Yes, thanks for your article as well that seeks to make distinctions and sort through some of the puzzling dimensions of how Jesus expereinced temptation.

  6. If I am tempted to do something which is sinful but do not do it then I have clearly resisted temptation. No problem. But what if the temptation is to think about something which is sinful? (I wonder if this is what Linus is referring to?) Let us say that I start to think about some sin I have committed in the past. This may not be deliberate but the thought comes into my mind because of something I have seen. If I quickly put this thought out of my mind (or quickly start to make an effort to put the thought out of my mind) then perhaps I have not committed a sin. But how quickly does that have to be? I sense a certain familiarity with the problem that Linus talks about – if I have interpreted him correctly. I, too, have thoughts – mainly about past sins which gave pleasure and so the thought involves a certain amount of pleasure. Sooner or later I fight these thoughts but there is always the doubt that the fight has not begun soon enough for there to have been no sin. How can we tell when we have merely been tempted and when we have committed a sin?

    1. THese are all very good questions without simple or mathematical answers. When exactly we consent is not always clear. But the point here is simply that just because a thought occurs it does not thereby mean we have automatically sinned. It is the nature of temptation to be appealing, otherwise it would not be tempting and to some degree this can be influenced by sin, and memories of sin. Try not to be too heard on yourself here but go to Christ, because only he can really cleanse our minds..

    2. That’s what I mean Mike. It’s all very simple when confronted with temptations say to take a life or to rob a bank. The great problem with temptations against the 6th and 9th commandments, is that theres is no small matter. That and the fact that with these fleeting or unbidden assaults there is often pleasure attached before we are hardly aware they are there – we are more or less blind sided.

  7. This past Friday afternoon, my husband “C,” my daughter “c” and I drove out to Ocean City MD because I was participating in a music conference there on Saturday.

    At some point along our drive, we started feeling peckish, and thus kept an eye out for someplace to grab something to eat. Around our usual dinnertime we encountered a series of road signs:

    Sign 1: BBQ
    C: mmm…BBQ
    Sign 2: Pit Beef
    c: Daddy, I’m HUNGRY
    Sign 3: Ribs
    Me: mmm…ribs…
    All of us: *wail* Yes, we do!
    Sign 5: Turn at the NEXT RIGHT
    Sign 6: for BBQ, Pit Beef, and Ribs!
    c: I’m HUNGRY
    C and me: It’s FRIDAY and we’re having FISH

    We did NOT turn at the next right for BBQ, Pit Beef or Ribs. Also we didn’t eat at Hardees, which had a distinct lack of non-meat menu items. Instead, we had rather insipid fish sandwiches from Burger King.

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