I will be on the Catholic Answers radio show today (Monday, March 23) at 6:00 PM Eastern Time. The topic will be temptation, what it is and how to avoid and overcome it. I’ve assembled some notes in preparation and I’ll present them (in two parts) in the blog. Today’s post focuses on what temptation is, why God allows it, and what its sources are. Tomorrow I’ll present the second half of the notes, which center on how to avoid and overcome temptation.
What is Temptation? A seminary teacher of mine once defined temptation quite plainly and succinctly: “Temptation is the work of the devil to drag you to Hell!” Indeed, that is quite plain. Of course he went on to give us more academic definitions, but he didn’t want us to miss the fact that when battling temptation we are in a war, a war with an enemy who wants to destroy us. He wants this because he is envious of our excellence from God.
In a more academic sense, temptation is defined as
an attraction, either from outside oneself or from within, to act contrary to right reason and the commandments of God. Jesus himself during his life on earth was tempted, put to the test, to manifest both the opposition between himself and the devil and the triumph of his saving work over Satan (cf Catechism # 538).
In the Bible, the words used for temptation are nasah (Hebrew) and peirazō (Greek). Both words carry a wide range of meaning that can be translated as either “temptation” or “testing.” In the first sense, the word points to an enticement to do evil. But in the second sense, the connotation is of something that proves our character and shows the depth or integrity of our commitment to God.
The English word “temptation” comes from the Latin temptare, which means more literally “to feel, or try out.” Thus the Latin root emphasizes the notion that temptation is not merely a bad thing, but also serves both as a kind of test of the depth and strength of our faith, and as an opportunity to hone our skills and deepen and purify our faith by God’s grace.
Why does God permit temptation? In one sense temptation is the “necessary” result of freedom. As free persons who are invited to love God and to say yes to his will, we must be permitted to say no. There must be real alternatives to what God offers. If God could force our yes, then we would not be free and our yes would have no real meaning. Further, if God were not to permit any alternatives, or if He did not allow us to know of these alternatives, again our yes would lose most of its meaning. So on one level, temptation is the result of freedom and our call to love.
But why doesn’t God limit temptation so that we have more of a chance? In fact God does limit temptation to some extent. He also provides other holy sources of influence for us. He limits temptation by the simple fact that not everything is possible for us. We experience physical limits, intellectual limits, economic limits, and so forth. Neither can we have every choice available to us at all times; choosing one thing often excludes others.
Further, God send us good influences. His voice echoes in our conscience. He has given us intellect and reason so that we are able to decipher the Natural Law. He has given us an attraction to goodness, beauty, and truth. He offers us the grace of faith and every other grace necessary to endure. He has given us direct revelation in his Scripture so that we can access by faith. He has sent prophets and even His own Son. And His Son continues His Ministry of teaching salvation and reconciliation through His Body, the Church. So God does limit temptation and He gives us other good influences to balance what temptations remain.
Scripture says, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13).
What are the sources of temptation? Briefly stated, they are the world, the flesh, and the devil. I will describe each of these more specifically below.
We can begin by noting that God is not a source of temptation despite what many conclude from the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, lead us not into temptation (Matt 6: 6:13; Lk 11:4). This phrase is a petition asking God not to permit us to be subject to a test or temptation beyond our capacity to endure, and asking Him to give us grace to withstand what does. That God himself is not a source of temptation is attested to elsewhere in Scripture:
- When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:13-14).
- For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world (1 John 2:16).
Temptation that comes from the world – The word “world” here does not mean “that which God created,” which is good. Rather, “world,” when used in this sense in the Scriptures, refers to the powers, opinions, priorities, and “values” that are arrayed against God and what He has revealed. It is that which is hostile, rebellious, and opposed to God and is therefore under the power of “the prince of this world” (e.g., John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11 ), “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and the “god of this world (or age)” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Jesus says, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19).
St Paul 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 (Rom 12:2).
And yet the world does tempt us; it mesmerizes us with its beauties and trinkets, its comforts and priorities, which are essentially physical and passing. We see its glories and easily forget the more glorious One who made it; we seek its gifts and so quickly forget the Giver of those gifts; we delight in creation but so often not in its Creator.
Jesus warns how easily the world distracts us from that which is more necessary: And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of its wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matt 13:22).
Some examples of worldly temptations surround money and power. Here, Scripture warns of money:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:9–10).
And here are scriptural warnings about power:
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day (Deuteronomy 8:17–18).
But when King Uzziah was strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense (2 Chronicles 26:16).
It is also clear that temptation from the world is rather heavily weighted toward temptation from other people. St. Peter colorfully warns,
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping … These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved … (2 Peter 2:1-5, 17-19).
Temptation arising from the flesh – Here, “flesh” (sarx) does not refer to the physical body per se but to our many sinful drives. The flesh is that part of us that is rebellious, that does not like being told what to do, that resists the truth and bristles at being less than God and at being dependent upon Him.
Other sinful drives of the flesh include fear, hatred, vengefulness, unbelief, and worldliness. These serve as deep sources of temptation and explain why evil tempts us, why it is hard to resist, and why we are often sitting ducks who are easily overwhelmed by the devil and the world.
Of these drives Scripture says,
Jesus said, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matt 15:18-20).
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend it on your flesh. Adulterers! (James 4:1-4)
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts (Eph 2:1-3).
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (Rom 7:18-19).
Temptation from Satan – Some temptation comes directly from Satan and demons, who suggest evil thoughts to us and point to wicked things, ways, and solutions. Satan is also able to manipulate the world (since he is the prince of this world) and our flesh since we give him lots of “buttons to push.”
Of Satan and his tempting influence Scripture says,
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1)
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron 21:1).
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mat 4:1).
The seed sown beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved (Lk 8:12).
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus … As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him (John 13:2, 27).
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:5).
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus (Rev 12:17).
And there we have the meaning and sources of temptation. Tomorrow’s post considers that temptation is a battle that can be won and looks to biblical and practical advice in laying hold of the victory that Christ has won for us.