One of the great consolations Christians have is that we worship a God who has Himself wrestled with temptation. At the Judgment, we will face not an Olympian abstraction who breezed through on his looks and money, nor a severe and icy Critic who eyes us coldly and says, “Why can’t you just not be tempted — like me!” but by a man who Himself has faced and struggled through every temptation the world ever had to throw at our miserable species. And the temptations He faced occurred not by accident but by His own divine plan.
Before He begins His mission, Jesus is described by Mark as being “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. God, it is true, asks a lot from us; and I, for one, have to admit that I sometimes resent it. But the fact remains that He doesn’t ask us to bear anything to which He hasn’t subjected Himself. Hunger, thirst, misunderstanding, rejection, bitter hate, betrayal, torture, and death are all things He has faced, right along with the accompanying temptations to selfishness, self pity, pride, lust, resentment, grudges, vengefulness, bitterness, and despair. He fought and beat them all, and He tells us He will give us His Spirit in order that we may do likewise.
It is notable that the Catechism tells us that this petition against temptation “goes to the root of the preceding one” (2846). Recall that the “preceding one” is the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Partly that’s because temptation is where sin is conceived, but also it is because perhaps the greatest temptation we feel in this life is the temptation to refuse forgiveness to others. After all, forgiveness (as distinct from excusing) is, by definition, for people who don’t deserve it, since they really sinned against us and we really are their victims. Because of this, we can feel an enormous temptation to “stand on our rights” instead of standing on the grace of Christ. Like the proud ghost in C. S. Lewis’s wonderful little book The Great Divorce, we want to say, especially when we are really wronged, “I only want my rights, I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” (To which our Guardian Angel replies in Lewis’s immortal words, “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity.”)
It is curious that we pray to God — who has already put Himself through hell to win us our salvation — to “lead us not into temptation.” It seems as odd as praying to a lifeguard to not deliberately drown us. Why on earth are we asking God to not do what He would never do? Part of the problem is that the Greek contains more ideas than can be adequately rendered in English. The Catechism tells us: “It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation.”
Jesus is not teaching us that we worship a capricious Olympian deity who might suddenly take an irrational dislike to us, lead us into temptation, and try to damn us for fun. He is teaching us to worship His Father, the God of Israel who “cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13). That God is absolutely consistent and is not about to suddenly and whimsically betray us like a fairy or sprite in some pagan mythology. He is not perverse and mercurial, like the frightening and half-mad Raven King who rules Faerie in Susanna Clarke’s fine novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His purpose is from age to age: He means to set us free from evil.
But part of His purpose can only be fulfilled with our cooperation. So just as we ask the Father to give us what is good, so we ask Him to protect us from temptation by helping us to avoid and escape it.
And brother do we need the help. Like Oscar Wilde, we can resist anything but temptation. We are inveterate guardhouse lawyers. We want to turn salvation into a legal game in which we seek not to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, but rather to see how much we can get away with and, as the saying goes, “still be saved.” We have numerous elaborate strategies for attempting to offer as little of ourselves as we can to God, while trying not to appear as though we are basically seeking our own way. We see this in the sort of questioning that asks things like, “How far can I go with my girlfriend before it’s technically, you know, ‘fornication’?” The very question reveals a corrupt will and intellect before the sin has even been technically, you know, committed. In the final analysis, it boils down to the prayer, “Let me be led into temptation!” And we see the identical pattern with whatever other favorite sin we are trying to sidle up to.
So we are taught to ask God to guard us from the way that leads to sin for the same reason we ask Him for our daily bread: because grace is necessary for our spiritual life as for our physical life. We are locked in combat between the flesh and the spirit, and we need all the help we can get to know how to discern what God is doing with us in the middle of this war zone.
As in any struggle, it is sometimes hard to tell friend from foe. The devil fights a guerrilla war and is not loath to fight dirty by donning the uniform of God’s troops in order to sow confusion, temptation, and death. Satan’s temptation, of course, always consists of using some good thing God has made and trying to lure us into loving it in a disordered way. No fish bites a bare hook; it’s always wrapped in a juicy worm that is, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, tasty-looking both to our appetite and to our pride. But the hook is still death. This is why Paul tells us that Satan appears as an “angel of light.” The mark of the world, the flesh, and the devil is that they tell us to seek some good (it matters not what) by rejecting what God has commanded. To break this ancient habit, it is necessary that God permit us to face trials even as He teaches us to avoid temptation — and to learn to tell the difference.
Therefore, as the Catechism tells us:
One thing to note about temptation is that, when we aren’t actively courting it, we’re facing not sin but concupiscence. What’s that? It is the weakened will, darkened intellect, and disordered appetites that afflict everybody, including the baptized. Sadly, this term is one that has fallen into disuse in contemporary culture, leading to the tendency to conflate temptation with sin itself. A pattern of thought that afflicts many believers (and one that the devil, the accuser of the brethren, loves) is, “If I were truly a Christian, I wouldn’t be having these thoughts and feelings at all.” But this is not so. Temptation only sprouts into the weed of sin when we water it with consent of the will. That is why the Church speaks of concupiscence not as sin but as the “tinder for sin.”
It is precisely because concupiscence is not sin that God sees our struggle to overcome temptation not as a revelation of how rotten we are at heart but as the battlefield upon which we grow in virtue and grace. I once had a conversation with a man who had struggled for years with homosexual temptation. He was married and had been a faithful husband and father, but he feared that his temptation revealed how sinful he really was. I told him that the first thing he needed to know was that his Father in Heaven was proud of him and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He had fought the good fight and loved his wife and family by the power of grace. He burst into tears. Nobody had ever told him about concupiscence. He’d been taught that temptation told us who we “really” are.
But the truth is, Jesus is the revelation of who we really are. He, not sin, is the final word about the human person. Therefore, Paul tells us, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Note what Paul does not say. He does not say, “If you give in to temptation, that proves you aren’t really a Christian.” That’s why he tells a Corinthian Church that is positively riddled with sinful members:
Paul, aware of the possibility of the radical misuse of our freedom, warns of the real possibility of damnation for his flock, but does not enter into the stupid game of attempting to claim that baptized people who sin, even gravely, are “not really Christians.” Instead he accepts the reality that they are, at least for the moment, bad Christians, exhorts them to become what they are, and reminds them of what that is. He does not say, “You pretended to be washed, sanctified and justified.” He takes it for granted that they were and demands that they conform their lives to the truth of what Christ has revealed in them through the sacraments.
The mystery here is that the sacraments are grace, not magic. They do not cancel our free will. And Paul, of course, realizes that we will fail and fall, but that when we do, Christ’s will is to forgive and heal and call us back to repentance once again, because He is the final word about who we are, not sin. Note as well that, instead of concluding from this that he does not need to bother rebuking the wayward Corinthians because it will all turn out well in the end, Paul sees it as his duty to warn them that if they do not repent, they will not see the Kingdom of God. In short, he understands that just as “give us this day our daily bread” implies a duty to feed the hungry, so “lead us not into temptation” implies a duty to strengthen, encourage, and, where necessary, rebuke those who are struggling in the battle with temptation.
One of the great lessons the saints teach us is that the battle with sin is the hardest and longest battle there is. This is not a discovery of the New Testament saints but was already old news in the Old Testament. That’s why Proverbs tells us, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prv 16:32). This imagery informs the New Testament as well when Paul tells us:
The only weapon that will ultimately carry us through this battle to victory is prayer with our eyes wide open, vigilant and alert. This is how Jesus Himself defeated the Tempter, and it is why He calls us to “watch and pray.” We are not to live in fear of the Enemy, nor in endless navel-gazing for our own faults. We are instead to live as Christ did, with our eyes fixed on the Father and on the prize to which He called us when He prayed for us to the Father: “Keep them in your name” (Jn 17:11). Only by such vigilant prayer can we overcome the Enemy of our souls.
“Enemy of our souls”? Are we really to take seriously such medieval stuff as the devil? Stay tuned!