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Temptation: 10 Questions and Answers

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Bede is an artist with an interest in theology and the lives of the saints.

Read on to discover helpful answers to common questions about temptation.

Read on to discover helpful answers to common questions about temptation.

The Weeds of Temptation

Small weeds become big weeds through neglect. In like manner, small temptations grow strong through laziness. If our world is a crazy jungle rather than a garden of paradise, the problem is carelessness in soul-weeding. How else does an innocent boy grow into a mass murderer, thief, or drug addict? Perhaps the situation would be different if he were taught discernment and self-discipline.

Yet, not only well-formed children but holy persons are confronted with temptation as well. It's as unavoidable as death itself. While temptation is a mysterious reality, there is much we can learn about it. This article looks at reasons why God permits it in our lives, how to deal with it, and what benefits may be gained through the experience.

10 Key Questions About Temptation

1. What is a temptation?

2. Does God cause or permit temptation?

3. When does temptation become sin?

4. What are the causes of temptation?

5. How does one distinguish between voluntary or involuntary temptations?

6. What are potential benefits from temptation?

7. Why is firmness of will so important during temptation?

8. What are the ways to deal with temptation?

9. What saints faced difficult temptations?

10. What can we learn from Jesus' example?

1. What is a temptation?

The word temptation derives from the Latin verb, tentare, which means "to test." Tests are a part of our everyday lives. Teachers test students to assess their level of comprehension. Manufacturers test their products to discover flaws. Engineers analyze the weight-bearing capabilities of steel beams before approving their use in buildings. Scientists use chemicals, such as nitric acid, to ascertain differences between "fool's gold" and real gold.

In like manner, God permits temptation in our lives to discover what's happening inside. Through temptation, the soul meets with a choice between good or bad, virtuous or evil. God discovers either gold or mud through the soul's response.

2. Does God cause or permit temptation?

In the Bible, God sometimes tests souls to prove virtue, prepare for a particular mission, or to bring persons to a higher degree of holiness. These are not enticements to sin but a type of examination. God tested numerous persons in Scripture, such as Abraham, the Egyptian Joseph, Job, and Tobit in the Old Testament, and St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, and the Blessed Virgin in the New. These temptations are called temptations of probation.

Temptations of solicitation, on the contrary, are from the Devil. These are invitations to sinful actions. While God permits them to occur as a test of virtue, souls have the opportunity to capitalize by holding firm. It is noteworthy that God does not tempt souls beyond their strength but gives the necessary grace to triumph. (Cf. 1 Cor 10:13)

The devil can solicit our consent but never force our will.

The devil can solicit our consent but never force our will.

3. When does temptation become sin?

Some people feel guilty because bad thoughts pester them. However, there is a difference between temptation and sin. As the saying goes, "A thousand temptations don't make a sin." Let's examine the three stages of a temptation:

  • The first stage is the presentation of an apparent good. This enters the soul through the five exterior senses or the interior sense faculties of memory and imagination.
  • This encounter leads to the second stage, known as delectation, or the experience of pleasure stemming from the presentation.
  • Finally, the moment of decision arrives: resistance or consent? Sin occurs only when there is full consent of the will.

Thus, while the first two elements are often impossible to avoid, the third element is the deciding factor. However, without motives for resistance, a tempted person will easily capitulate. The will, therefore, needs an arsenal of reasons to resist in order to gain victory. This chart indicates both natural and supernatural reasons to resist temptation.

4. What are the causes of temptation?

  • The malice of Satan: Lucifer and the fallen angels with him bear intense hatred for God and human souls. They have retained their native intelligence and powers far exceeding those of human beings. They know our weaknesses and can influence our imagination and thoughts but cannot force our free will. In his infinite wisdom, God permits Satan to tempt souls.
  • Original Sin: God brought Adam and Eve into this world in a state of perfection. Unfortunately, they failed the test that God imposed on them. All humans have inherited the consequences of original sin, namely, a darkening of the intellect, weakening willpower, and disordered passions that make sin appear attractive.
  • Mass media: The Internet, advertisements, and entertainment often try to incite human passions through tempting sights or sounds.
  • Past sins: Even living saints may be haunted by the memory of previous misdeeds, particularly in the realm of impurity. This can be especially annoying for persons with a lively imagination.
  • Physical causes: The God-given sexual instinct and organs are good in themselves but can be out of control unless tempered by self-control. In addition, sensuality or sensitiveness can also generate temptation.
  • Laziness: An undisciplined mind provides fertile ground for temptations to sprout.
  • Immodest clothing: Immodest fashions lead many persons to fall.

When a person puts himself in an occasion, saying, I shall not fall, it is an almost infallible sign that he will fall, and with great injury to his soul.

— Saint Philip Neri

5. How does one distinguish between voluntary or involuntary temptations?

Random images or thoughts may waft into the mind from all directions. These are often impossible to avoid because the brain is like a block of Swiss cheese. Temptations may therefore occur even without placing oneself in risky situations.

God permits this challenge in his all-wise Providence. While these struggles can be vexing, our choice for what is good rather than evil can promote us to a higher level.

"The case is entirely different," says Fr. Francis Remler, "when there is a question of temptations that are willful; that is, temptations that come to us because we have exposed ourselves without necessity or good reason to conditions or situations bound to produce them." In other words, we can also choose to place ourselves in tempting situations. These are known as occasions of sin.

The occasions of sin are persons, places, entertainments, occupations, and objects that may easily lead a person to fall. To willingly place oneself in these occasions is a sin in itself. As the book of Sirach says, He that loveth danger shall perish in it (Sir. 3:26). However, as Fr. Remler points out, "Proneness to evil is not the same in all persons, for all have not the same temperament or virtue."

Temptations can take shape through lack of discipline in our thoughts.

Temptations can take shape through lack of discipline in our thoughts.

6. What are potential benefits from temptation?

  • Temptations prove your love for God: Soldiers prove their patriotism on the battlefield, not in the barracks. A husband's undivided heart reveals true love for his wife. Hence, though temptations are painful, resistance reveals genuine love.
  • Temptations help gain the virtue of humility: Pride makes us strong in our own eyes, whereas humility acknowledges our littleness. Temptations reveal our nature's weakness and dependence on God's grace to win the battle.
  • Temptations help atone for past sins: The practice of penance, such as fasting on bread and water, is challenging but cleanses the soul of stains. The refusal to consent during temptation may be likened to a furnace—the fire cleanses away the dross of previous mistakes.
  • Temptations help you grow in love for God: Temptation boils down to a choice: to resist is to prefer God to everything less. Temptations also prompt a person to turn to God for help and become constant in prayer. The muscles of virtue grow strong through resistance.
  • Temptations can be stepping-stones to merit and glory: St James makes the matter simple: Blessed is the man who endureth temptation. For when he hath been proved, he shall receive the crown of life which God hath promised to them that love Him (James 1:12). The very means that the devil intends to overthrow souls can become the highway to glory; temptation, then, becomes a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block.
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7. Why is firmness of will so important during temptation?

The Devil is very proud by nature and therefore detests losing a battle. He retreats in shame when an inferior human being defeats him. It is essential, therefore, to willfully resist the Devil from the first sign of temptation. One may easily pluck a small weed, but a deeply rooted one requires a shovel and a bucket of sweat. Fr. Paul of Moll (Francis Luyckx, 1824-1896), the wonder-working Benedictine monk, has excellent advice in this regard:

When a demon suggests a bad thought, it is easy to resist the temptation; but if one does not immediately repel it, a second demon comes at once to help the first. Afterwards, in proportion as resistance is delayed, still other demons come to combine their efforts, and when one has to fight against seven devils all at once, it is very difficult to not succumb.

8. What are the ways to deal with temptation?

  • Vigilance: Temptations sprout quickly in an inattentive mind. Jesus says, "Keep watch" (i.e., pay attention, keep alert).
  • Firmness of will: The will is sovereign in the soul; every human action, whether good or bad, finds completion only when the will gives consent.
  • Be calm: Restless, jerky movements or audible words during a trial can disturb others and worsen matters. Calmness conceals our internal struggle and prevents the Devil from intensifying his efforts.
  • Fear not: Wholesome fear of temptations is good, but sheer terror is bad. Satan may solicit through temptation, but he cannot force consent from the human will.
  • Use indirect resistance: Indirect resistance often works best to lessen the force of temptation. This includes petitions to God, the Blessed Virgin, St. Michael, or your guardian angel. Useful diversions, such as reading, writing, conversation, manual labor, and physical exercise, help distract the mind. Avoid idleness which is the Devil's workshop. Finally, reading spiritual books gives the mind good wheat to mill.
  • Reveal your temptations: While temptations are not sins, making them known to a spiritual guide, such as a priest or minister, greatly reduces their power and can even eliminate them. Revelation involves humility which the DDevil detests.
  • Pray: To triumph in temptation, human effort is insufficient; the grace of God is necessary. This comes through prayer.
  • Meditation on Scripture: Temptation always involves a lie; God's word is truth. Therefore, the soul who is equipped with the truth jabs at Satan's balloon before it carries him away.
  • Frequent reception of the Sacraments: God provides effective remedies for temptation through the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Penance.
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9. What saints faced difficult temptations?

St. Mary of Egypt: Having lived as a prostitute for seventeen years, she experienced a conversion by the intercession of the Mother of God. St. Mary then lived as an ascetic for the next forty-seven years in the desert, the first seventeen years of which were spent with ferocious temptations regarding purity. Through these experiences, she fully atoned for her sinful life and became a great saint.

St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi: This holy Carmelite nun attained to a high degree of union with God. Then to bring her to an even higher degree of holiness, God put her in "the lion's den" for five years, where she experienced grievous temptations to impurity, pride, gluttony, infidelity, and blasphemy. She ultimately succeeded by God's grace.

St. Vincent de Paul: This holy saint had a friend who was assailed by doubts regarding the faith. St. Vincent offered himself as a victim that the poor man could be delivered. Consequently, a spirit of doubt regarding matters of the faith assailed St. Vincent continually, whereas his friend was released. He endured this temptation for four years, and God rewarded him generously.

10. What can we learn from Jesus' experience of temptation?

It is consoling to know that Jesus permitted Himself to be tempted for our instruction. What can we learn?

  • In the first place, Jesus shows how important it is to have the mind deeply imbued with the words of Scripture. The word of God is truth, whereas Satan's temptations always involve a lie.
  • Secondly, the three temptations that Jesus endured in the desert correspond to the three lusts described by St. John: the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life (Cf. 1 John 2:16). This shows the importance of pursuing eternal goods rather than passing pleasures.
  • Thirdly, Jesus' trial reveals that the Devil will try to tempt with an apparent good, whereas closer examination shows the lie.

Finally, Jesus overcame temptation and thus shows that He understands the trial. The soul is strengthened by his example and so strives for victory.

Fr. Elias Mills, F.I., advises on temptation in the following video:

The Garden of the Soul

Our soul is like a garden. Good choices in life will give us a garden full of flowers; bad choices will turn us into an overgrown jungle with monkeys.

Oh, what must the sight of the saints be like in heaven? Each of them is a garden of God, resplendent and fragrant. Therefore, let us work now and rest later. Our first parents lost paradise through carelessness, but hard work helps us regain it. Let us then keep a vigilant eye on those small weeds. Ultimately, the best gift we can offer to God is a beautiful soul garden.

References

The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, by Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey, Published by Desclee & Co, Tournai, 1930

How to Resist Temptation, by Fr. Francis Remler, Sophia Institute Press, 2001

Strong, Debbie. "7 Ways Anger Is Ruining Your Health." Everyday Health, 2015, https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/ways-anger-ruining-your-health/

Fr. Paul of Moll, Benedictine Wonder Worker, by Edward van Speybrouck; Tan Publishers, 1979

© 2022 Bede

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