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How to Deal With Temptations

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Bede studies theology and philosophy to help find answers to life's basic struggles.

What Is a Temptation?

The word temptation derives from the Latin verb, tentare, which means "to test." Manufacturers constantly test their products to discover flaws. Car companies, for example, repeatedly test their machines before sending them to the open market. Engineers analyze the strength of steel beams to ascertain their weight-bearing capabilities before being placed in a building. Nitric acid discovers the truth between "fool's gold" and real gold. In like manner, a temptation is to the soul what these trials do for the material realities of life; it is God's testing measure. In temptation, the soul meets with a choice—good or bad, virtuous or evil. The soul's response shows God if He's dealing with gold or mud.

Caused or Permitted by God?

There are two types of temptation. Temptations of probation are sent by God to prove virtue, to prepare for a particular mission, or to elevate persons to a high degree of holiness. Examples of this sort are numerous in Sacred Scripture: 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 are not enticements to sin but a test.

Temptations of solicitation, on the contrary, are from the Devil. God permits them to occur nonetheless, to test our virtue or bring us to a higher level. However, as St. Paul indicates, God does not tempt us beyond our strength and He also gives us the necessary graces to triumph if we humbly beseech Him (Cf. 1 Cor 10:13).

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The Elements of Temptation

There are three elements to a temptation:

1) The Presentation: Evil of one sort or another is presented to our soul, either through the five exterior senses or through the interior sense faculties—memory and imagination.

2) Delectation: This is the experience of pleasure stemming from the presentation.

3) The Response: The will decides: resist or consent?

While the presentation and delectation elements are often impossible to avoid, the response is the deciding factor. The first two aspects are fleeting and therefore not wrong unless a person deliberately puts himself or herself in harm's way. However, some actions are indifferent in terms of moral value, such as the reasonable use of food, drink, and recreation. These actions are good, bad, or neutral according to the intention that motivates their use.

The Causes of Temptation

There are six causes of temptation:

1) 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 which are far superior to that of human beings. In his infinite wisdom, God permits Satan to tempt souls. Thus, the devils know our weaknesses and have power over our imagination and thoughts but not our free will.

2) Original Sin: God directly created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and placed them in a state of perfection. Unfortunately, they failed the test. The consequence is a darkening of the intellect, a weakening of willpower, and disordered passions which make sin appear attractive.

3) The world and its spirit: Worldliness refers to ideas and aspirations that are inspired by human passion rather than God's standards. Fashions, literature, magazines, movies, and entertainment, all play on the weakness of human nature.

4) Past sins: Persons who have turned to God in earnest are often haunted by the memory of previous pleasures, particularly in the realm of impurity. This can be especially difficult for persons with a lively imagination.

5) Physical causes: The human body has a sexual instinct and organs, given by God, and are thus good in themselves, but are prone to be out of control.

6) Negligence: An undisciplined mind provides fertile ground for temptations to sprout.

Temptations easily awaken in an undisciplined mind.

Temptations easily awaken in an undisciplined mind.

Distinguishing Between Voluntary or Involuntary Temptations

Temptations may occur without one's willing it, as in sights or sounds that are not voluntarily sought. After all, we live in a world of allurement that constantly confronts our soul. It's often impossible to avoid these. God permits the challenge in his all-wise Providence to advance our spiritual lives. While these struggles can be annoying, they can promote us to a higher level by our unwillingness to consent.

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 the 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, particularly of rashness. 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.

How to Benefit From Temptations

There are five potential benefits to temptation.

1) Temptations prove your love for God: Soldiers prove their patriotism on the battlefield, not necessarily in saluting the flag or in eloquent speeches. A husband proves his love for his wife by keeping his heart undivided. Hence, though temptations are painful, resistance reveals to God that you love Him.

2) Temptation helps gain the virtue of humility: Pride makes us strong in our own eyes whereas humility acknowledges our littleness. Pride separates us from God and humility draws Him. Temptations reveal the weakness of our nature and our dependence on God's grace to win the battle.

3) Temptations help atone for past sins: The practice of penance, such as fasting on bread and water, is difficult but cleanses the soul of stains. The refusal to indulge one's passions during temptation may be likened to a furnace—the fire cleanses away the dross of previous mistakes.

4) 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 through resistance.

5) Temptations can increase 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 and no longer a stumbling block!

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How to Deal With Temptation

There are eight ways to deal with temptation:

1) Firmness of will: Every human action, whether good or bad, is completed only when the will gives consent. Even if the waves of temptation are relentless, if the will is resolute, there is no reason to fear temptation.

2) Be calm: Showing restless outward resistance, as in jerky movements or audible words, is not only disturbing to others but can make the temptation worse. It causes fatigue to the mind and body and rouses the nervous system which is intimately connected to the soul. Finally, calmness is necessary so that Satan takes no notice of our internal struggle; he will surmise what is happening and try to intensify the temptation.

3) Do not fear temptations: While a wholesome fear of temptations is wise as it helps a person avoid exposure, morbid fear is bad news. Satan may bark but he is a chained beast. Though he can solicit through temptation, he cannot force consent because the human will is sovereign.

4) Use indirect resistance: If you are harassed with temptation, spiritual authors suggest not to wrestle with it directly. Here are several means of indirect resistance during the struggle:

  • Use an "anagogical act", or fervent petition to God, the Blessed Virgin, to your guardian angel, etc.
  • Do not argue with it but take up another occupation to distract yourself, such as reading, writing, conversation, manual labor, sports, etc.
  • Cultivate elevating and noble thoughts, especially of a spiritual character.
  • Avoid idleness which is the Devil's workshop.
  • Regularly read spiritual books so that the mind, like a mill, always has good wheat.

5) Reveal your temptations to your spiritual guide: While temptations are not sins, making them known to your spiritual director greatly reduces their power and can even eliminate them. Revelation involves humility which the devil cannot stand.

6) Pray: To triumph in temptation, human effort is insufficient; the grace of God is necessary. This comes through prayer.

7) Frequent reception of the sacraments: God has provided super-eminent remedies for temptation, namely, the sacraments, in particular, Holy Communion and Penance.

8) Vigilance: Temptations sprout quickly in an undisciplined mind.

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The Saint's Shining Examples

The study of the saints, especially those who have been severely tempted, is highly recommended. Most saints were put into the furnace and came out shining. There is a saint for nearly every possible temptation and here are just a few examples:

1) 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.

2) 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 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.

3) 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.

The Example of Jesus

Our Lord Jesus encountered temptation from Satan while fasting for forty days in the desert. Three temptations correspond to the three lusts described by St. John (Cf. 1 John 2:16). Jesus overcame them and thus shows that he understands the trial; this strengthens the soul. Likewise, he provides us with an example to follow and the grace through prayer to be victorious.

In the following video, the Franciscan, Fr. Elias Mills, gives an excellent homily on Jesus' example during his temptations in the desert.

Motives for Resistance

The key to controlling the force of temptation is in the will. Human willpower is stronger than all the powers hell. However, unless the will is informed by motivating factors, it will easily capitulate under the pressure of temptation. Hence, the will needs an arsenal of reasons to resist. The following chart indicates both natural and supernatural motives to resist.

TemptationNatural motive to resistSupernatural motive to resist

Anger

Can cause health problems such as high blood pressure, aneurism, and stroke

"Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Mt 5:22); The meek inherit the earth." (Mt.5:5)

Gluttony

May cause health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, sleepiness, and heart problems. Obesity can be unattractive.

"Their god is their belly." (Phil.3:19); "Woe to you who are full now." (Lk.6:25)

Greed

Greed often leads to dishonesty, theft, and overwork.

Treasure in heaven (Mt.6:19-21); The rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16:19-31); The eye of a needle (Mt.19:24)

Lust

May lead to addiction and have psychological repercussions.

"But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Mt. 5:28); "Blessed are the pure in heart." (Mt.5:8)

Envy

Envy can cause mental problems; "The green-eyed monster" Shakespeare, Othello (3:3).

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Ex.20:17)

Hatred/unforgiveness

Hatred wreaks havoc on the emotions and can lead to health issues.

"If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Mt.6:15)

Pride/arrogance

Arrogance creates barriers and causes war.

"For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Lk.14:11)

Slander

Slander creates enemies and breaks down society.

"Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy." (Ps.101:5)

Impatience

Has a negative effect on health and relationships.

"Love is patient, love is kind." (1 Cor 13:4)

Lying

Credibility is lost and factions are formed.

"A false witness will not go unpunished." (Pr.19:5)

Murder

Murderers are put in prison or put to death; murder has a ripple effect on society.

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Leviticus." (24:17)

Drunkenness

Source of potential health problems; it may lead to addiction and a waste of money; it is dangerous to society and can break down relationships.

"Thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:10)

Smoking

Smoking causes health problems such as cancer; it is expensive and offensive.

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?" (1 Cor 6:19)

Final Assessment

Two overarching goals should be kept in mind when confronted with the reality of temptation. First, small weeds are easily plucked up—deeply rooted ones require sweaty work. In like manner, temptations can lead to an out of control garden unless a person keeps watch. Hence, the weeds must be uprooted before the flowers of virtue blossom in our soul.

Secondly, heaven is worth the sweat. The mystics who have glimpsed paradise and the testimony of Scripture itself, indicate that the joy of heaven far surpasses any earthly labor. As St. Seraphim says,

Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions, and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him.

In sum, the kingdom of God is worth far more than any ephemeral pleasures on earth and lasts forever. But the victory comes only after hard work: To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God Revelation 2:7.

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

An article on the health problems resulting from anger

An article on the health problems resulting from lust and sex-addiction

An article on the health problems resulting from overeating

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Bede

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