Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
The Temptation of the Lord is a mystery of Christ’s life. How did we come to know of it? Jesus himself must have told his disciples about being tempted.
Perhaps it goes back to that moment when Christ was instructing his disciples how to pray. Could his teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, with its petition and lead us not into temptation, have caused some consternation? But why would God ever allow temptation in the first place? Why not just abolish temptation altogether? Maybe that is when Jesus told them the story about spending forty days in the desert and being tempted three times by Satan.
For if Jesus himself undergoes certain forms of temptation, it reveals how indispensable temptation remains for the perfect living out of our own relationship with the Father.
Why we experience temptation
Saint Ambrose reminds us that the devil always envies those who strive for better things. Which means that when temptations occur in our life, it is not a sign that we are doing something wrong, but rather something right! As Saint Hilary of Poitiers counsels, “the temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified, for he desires above all to overcome the holy.”
Mindful of this demonic dynamic at work in the world, Christ wills to be tempted. He does this, Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us, so that we might be warned that no one, however holy, may think himself safe or free from temptation. At the same time, through his submitting to the Tempter, Jesus strengthens us against the devil’s temptations, teaches us by example how to overcome them, and fills us with confidence in his mercy.
Herein lies the divine logic for not eradicating temptation. Saint John Chrysostom explains that temptations prompt us to remain modest: “You will not be puffed up by the greatness of your gifts if temptations can humble you.” Moreover, since the devil may harbor doubts about whether we have really rejected him, the test of temptation convinces him of our total renunciation of Satan. In the process, we learn of our growth in virtue. God confirms for us that we “are now stronger and steadier than iron” thanks to temptations. And all this gives clear evidence of the treasure committed to us: “The devil would not have attacked you if he had not seen that you have been raised to a position of great honor.”
The way temptation works
All the same, we must stay keenly attentive to the wiles of temptation. Diabolical temptation is subtle. Saint Thomas Aquinas cautions: “When the devil tempts us by way of suggestion, the suggestion arises from those things towards which one is inclined. And so the devil does not immediately tempt the spiritual person to grave sins; but he begins little by little with lighter sins, so as to lead him shortly to more serious ones.”
The aim of the devil’s temptations is to make our trust in God die in our heart. The Tempter’s poison induces doubt about God’s love, providence, and power (see CCC 397 and 2119). As Pope Benedict XVI expressed it, “The germ of all temptation is setting God aside so that he seems to be a secondary concern when compared with all the urgent priorities of our lives. To consider ourselves, the needs and desires of the moment to be more important than he is—that is the temptation that always besets us. For in doing so we deny God his divinity, and we make ourselves, or rather, the powers that threaten us, into our god.”
Still, we need temptations because, inasmuch as temptations show us that there is nothing in ourselves to depend on, they move us to depend totally on God. God draws us to himself all the more forcefully by means of those occasions that show us how hopeless we are in ourselves.
How to deal with temptation
The only way to overcome our temptations is to permit God to give us his strength when we get overwhelmed by the knowledge of our own weakness. That is what we ask for in the Our Father: “I know that I need trials so that my nature can be purified. When you decide to send me these trials, when you give evil some room to maneuver, then please remember that my strength goes only so far. Don’t overestimate my capacity. Don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me” (Pope Benedict XVI).