The famous wit Samuel Johnson once wrote: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary be not idle.” He knew, as we all do from bitter experience, that temptations to sin are most formidable when we’re alone and think no one will see. But of course, God sees, though we try to ignore that reality. King David reflected on this fact:
“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether” (Ps 139:1-4).
So, since we know we gain nothing from rebelling against God through sin, and since no sin, however clandestine, is hidden from God, why does he allow us to be tempted in the first place?
The Catechism [of the Catholic Church] explains that this is part of our progress toward spiritual maturity: “The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man, and temptation, which leads to sin and death. We must also discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation. . . . discernment unmasks the lie of temptation, whose object appears to be good, a ‘delight to the eyes’ and desirable, when in reality its fruit is death” (CCC 2847).
We must guard against temptation in two ways. First, so we won’t commit sins, and second, so that we won’t be a source of temptation to others, causing them to sin because of us. Christ warned, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7).
When Christ taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he included the petition, “lead us not into temptation.” The catechism explains what this means:
“This petition goes to the root of the preceding one, for our sins result from our consenting to temptation; we therefore ask our Father not to ‘lead’ us into temptation. 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.’ ‘God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one’; on the contrary, he wants to set us free from evil. We ask him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin. We are engaged in the battle ‘between flesh and spirit’; this petition implores the spirit of discernment and strength” (CCC 2846, cf. 2863).
James 1:12-15 says: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (cf. Rom 6:23).
And St. Paul wrote about his own bafflement at his own struggles with temptation and sin:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . .I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . .I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Cf. Rom 7:13-25).
Let’s take encouragement in knowing that if even St. Paul had to contend with unruly passions and temptations, then we’re in excellent company as we struggle against the temptations that nip and peck at us.
We must avoid the near occasions of sin that give rise to temptations (cf. Mt 18:8-9) and proactively conquer temptation by cultivating virtue and through prayer. “Why do you sleep?” Christ admonishes us. “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk 22:46; cf. 22:38-45).
We know that Christ himself was tempted by the devil during his 40-day fast in the desert (Lk 4:1-13). He is the perfect model of how we should react when the devil dangles a sinful enticement before us. We must rely on God’s grace for strength to conquer it (cf. 2 Cor 12:7-9), because his grace is stronger than any temptation, however formidable.
That is the key to resisting temptation -- easier said than done, I know! But remember what St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
When temptations come your way, pray for strength and remember St. Paul’s words of encouragement: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13).
Additional passages to study:
1 Cor. 7:1-7
1 Cor. 10:13
Related sections in the Catechism:
CCC 538-556, 1262, 1520, 2340, 2848
Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com