The Christian View of Temptation

The first Sunday of Lent always begins with the famous passage of the Lord’s temptation by Satan in the desert. That’s the one where the Devil tells the Lord to turn stone into bread after he has been fasting for 40 days. The story takes a lot of unpacking – and some Bible study – to figure out how it applies to our lives. One key to understanding it is the epistle from St. John the Beloved Disciple about how the world is passing away. (We remembered that in a dramatic way on Ash Wednesday when we were marked by ashes on the forehead):

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.” [1 John 2:15-17] That’s a traditional translation – don’t let it confuse you. In modern English, when people hear the word lust they almost automatically think of improper sexual desire – but in biblical context, it just means a strong desire. It is the same word that Jesus Himself uses at the last supper, when He tells His beloved disciples, whom He calls not servants but friends, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”

We see a strong contrast between our deep desire to grab onto the things of the world vs. the Lord’s deep desire to be united with His disciples in the first celebration of the holy Mass at that Last Supper, through which He is preparing them for eternal life and the life to come. That helps explain the three-fold temptation that Satan inflicts on Jesus in the desert. Satan does not yet fully understand Who Jesus is, so tries to exploit His human nature by appealing to the “lust of the flesh” (‘command this stone to become bread); the “lust of the eyes” (when he shows him the kingdoms of the world, “I shall give you all this power and glory”); and the “pride of life” (“if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here [the parapet of the temple – and let your angels save you].”)

Jesus allows this interchange to reveal to us the three main tools in the Evil One’s bag of tricks to tempt all men into sin. The Devil does not have the power to make us sin, since God gives us free will to choose whether or not to obey Him. But the Evil One can certainly make sin look attractive to us and lead us in that direction. That’s because we have become weakened by sin ever since our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, and that clouds our judgment.

As a result, we have in our hearts a constant “pull” toward sin while our reason that know this harms our right relationship with God fights against it. St. Paul describes this spiritual battle as a war of “flesh against spirit.” The battle gets tricky because the Devil tempts us to take what is good in itself and tempt us to misuse it. For example, we need food and drink to survive and all have a deep desire for romantic fulfillment. So the Devil uses those desires to try to incite passions in us that will lead us to break God’s commandments and harm us. The desire to eat food to nourish ourselves can be turned toward gluttony – the sin of overindulging in good food. The desire to unite with a person of the opposite sex in marriage, a great good, can be turned into a desire to fornication (engaging in marital relations with an unmarried person or someone who is not your spouse) – a serious sin.

Similarly, what the eye sees as attractive may be good (a new car, a new house) but our disordered desires can lean toward covetousness – an unhealthy desire to have what our neighbor has, just because he has it and we don’t, or to become unsatisfied with what we have because our neighbor has more.

When it comes to pride of life, we might take some accomplishment of ours and forget that it is a gift of God. Instead, we begin to believe the lie that we are independent from God, that we don’t need Him, and that he “owes” us whatever good we have. We can see how these temptations are related both to the Ten Commandments and the Gospels. For example, the 9th Commandment enjoins us, “You shall not cover your neighbor’s house, or wife, or servant, or [property]” [Ex. 20:17]. The 6th Commandment enjoins us, “You shall not commit adultery.” [Ex. 20:14] The Lord notches that up a level reminding us, “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” [Mt. 5:28]

The great tasks of Lent are to step up our prayer so we can recognize where we are being tempted to whatever is spiritually self-destructive and to discipline ourselves to strengthen our will to do what is good, rather than just whatever feels good. That’s the point of fasting. Likewise, we seek to increase our love of God so that our deepest desire is not for worldly things or pats on the back for our accomplishments, but to be united with Him – especially in the holy Eucharist. That is the purpose of almsgiving.

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