Sometimes people talk about “feeling tempted” as if it is something they are doing wrong.
It’s like we assume that — ordinarily — if we’re doing good enough with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — then we shouldn’t experience any temptation whatsoever.
This can cause a lot of confusion and frustration for people.
If that’s you — if you think temptation itself is sinful, or is proof of something gone wrong — Then this weekend’s Gospel is for you.
Because there we find even the sinless, perfect, beloved Son of God — truly tempted by the Devil.
We hear that after his Baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.
This is not a charade.
It’s not a game.
Jesus is really being tempted.
So… it’s normal to experience temptation! We’re not alone. It happened to Jesus! How can we expect it NOT to happen to us?
In fact, if you never feel tempted, you actually should be worried.
Just listen to these words of St. John Vianney:
“The greatest of all evils is to not be tempted… because then there are grounds for believing that the Devil looks upon us as his property.”
That is probably one of the most striking, most jarring statements I’ve ever heard from one of the greatest confessors our Church has ever known — The greatest evil is to NOT feel tempted.
Why would St. John Vianney say this?
Well — because if we are not being tempted, if we’re feeling pretty comfortable and never seem to struggle against any real faults or failings in our hearts — then maybe the Devil is happy with where we’re at? Maybe he’s just fine with our current spiritual maturity and our ultimate trajectory!
When all is peaceful, all is quiet and going according to plan, if everything seems more or less agreeable to us… THEN St. John Vianney says: BEWARE!!! The absence of any temptation might actually be proof that you’re headed down the road to eternal separation from the Father.
CS Lewis describes this perfectly when he warns: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Now to be sure, if you are feeling really really tempted, it could also be your own fault. It could be that you’ve been putting yourself in what’s called “the near occasion of sin.” That’s when we skirt with sin, and try to push the envelope as far as we can go. When we do that, we deliberately invite temptation into our hearts.
For example — I like buying stuff I don’t need on Amazon… I know that. It’s a weakness. So… when I deliberately go surfing Amazon looking at all the cool Catholic books I don’t have yet, it shouldn’t surprise me when I start to feel really really tempted to spend all my money.
But if we are truly striving to avoid all those people, places, and things that we KNOW lead us away from loving God — and we still happen to feel tempted: Then be not afraid.
This is a normal part of the spiritual life.
Remember that even Jesus was tempted in the desert! — And he triumphed! He said in all freedom and love, “No thanks, I prefer God and His will for me.”
The peace Jesus offers us is not freedom from temptation… but victory OVER temptation. There’s no use trying to eliminate temptation in your life.
The presence of temptation might even be a GOOD thing… a GOOD sign that the Devil HATES what you are doing. The Devil HATES when you pray… so he will tempt you with Netflix and snacking. The Devil HATES when you love your family or your neighbors, so he’ll tempt you with laziness and self-centered pursuits. The Devil HATES when you have faith, so he’ll tempt you to despair about the world, about politics, and about family members. The Devil HATES when you share your faith, so he’ll tempt you to think it’s a waste of time.
The greatest temptation you are facing right now might actually be a signpost that says: “Keep going. Don’t give up! God is with you! Remember that Jesus was tempted, too — yet without sin!”
I know we’d all rather not have to deal with temptations, but the book, Imitation of Christ, goes so far as to say that “temptations, though troublesome and severe, are often useful to a man — for in them he is humbled, purified, and instructed.”
This Lent, I pray we are all humbled, purified, and instructed. Let’s boldly face down temptation with Jesus. Fortify yourselves. Gird your loins. Don’t be afraid of the Devil’s dumb suggestions. Ignore them. Answer them with Scripture. Look at them as an opportunity to grow! They are trials permitted by God, who says to you: “Yes, fight those evil thoughts! Claim virtue. Claim the freedom I died to make possible for you! With me, you can do this. Don’t fret. Don’t give up. My victory is assured.”