First Sunday in Lent – Temptation
By Rev. A. B. Sharpe
A – In our Lord’s life on earth we see both the example which we in our day must follow, and also that human and Divine perfection by union with which alone we will be able to follow that example. So, in our Lord’s temptation in the desert, we see the pattern of one side of our own lives, in the temptation though which all must pass, and the Divine power by which the tempter was overcome, and which by Divine grace can overcome him again in us.
It is quite certain that everyone in this world must be tempted. “Our life is temptation upon the earth.” Otherwise, life would not be what it really is – a probation. We are here to make our choice between God and the devil, between good and evil; and when that choice is finally made it determines our state forever. But if there were no temptation there would be no possibility of choice. For temptation merely means that something that is not really good is presented to us with the appearance of being good; and what we have to decide is whether we will be led by the appearances that appeal to our fancy at first sight, or do what we know to be right, and therefore best, even though it may not for the moment appear desirable. But these alternatives are again possible only because there is in everything that God has made, and every action that He allows, something that is really good. What is good in itself, however, and good or useful for some purposes, is not good for all purposes; temptation may involve things good in themselves, victory over temptation springs from the knowledge that not everything good is good for us, and that what may be good for us at certain times and under certain circumstances may not be good for us at all times and under all circumstances. Thus, poison is good in itself; it is what God meant it to be when He made it, and it may be also good and useful for various medicinal purposes. But to take poison unconditionally is certainly bad. Wine is a good thing, but it is bad for people in certain states of health, and for anyone who has already taken a certain amount. So, in general, temptation offers to our choice the good things of this world, and the tempter ids us enjoy them without limit or restraint, and so to fix our desires in this life as to have no fare or thought for what is to come afterwards, or for the happiness of loving and serving God, which it is within our power to enjoy even here. God has put us here that He may guide and test our actions according to His own laws, and so bring us to the perfect happiness which He desires for everyone. Whatever is contrary to the laws which God has made and imposed upon His creatures is not only wrong, but bad for us, however attractive it may appear, or however pleasant it may be for a time. Temptation, then, consists in the necessity which is continually being forced upon us of choosing between the apparently or partially good things which the devil recommends to us, as he did to our first parents and to our Lord, and the truly and eternally good things which God offers and desires to give us.
Next, we should notice that very few wrong actions are wrong absolutely and in themselves. It is generally the circumstances that make them right or wrong for us. There was nothing essentially wrong in any of the three things which the devil asked our Lord to do; to possess the kingdoms of the world, to cast Himself down from the temple roof, to make stones into bread by Divine power, were all of them things that under other circumstances he might well have done. What made them wrong, and therefore harmful, was the circumstances under which He was asked to do them – to satisfy His hunger when it was not God’s will that He should do so; wantonly to presume on His Father’s readiness to protect Him, and to obtain the desirable things of this world by venerating the devil. So it is always. Some things are right for a man and wrong for a woman, and vice versa. Some things are right for a child and wrong for an adult. Nobody ever sins, for the sake of sinning, but for the sake of some advantage which sin offers or seems to offer.
So we need never try to excuse ourselves, in what is, however, a very common way, by saying we never meant to do wrong. Of course we did not; nobody ever does. The real question is: Did we mean to do right? A very difficult thing. When we sin, it is always because we want something which seems to be obtainable by sinning, and do not consider he right and wrong of the matter at all. Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit because she wanted to disobey God, but because it was pleasant to look at, and good to eat and would make her wise. God’s will in the matter she put out of consideration.
But our Lord was tempted, and therefore we are quite certain that it is not wrong to be tempted. Temptation is not sin, for He could not sin. It is not wrong, but right, to perceive good wherever it exists; and it is only by virtue of this perception that temptation is so much as possible. No one can be tempted by what has no attraction for him. Temptation, far from being sin, is an occasion of merit; it is by temptation that the habitual virtues which are in the souls of the friends of God are made actual; and it is above all when we are tempted that we receive the actual graces which alone enable us to avoid sin and to do what is pleasing to God. Sometimes, indeed, it seems that temptation must be sinful itself. How, scrupulous people ask, can we have such bad desires and bad thoughts without sin? But the fact is that those desires and thoughts are suggested by our enemies, the devil, the world and the flesh; they are not ours, and we do not become responsible for them unless we willingly agree to them and make them our own by consent. Our Lord saw all the advantages to be gained by yielding to the tempter’s suggestions; He felt the natural desire to relieve the pangs of hunger; He appreciated, perhaps more fully than any mere man could, the value and beauty of the kingdoms of the world and their glory; He was alive to the satisfaction that the exercise of power naturally excites in human hearts. He saw and felt all the good, but He had no inclination to gain it by any act displeasing to His Father in heaven. Thus, our Lord’s temptations were real, and ye could not cast the least shadow of sin on His perfect human soul. So it may be with us in our temptations, by the aid of His grace, if we will remember to act always on the truth that nothing in the world is worth having at the price of the smallest sin.
B – So we can follow our Lord’s example always. For all possible temptations are represented in those three which our Lord endured.
First, there are the various temptations of the flesh – the desires of our animal nature, which are all in themselves right and harmless, so long as they are guided and controlled in accordance with God’s law. The lower animals, with which we share all natural bodily desires, are guided by their instincts, which keep them from harmful bodily self-indulgence. With us it is different. Man is guided not by instinct but by reason and will; and if he reasons wrongly or refuses to obey the dictates of right reason, he becomes not a mere animal but a monster. Not only the drunkard and the voluptuary, but also the devotee of pleasure, no matter what, to the exclusion of duty, the lazy, the avaricious – all are less, not only than the human beings, but than the lower animals also. For they use their human intelligence and will to disobey and frustrate the law of their own nature, a thing which animals cannot do. Our Lord would not satisfy His hunger by miraculously providing food for Himself, because it was not God’s will that He should do so; the “word that proceeded from the mouth of God,” that is, the Divine decree that He should for the time live without natural nourishment, was sufficient for Him. So our natural desires must be limited and restrained by God’s law. What is right for one person is not, by that law, always right for another; and what is right under one set of circumstances is not right under all. We may understand the reasons for these restrictions, or we may not; the law which we are to observe may be directly Divine, or it may be that which the Church, under Divine guidance, has enacted for our benefit. In either case, if we are really Christians, the law will be sufficient for us, and we shall obey it, as our Lord did.
Then cam the suggestion of the evil one that our Lord should tempt God, i.e., that He should needlessly and deliberately test the power and the protecting care of His heavenly Father. No doubt He could have thrown Himself down from the temple roof without harm, as the devil said He could. But none the less it would have been wrong to do so; it would have been making an experiment on God, a thing which cannot be other than presumptuous and irreverent, and at the same time trying to obtain Divine aid for a wrong purpose, which of curse our Lord could not have done.
Perhaps few temptations are commoner or more often yielded to than this, though often people who tempt God do not understand what they are doing. Some time ago a distinguished unbeliever proposed, without apparent seriousness, that the efficacy of prayer should be tested by praying during a specified time for the patients in a particular hospital, and comparing the result with that obtained in another hospital which was not to be prayed for. The test was absurdly impracticable for more reasons than one, but its proposer had no idea that his scheme involved a sin by which the first principles of all religion were violated, and was antecedently impossible for that reason. Such proposals to tempt God certainly are seldom made, but the thing is done whenever we put ourselves needlessly in harm’s way, supposing, if we give the matter a thought, that we shall somehow be providentially guarded. Those who do not avoid occasions of sin whenever they can are doing precisely what the devil asked our Lord to do on the pinnacle of the temple. They trust, perhaps, to their own good resolutions, or even to so-called “luck,” as if our resolutions could be of any use without God’s help, or as if luck were really anything else but God’s providence. We may undoubtedly run any risks and expose ourselves to any temptations if our duty requires us to do so, and in that case may have the fullest confidence that God will protect us. But we cannot have any such confidence when we expose ourselves to temptation needlessly, out of sloth or carelessness or in pursuit of pleasure.
Lastly, the devil tempted our Lord with the desire of power, fame and dignity, which is “the last infirmity of noble minds,” the great snare of those who are so constituted s naturally to care little for the mere indulgence of the senses, and who are too energetic to fall into sin through carelessness and laxity. To such there is no temptation so powerful, no bait for Satan’s hook so attractive as the various kinds of honor, influence or authority which the world offers. Many seek for wealth because of the power it gives; many labor assiduously to obtain celebrity in the world of politics or literature or art; many try by all means to shine in society; many to who real eminence is unattainable try to gain that notoriety which mere folly will often procure – the counterfeit and caricature of genuine distinction, rather than be content with their natural obscurity. Others, again, descending still lower, aim at a spurious kind of dignity by pretending to be what they are not – they try to appear richer than they are by means of dishonest extravagance, or affect an appearance of learning or experience which they do not possess, or claim to belong, by birth or otherwise, to a social sphere above their own. Now, it is quite right that we should all try to use our powers, whatever they may be, to their full extent, and to make the most of our opportunities. Indeed, it would be wrong not to do so; the “talents” which God has given us are meant to be used and increased for God’s glory, and the good of our neighbors and ourselves. But the condition which the devil attached to the offer he made to our Lord is still very often the condition which we must fulfill before we can gain the kingdoms of the world or the glory of them. In one way or another Satan still says: “All this will I give thee, if thou wilt adore me.” No sane person could, of course, worship the devil directly; he does not ask that of us now. But an indirect worship is too often paid him when, for the sake of worldly advantages, men are willing to commit sin. Fraud, bribery, and other kinds of dishonesty, falsehood and injustice, calumny and detraction are the too frequent conditions on which worldly preeminence is gained, no less within the narrow limits of our own families or our immediate neighborhood than in a wider and more conspicuous stage. Needless to point out how worthless in reality is power or fame or honor that is built upon such a foundation. Our Lord would have none of the world’s power at the price at which it was offered Him, though He might, had He so chosen, have used such power for the benefit of mankind. He chose instead the life of poverty, humiliation and suffering by which it was God’s will that He should redeem mankind. We, in like manner, can carry out God’s will for us, and so attain true happiness only by rejecting everything that cannot be obtained by us without sin.
Thus, our blessed Lord is our example in temptation. He has summed up for us in His great conflict with the tempter all the temptations that we can experience, and shown us that if we would be His true followers, we must, like Him, be willing to endure anything rather than commit one single sin.
C – It is to Him also that we must find the power to resist temptation and to choose rightly. For the one thing necessary for us, if we are successfully to resist temptation, is that which His grace alone can give us. We must love God if we would overcome temptation. For to overcome temptation is, as we have seen, to prefer God’s way to the world’s way, to trust God rather than the world, or ourselves, to see things as God sees them, and not as the world does. But this is to love God above all things; and this supreme love of God was in our Lord, as it must be in us, the power by which He overcame. His answer to each temptation was the same: “It is written.” That is to say, this is God’s will, and no more was needed; for to one who loves God perfectly, the simple expression of His title is enough; no argument, no other inducement is wanted,
So, as we go through life and meet its daily temptations, we must arm ourselves with the love of God. For that we must pray, and in that we must exercise ourselves continually, we must constantly, and especially in the moment of trial, seek the aid of our Blessed Mother, of our guardian angel, and the saints, that we may be true and faithful to our profession, and so may make the only return we can make to our Lord for His great love to us – the love that drew Him down from heaven, that led Him into the desert and fastened Him to the Cross, that now brings His grace abundantly to all who seek it, and offer us thereby a share both, in His victory here, and in His eternal reward hereafter.