“And lead us not into temptation”
This week we find ourselves with perhaps the most controversial petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “lead us not into temptation.” Over the years, and even very recently, there has been much discussion over whether God would actually lead His people into situations that would cause them to sin. Why would a good and loving God do such a thing? Surely, He would not lead us down a path of sin and failure. What we need here in this dialogue is a proper understanding of temptation and virtue and the good that worldly temptation can provide for our spiritual health.
Beginning with Scripture itself, we find that God does, in fact, lead us into temptation. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” It cannot be any clearer. Prior to beginning His earthly ministry, Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted for a full forty days and forty nights. Now, the question is, “Why?” What purpose does it serve for us to be tempted to sin?
God is not tricking us or setting traps for us to fail. It is quite the opposite. He wants us to succeed and to continually grow in virtue and holiness. Our temptations provide us with practice and opportunities to triumph over them. “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,” (CCC #2847). The Church teaches us that spiritual growth requires testing. If we remain stagnant, we cannot grow. Temptation is not unlike a refiner’s fire. It hones, fine tunes, and sharpens our virtue.
The Catechism quotes Origen (C. 184 – C. 253 AD), saying, “God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings…There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way, we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us,” (CCC #2847). In other words, temptation highlights our weaknesses, enabling us to examine and know our innermost selves so that we might, with the grace of God, overcome them and grow closer to Him. This growth is strengthened through our simple act of free will to choose the good. Overcoming these temptations produces the good fruit of virtue for which we ought to be thankful.
The Catechism is also quick to quote Scripture to clarify that “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, so that you may be able to endure it,” (CCC #2848, 1Cor 10:13). This should provide quite a bit of reassurance, knowing that, with His help, we can resist the everyday temptations to sin that lay before us. Each of us, according to his or her own circumstances, are given exactly what we need to choose virtue over sin. Perhaps very few of us could do as Jesus did and enter into the desert to be directly tempted by Satan for 40 days straight, but none of us has been explicitly called to do that as He was. In this way, it is clear that the temptations are proportionate to the holiness and spiritual strength of the one being tempted.
Now we may examine what the true virtuous response to temptation actually should be. There is a book called Boys to Men: The Transforming Power of Virtue by Tim Gray and Curtis Martin. In it, the authors write an analogy called, “The Parable of the Twenty-Dollar Bill.” The story explains that two different men walk past an unattended $20 bill on a co-worker’s desk. Both notice the money and that no one is around to notice if they take it. One man stops and wrestles with the temptation, but ultimately decides the theft is wrong and moves along. The other man does not even consider theft and continues on his way. Neither man sinned, but only one man exhibited true virtue. You might be wondering, if the first man ultimately did the right thing, what could possibly be the problem? There is not necessarily a problem, per se, but we are not called to just wrestle with our conscience every day and simply go about not sinning. Rather, we are called to holiness and virtue. The book says, “…a virtue is more than one act, it is more than a repeated action, it is a disposition to do the good with ease, promptitude and joy…A virtue is more than doing the right thing, it is the power to do the right thing with the right attitude, with ease and joy.” This is not to say that we don’t all struggle through many of our temptations, because we certainly do and that doesn’t make us bad, it makes us human. What we can take from this is that we ought to use opportunities of temptation to practice virtue – knowing that God will never test us beyond our capabilities – so that, eventually, we may be able to joyfully move past them with hardly a second glance, rendering them harmless.
Finally, the Catechism tells us that none of this is possible without prayer (CCC #2849). We cannot work through our temptations and avoid sin by our own brute strength, because we are not stronger than Satan by ourselves. We must fortify our spiritual lives through constant communication with the One who strengthens us. He will help us to overcome our temptations if we ask Him. So, as it relates to the Lord’s Prayer, “In this petition to our heavenly Father, Christ unites us to His battle and His agony,” (CCC #2849). We join our pain and suffering in moments of temptation to Christ’s perfect resistance and ask Him to refine us and make us more like Him in how we handle these particular situations.
Whether they stem from pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, wrath, or greed, we all suffer through the daily temptations of our individual inclinations. Spend some time considering the areas Satan attacks you with the most temptation. Being honest with yourself is a difficult and humbling thing to do, but it is nevertheless necessary for spiritual growth. These are the areas that God is using to refine your soul. Be encouraged that these are things you CAN overcome, no matter how difficult. Spend time with the Lord in prayer, asking Him to give you all of the graces and gifts to overcome these temptations to sin, which He most certainly will do. With hope, look forward to the day you can move through these temptations with ease and joy in virtue.
To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.