We are all tempted in different ways. No one is beyond temptation.
Not even Jesus, because He Himself was tempted throughout His ministry. In fact, at the very beginning of His ministry, we read how the Devil tempted Him in the desert after 40 days of fasting. (cf Mt 4:1-11
) Temptations can come in many ways. Not all temptations come from the Evil One. Some come from the flesh and others from the world. Because of our wounded nature, we are tempted to satisfy our bodily and sensual cravings. The world with all its attraction and glory, power and beauty also can tempt us. That was how the Devil tempted our Lord by asking Him to change stone into bread when He was hungry; and to worship him to receive the glory and kingdom of the world.
How, then, do we overcome temptations? When we are tempted, the tendency is to push the blame on others instead of taking ownership for our sins. We blame our friends for making us fall into the sin of lust. We blame our parents and our teachers for making us cheat in our exams. Or else, we blame the Devil and even God. This is what St James wants us to realize. He said, “Never, when you have been tempted, say, ‘God sent the temptation’; God cannot be tempted to do anything wrong, and he does not tempt anybody.” We should not blame anyone because we have the choice. So, we must assume responsibility when we fall into temptation.
But as St James said, “Happy the man who stands firm when trials come. He has proved himself, and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” Indeed, great joy waits those who can resist the temptations of the Evil One, the Flesh and the World. Temptation is for us to grow stronger, not to weaken us. It is through temptations and trials that our fidelity and love for God and for our loved ones is tried. As we overcome one temptation after another, we become stronger to resist greater temptations. As the Lord had said, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” (Lk 16:11)
So how can we strengthen ourselves against the temptations that come our way? The first step begins with the acknowledgement that we are weak. Acknowledgement of the temptation and our weakness is the first step. If that is so, then we must study the cause and the origin of our temptations so that we can better preempt and protect ourselves from being exposed to unnecessary temptations. We must be alert, as St Peter warns us, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pt 5:8) St James explains the origin and cause of every temptation. “Everyone who is tempted is attracted and seduced by his own wrong desire. Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it too has a child, and the child is death.”
Sin begins with the wrong desire. The beginning of sin is always craving. Not all cravings are wrong. But craving is a form of attachment. When we are attached, and we do not get what we want, there is the pain and misery. What is worse is when our attachment to those things or person we desire are not truly good for us. Many of us are ignorant about what is good and true. We are deceived by our eyes because of our ignorance. We are blinded by the conditioning of the world, presenting to us the things of this world as if they are everything; pleasure, power, glory, sex and all the passing things. Such worldly possessions cannot make us happy. If fact, they make us more frustrated because the moment you have them, that moment you lose your satisfaction. What is worse is that some of these wrongful attachments and desires bring us misery and pain.
From desire, we are led to action, which is the birth of the thought that entices our minds, our hearts and our body. And if it is a wrong action, it is sin. So the beginning of every action, good and evil comes from the mind. It begins with either with a good and noble thought or an evil and selfish one. If it were a good thought, then we should nurture that thought so that it can give birth to good actions. But if it were a bad thought, then even before the thought develops, we must cease from thinking about it. If we allow the thought to continue, then it will materialize into sin. This was how Eve was tempted by the Evil One. It began with a thought that was sowed into the mind of Eve by the Devil. Then, it was presented as something beautiful and good. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Gn 3:6)
So the key to overcoming temptation must begin at the beginning. To catch ourselves even before the craving begins. Jesus warned us, “Keep your eyes open; be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” Why yeast? Because a little yeast will help the flour to grow and expand. So too the beginning of sin is like a little yeast put into our hearts and it will grow to consume our minds and hearts. For this reason, the wisdom of our fathers is true when they say, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” When we are too free or when there is nothing exciting to engage us, mind and body, our minds begin to wonder and look for excitement and thrills. This is when the devil will come to suggest to us what would be good for us. If we are conscious of such thoughts and stifle them before they are embellished, then the temptation would not arise. So the guide to overcoming temptation is always to occupy ourselves with meaningful and fulfilling activities. Of course, a person of solitude and prayer will definitely be more attentive to the stirring of the spirits in his or her heart.
Secondly, in our deliberation of what we intend to do, we must bring to mind the mistakes of our past. Jesus reprimanded the apostles, “Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect? They answered, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?’ And they answered, ‘Seven.’” The problem with us is that we do not remember our mistakes. Instead of learning from them, we keep on repeating the same mistakes, forgetting the price of our sins. Indeed the greatest tragedy is not making mistakes but to repeat them again.
Hence, we must, as Jesus said, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt 26:41) This is why prayer is the answer to overcoming temptation. But the prayer that is needed is not just asking for God’s help but the prayer of examen. This form of prayer requires us to examine our conscience, considering all that we had done, and failed to do; the presence of God in our daily life and the lack of consciousness of His presence. Spiritual masters recommend that we do at least one examen daily, either in the morning or evening; or better still, do it three times a day.
Thirdly, we must grow in perception. Often the thought comes so quickly that we are left unguarded. Before we can even stop it, it has become full blown and waiting to be conceived in action. If that is the case, it is important that we remember the futility of our past cravings. We must recall how these cravings, even when satisfied, left us unfulfilled or even worse, to suffer the pain of guilt and self-hatred. Indeed, every time we sin, we look at our mistakes and regret our folly. Growing in perception of the folly of our past will give us the impetus to avoid repeating the same sin because we know that the pleasure of sin is short-lived and the incomparable peace and joy from God is lost.
If we lack perception and understanding, there is still one way to grow in discernment. It is to rely on the Word of God. St James urges us to seek God who is all light, truth and love. “Make no mistake about this, my dear brothers; it is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow of a change. By his own choice he made us his children by the message of the truth so that we should be a sort of first-fruits of all that he had created.” And St Timothy urges to read the Word of God because “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16f)
Finally, we need to pray and depend solely on His grace alone. The psalmist says, “When I think: ‘I have lost my foothold’; your mercy, Lord, holds me up. When cares increase in my heart your consolation calms my soul.” Indeed, only the grace of God can help us to overcome all trials and temptations in life. St Paul shares with us, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13) Finally, we take consolation in the words of St Paul when he said, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:8f)