The Nature of Temptation

1st Sunday of Lent

The forty days of Lent are modelled after the forty days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert before the start of his public ministry. During this time, he was tempted by the devil, as we read in the gospel on the First Sunday of Lent (Mt 4:1-11). Our participation in Lent is meant to be a retreat into the desert within our hearts to join with Jesus in fasting and prayer. But what about the temptations he suffered?

The fact that Jesus, who was without sin, also suffered temptation should clue us in to something important about the nature of temptation. Temptation itself is not sin. We shouldn’t feel guilty, therefore, when we are tempted to do something we know we shouldn’t. Temptation is only the invitation to sin; an invitation we can either accept or reject.

We learn more about the nature of temptation from the story of the fall of man recounted in the first reading this Sunday from Genesis (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7). Before the serpent tempts Eve directly, he first prepares the way by asking her a question: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” He is planting the seed of distrust in Eve’s heart.

When Eve says that if they eat of the tree in the center of the garden — the tree of knowledge — that they will die, the serpent responds: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” Again, the serpent is sowing distrust by suggesting that God was not being completely honest with Adam and Eve, or does not have their best interests at heart. But note what else he is doing: he is telling them that if they eat the forbidden fruit that they will be like gods.

To be like God is the very definition of holiness. We all should want to be like God! What the serpent is (supposedly) offering Adam and Eve is a good thing. But here’s the rub: go back only a few lines in Genesis and you’ll discover that man and woman were made “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27). They were already like God! But this essential fact about their being seems to have been forgotten.

And so Adam and Eve were tempted by the forbidden fruit, which the text of Genesis tells us “was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6).

We may very well wonder why God would place such an attractive tree in the garden if he didn’t want our first parents to eat of it. Theologians have speculated about that for centuries and some have concluded that God did intend for our first parents to eat of both the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, but at the proper time, when they were ready. If this is true, Adam & Eve’s sin would lie in grasping for something good on their own terms rather than waiting to receive it from God at the proper time.

This is how temptation works for us today. We are presented with something that seems good to us. There is always something attractive about sin, otherwise we would not be tempted by it. We are made to do good and so are naturally drawn to the good. At the heart of every sin we commit is some good that we are seeking; but like our first parents we pursue what’s good in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or else we pursue a lesser good at the expense of a greater good.

The husband who cheats on his wife is seeking the good of companionship and intimacy, but in the wrong way, with the wrong person. The job applicant who lies about her credentials is seeking acceptance and respect, but at the expense of the truth. The one who lashes out in anger may be motivated by a sense of justice and righteousness, but expresses it in a way that harms their neighbor. No sin is purely evil. The evil lies in the perversion of what is good; it is that good which attracts us.

We see the same principles at work in Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Mt 4:1-11). First Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. Bread is good. (So good, in fact, that Jesus chose to become bread for us!) Jesus was certainly hungry. But he was fasting to prepare himself for his ministry, so it was not proper for him to eat bread at that time.

Jesus is next tempted to make a grand, public display of his divinity. Satan suggests that he throw himself off the tallest parapet of the temple so that God’s angels may save him. Surely everyone would believe he was God’s own Son if they saw that! But Jesus knows that it is not right to put God to the test.

The third thing Satan temps Jesus with is dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. Did not Jesus come to establish God’s kingdom? But not at the cost of worshipping the devil, which is what Satan was asking Christ to do. So Jesus tells Satan, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Mt 4:10).

Adam, Eve, and Jesus were all tempted to seek after good things at the cost of disobeying God. Jesus was able to resist by trusting in the supreme goodness of God’s will, whereas Adam and Eve allowed mistrust of God to foster doubt in their hearts. That’s the difference.

When you suffer temptation, remember that temptation is not sin. It is only the opportunity to sin. At the same time it is an opportunity to grow in virtue and demonstrate your love for God by trusting in His goodness. The Catechism teaches us to “discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation” (CCC 2847). Only the latter is a sin.

The Catechism quotes the early Christian writer Origen, who says:

There is a certain usefulness to temptation, No one but God knows what the 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.

Origen, qtd. in CCC 2847

What Origen means by “usefulness” is that temptation has a way of revealing our hearts, and thus giving us the self-knowledge we need to grow in holiness. None of us are tempted by all sins equally. We each have certain strengths and weaknesses. If you go to confession regularly, you will notice that you tend to confess the same sins over and over. It may feel frustrating, as if you are not making progress, but this is quite normal. We tend to fall precisely in those areas where we are weak, and we are (thankfully!) not weak in all areas.

Regular examination of conscience and sacramental confession can help us to discern the areas in which we are weak, where we are most subject to temptation, so that we can shore up our defenses in those places by fostering the appropriate virtue and avoid placing ourselves in the near occasions of sin (those occasions that we know will subject us to temptation).

St. Paul teaches us to “examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith” (2 Cor 13:5), and the prophets encourage us to “examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lam 3:40). This is the spiritual work of Lent that we are called to undertake with Jesus in the desert: to examine ourselves in the light of Christ and make a return to the Lord.

“Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation” (Jas 1:12).

Further Reading