We all know temptation is something we should avoid, but many of us don’t know much more than that. Temptation is often talked about, but seldom fully understood. Understanding the nuts and bolts of temptation and techniques for spotting and resisting it can help us to not only avoid sin, but also grow spiritually.
“Temptation is an invitation to sin,” said Legionary of Christ Father John Bartunek, a well-known author and retreat master. “The invitation can be attractive because it distorts reality; it highlights one good aspect of something, covering up the whole picture. So in temptation, there is always a bit of truth mixed with a lie.”
Father Bartunek gave the example of drinking alcohol to excess. “Certainly it is true that if I get drunk, I will, for a few hours maybe, be able to forget my troubles. But I will also do damage to myself, expose myself to further dangers, give scandal and very likely cause damage — maybe even mortal damage — to others. The temptation tries to present the partial good and hide the whole story.”
Some might naively think of temptation as a matter of a “good angel” and a “bad angel” trying to tell us what to do. It’s much more than that.
In his writings, Father Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968), the founder of The Apostolic Movement of Schoenstatt, an international Catholic lay movement, lists three stages of temptation. The first stage, he writes, is exterior enticement, or when we’re first invited to sin. At this point, we may not even be aware we’re being tempted. That leads to the second step, which is becoming aware of the enticement. The third stage is the response of the will, in which we make a concrete decision whether and how to react to the temptation.
“The value of the awareness of the three stages of temptation lies on knowing when the temptation moves into something sinful,” said Schoenstatt Father Francisco Rojas. “On the third stage we decide for good or bad.”
Father Bartunek specifies that temptation itself is not a sin. “Even Jesus was tempted,” he said. “The devil invited him to sin.”
The difficulty lies in that we don’t always immediately identify the invitation as temptation. That depends on how healthy our consciences are and also depends on our level of virtue. It can sometimes be hard to spot temptation, but once we do, we’re free to choose how we react.
‘Grow in virtue’
Father Dwight Longenecker, popular blogger and author of “The Gargoyle Code” (Stauffer Books, $12.95), explains that part of identifying temptation is discovering its source. He talks about two means of temptation. The first is what he calls natural temptation, which is the ordinary level of being attracted to a false good.
“This happens to us simply because of our human nature and the continued existence of concupiscence,” he said. “Concupiscence is the inclination toward evil rather than toward the good.”
The other means of temptation is supernatural temptation, when Satan or demons are involved.
“There’s usually an extreme or irrational dimension to this kind of temptation,” he said. “We seem overwhelmed by the temptation and find it very hard to resist. Natural and supernatural temptation can be mixed together — one leading to the other. We might be able to resist natural temptation by our own willpower. To resist supernatural temptation we need to renounce Satan and call on divine assistance.”
Choosing how to react depends on our level of spiritual progress and the type of temptation we’re facing.
“We can reject it, or kind of play with it,” Father Bartunek said. “When we start playing with it, we are already taking a step down the path toward sin. When we play with fire, it’s natural to get burned. If we reject temptation out of love for God and neighbor, out of a desire to grow in holiness and fulfill the real purpose of our lives, we grow spiritually. This is important to keep in mind. God permits temptation because he knows that, with his grace at work within us, by resisting temptation we can grow in love.”
Jean M. Heimann, a Catholic wife and mother from Wichita, Kan., who blogs at catholicfire.blogspot.com, believes temptation can help us grow spiritually.
“I believe that temptations are opportunities for us to grow in virtue,” she said. “One of the best ways to defeat the devil is to perform the virtue which is the exact opposite of the sin proposed. For example, if we are tempted to be greedy, we can develop the virtue of charity by sharing our time and money with others.”
Having a well-developed conscience is essential to identifying, resisting and growing from temptation. Conscience is a voice that echoes the loving voice of God, directing us to what is good and away from what is not good.
“This is one of the reasons it is so important to cultivate a healthy capacity for self-reflection,” Father Bartunek said. “The post-modern world is so noisy — in so many different ways, including visual noise — that it has robbed even many well-meaning Christians of their capacity to listen to the heart, to the conscience. This gets us into trouble. Cultivating a real life of prayer is key for developing this capacity for self-reflection.”
Heather Wargo, wife and mother of eight from Coudersport, Pa., can testify to that. She finds that the times she’s most vulnerable to temptation are those during which she’s tired or trying to do something efficacious like praying, doing spiritual reading or taking in spiritually edifying programming on television or radio.
“The temptation I find most difficult to resist is the one to complain to myself about not being able to do what I want that is good and pleasing to God,” she said. “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.”
Pride, said Father Longenecker, is the sin to which we are most blinded.
“By its very nature, when we are proud we think we are right, and therefore we are unable to assess our condition as sinners,” he said. “It is possible to be a nice, clean-living and respectable person who was full of pride and that pride can be our downfall.”
Another less noticeable kind of temptation is that which deters us from fulfilling our God-willed obligations. Distraction, procrastination and our own inhibitions can get in the way of our doing God’s will.
This is the kind of temptation with which Helen Russo, a Catholic wife and mother from Salinas, Calif., most often struggles.
“Generally, the temptation is to put something before a task or need, for example — something pleasurable before a boring job,” she said. “Sometimes it’s ‘a few more chips,’ or ‘a bit more wine.’ Also, it can be distracting thoughts about situations or wants and needs [that have nothing to do with the present moment].”
While temptation is inevitable, succumbing to it is not.
There are a number of things we can do to strengthen our resistance. The most helpful is to anticipate and prepare for it.
“I tend to be most vulnerable to temptation when I am struggling with setbacks in my life — trials that I’m having difficulty understanding and accepting,” Heimann said. “I also struggle with temptations when I am in a weakened physical and emotional state — tired, hungry, rundown and feeling sad or angry. Conversely, when things are going great for me, the devil attempts to deceive me by telling me that I can do things on my own, [that I] don’t really need to spend as much time in prayer as I do or to frequent the sacraments as often as I do.”
Russo depends on prayer and confession to bolster her fight against temptation.
“Prayer helps with temptations, along with confession,” she said. “Sometimes the thought of having to confess stops me. It’s humiliating to admit it. As well, it’s the knowledge that I am to continue working toward the goals that have been set before me by God. I fall and must pick myself up again and again through the tools he has given me.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.