And when he came to the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” – Luke 22:40
People, by nature, desire what is good and what will make them happy. We always choose what we perceive as good, yet what we perceive as good may not actually be good. Adam and Eve were told by God to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. The threat of death should have made that tree foreboding, but “the woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 2:6). Adam and Eve were enticed by a perceived good to eat a fruit that was very bad.
When we are tempted, we undergo that same enticement to do something bad that is perceived as a good.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches: “We are engaged in the battle ‘between flesh and spirit’; this petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength” (CCC, 2846).
Part of this discernment is to know where temptation comes from: the flesh, the world, and the devil.
The “flesh” refers to temptations related to our physical bodies. The flesh tempts us to sin in two ways, by giving in to inordinate or unlawful carnal pleasure or by enticing us away from what is truly good. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “The temptation which comes from the flesh is most severe, because our enemy, the flesh, is united to us.”
God made the world — all of Creation — good. But an excessive and inordinate desire for earthly goods can tempt us to lose sight of heaven as our ultimate goal.
St Paul tells us “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12) The devil is a cunning creature that tempted our first parents to sin, and continues to tempt all of humanity today.
When teaching about this petition, the distinction between sin and temptation must be made clear. A temptation is when you are simply enticed to do a bad thing. Sin is when you give consent with your will to actually do that bad thing. A temptation is not a sin.
How do you deal with temptations when they arise? The saints and spiritual writers give us many different tactics to defeat the flesh, world, and devil. St. Francis of Assisi was tempted with sins of the flesh and threw himself in a thorn bush to distract him from the temptation. St. Padre Pio says, “Remember that he who flees from temptation, wins!”
St. Francis de Sales gives us this advice:
“I was recently near some beehives, and some of the bees landed on my face. I wanted to shoo them away with my hand. ‘No’, said the beekeeper, ‘have no fear, and do not touch them; then they will not sting you. But should you touch them, you will indeed be stung.’ I believed him and was not stung by a single one. Believe me in turn: do not fear temptations, and do not touch them, and they will not offend you.”
Questions for Discussion
What are ways that we can discern what is a sin and what is not a sin?
How do we know when we are tempted?
Where do temptations come from?
How do we deal with temptations when they arise?
What are some virtues that might be necessary when fighting a temptation?
Read Part One and Part Two and Part Three of this series.
JAMES BLANKENSHIP is the director of religious education at St. Francis De Sales Church in Purcellville, Virginia. He is founder of the St. Isidore Project, dedicated to the poor by growing food and offering education and community.