The devil is very good at destroying trust in the Father.
Just one verse each day.
The season of Lent begins every year with the Gospel about Jesus being tempted in the desert: “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). What is the devil’s intention in tempting Jesus? What is he trying to achieve?
Here’s the answer: The devil wants to damage Jesus’ relationship with the Father so that Jesus will cease to love and trust him with Son-like affection. It’s a ploy to get Jesus to treat the Father like a functionary, a force to be contended with—to frustrate and deprecate their relationship.
Mistaken about temptation
The problem is that the devil is very good at this. Think about how you yourself feel when unnerved by temptation. Most likely you presume: (a) that you have done something wrong; (b) that God is punishing and rejecting you; and (c) that God will not be happy until you prove to him that you are deserving of his love. If you succumb to all that claptrap, the devil has already won. Which is extremely sad. Tragic.
But reconsider all this in the light of Jesus’ temptations. In his case, who does the devil go after: someone who is bad … or someone who is good? The answer, obviously, is someone who is good. And that is why the devil goes after you with temptations. The devil doesn’t need to waste his time tempting people who are bad—they are totally adept at finding and giving into temptations on their own. No, the devil sets his sights on people who are holy, because if he can manage to be victorious in getting them to fall, then he has a trophy to wave maliciously in the face of Jesus.
The saints confirm this. St. Ambrose says that “the devil always envies those who strive for better things.” So too St. Hilary of Poitiers: “The devil tempts those who are sanctified, for he desires above all to overcome the holy.”
How to think about temptations
A chief priority, then, is changing the way we think about temptations, especially in three ways.
First of all, our response to temptation should be gratitude. We should be grateful when temptations come our way because their presence is a confirmation of our virtuous spiritual condition which the Evil One reckons to be a real threat. Hence his attack.
Secondly, we should be deeply appreciative of the supreme help temptations lend to our spiritual life. So often in our desire to grow in holiness, we don’t have the faintest idea about where to begin. However, you can be sure that the temptations which the devil sends target that specific area of our life where we are weakest and most in need of growth. Would we ever have identified that on our own without the tussle with temptation?
And third, the time to worry is not when we are tempted but rather when we are NOT struggling with temptation—because that means the devil regards us as not worth going after, probably because we are doing a yeomen’s job of wrecking our relationship with God on our own.
The connection between temptations and sanctification
How is it that we even know about Jesus’ temptations? The only answer that makes sense is that Jesus himself told his disciples about them. And he did so deliberately to exemplify how crucial temptations are for growing in the love of the Father. Jesus did not leave that desert the same way he entered it. He emerged with an even more intensive love for his Father … with a more profound certainty and conviction to do the Father’s will and to live his mission with freedom set on fire. Through his temptations he “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). Jesus models for us that temptations are a crucial part of sanctification.
The experience of temptation is a kind of school in holiness. The reason why God allows temptations to happen in our life is to teach us just how untrusting we are of him. What would you say is the human being’s greatest temptation? Don’t say cheesecake. It’s the temptation to think we are autonomous: that we are the makers of our own destiny … that we can do everything on our own … that the most successful people are the most self-reliant. The devil wants us to wallow in those delusions. Temptation is a graced occasion to become stronger by relying on God’s strength. The goal of temptation is to be open to receiving God’s love right in the midst of the upheaval of temptation.
The goal of temptation is to be open to receiving God’s love right in the midst of the upheaval of temptation.
Temptations convince us that we have nothing to hope for in ourselves, and therefore it is a waste of time to try to be “self-sufficient.” Do you know what the proof is that you are truly trusting God in your life? It is that you go to him immediately when temptation strikes … not letting shame or being humiliated or feeling disappointed in yourself get in the way. The devil is overcome when he knows that he cannot keep us from Jesus. So in your temptations, just get to Jesus. It’s not about “overcoming” temptations; it’s about letting Jesus’ love for you dissolve them.
The devil is overcome when he knows that he cannot keep us from Jesus. So in your temptations, just get to Jesus.
And we can do so serenely and with such great confidence because “God keeps his promise. He will not let you be tested beyond your strength” (1 Cor 10:13). No matter how ferocious the temptation, it cannot outdistance God’s divine providence holding you close and cheering you on.
It is not an exaggeration to say that, in many ways, the most important moment of your life is the second after temptation strikes. What do you do? Do you anguish about why you are being tempted and try to fight it off with your willpower (= disaster)? Or do you surrender yourself into the arms of Jesus? Let’s do that … and all this Lent let’s really mean it when we pray in the Our Father lead us not into temptation. What we’re saying is:
I know I need temptations in order for you to purify and perfect me. But when they come, don’t let them lead me to discouragement or delusion. Let them lead me to a greater love of you!
Find Fr. Peter John Cameron’s reflection on the Sunday Gospel each week here.