As long as we are in the flesh, we shall never wholly be free of temptation. The greatest saints were all sorely tempted, and our Lord Himself was tempted numerous times by the evil one as He began His public ministry. The Book of Job tells us that "The life of man upon earth is a temptation" (Job 7:1). Yet though temptations may lead us to sin if we yield to them, they can also be of great profit when we successfully resist them. When we first swing a hammer or do a great labor on the first day of a new job, the strain of the work often wears us down. But if we persevere and continue, choosing to master the task rather than letting it master us, the work which wore us down at the beginning becomes easier and actually is an occasion for growing stronger. Similarly, the temptation which weakens us when we surrender to it becomes a source of strength and spiritual fitness when it is successfully resisted. But how to resist temptation?
First, we must recognize that though external factors may tempt us or exacerbate an existing temptation, we always carry about the source of temptation within us, which is illicit desire due to concupiscence:
"Every man is tempted by his own concupiscence [desire], being drawn away and enticed. Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin, when it is completed, begetteth death" (Jas. 1:14-15).
If we find ourselves sorely tempted by some external agent, say, an immodest poster, lewd speech, a sensual film, etc., it is prudent to remove ourselves from the source of the temptation. To be tempted is not a sin - even Christ was tempted - but to dally with the temptation and allow it to take charge of our imagination is to yield to it, and at that point what was merely an external stimulus now becomes an internal temptation, which is much more serious. Therefore, we should avoid these external agents of temptation by physically removing oneself from them if possible.
But as James reminds us, we carry the source of temptation within us, which is our own desire. The Imitation of Christ teaches that while flight may save us from a particular temptation in the short term, it is not a long-term strategy for growing in virtue. The Imitation tells us:
"By flight alone we cannot overcome; but by patience and true humility we are made stronger than our enemies. He who only declines them outwardly and does not pluck out the root will profit little; nay, temptations will sooner return to him, and he will find himself in a worse condition" (Imitation of Christ, I.13.iii).
So ultimately, we need to learn not just to flee occasions of temptation, but to actually fight off temptation - to enter the arena with it and emerge victorious. And this is possible, even if the temptation seems to strong. God Himself has promised that, though we are permitted to fall into various temptations and trials, none are beyond our power of resisting:
"There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (1 Cor. 10:13).
And of course:
"I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me" (Php. 4:13).
Thus, we have God's Word that we can overcome temptation - we can succeed, even if we have failed before. Why then, do we so often fail, and how can we succeed?
There are two primary reasons we allow ourselves to be overcome by temptation: inconstancy of will and little confidence in God; conversely, the two things needed to persevere in temptation is a constancy of will and greater confidence in God.
The ability to resist temptation begins in the will. We must will to overcome the temptation - this requires the virtue of fortitude. "Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). We cannot overcome temptation if we secretly harbor a desire for the sins we claim to be battling. It is necessary to have a single-minded, firm resolution to have victory. St. Augustine struggled with chastity for years, but he correctly identified that the problem with his struggle was that he had not sufficiently set his will on overcoming his incontinence, as evidenced by his famous words, "Lord give me chastity, but not yet." He recognized that he had made a truce with this sin in his heart, which caused him to have inconstancy of will when it came to overcoming it, and thus his pious resolutions came to naught.
The Imitation tell us:
"For as a ship without a rudder is tossed to and fro by the waves, so the man who is remiss, and who quits his resolution, in many ways tempted. Fire tries iron and temptation tries the just man. We often known not what we can do; but temptation discovers what we are" (I.13.iv).
It is more important to have this constancy of will at the beginning, because it is always easier to overcome a temptation when it is new than when it has already entered into the heart. It is easier to pull up a weed when it is small than after it has put down deep roots; it is easier to refuse entrance to someone at the first knock on the door than to try to eject them after they have already entered. The longer we take is resisting, the weaker we become by allowing the evil desire to become a strong imagination, and finally a delight and evil action of the will and sin, which brings forth death.
The second thing necessary after we have firmly set our will on resisting temptation is to have confidence in God, that He will make the grace available for your resolutions to bear fruit. "With God, all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). Part of resolving to resist temptation is firm belief that God is able to grant us victory - that we do not always need to think we will always be having these particular battles. God's grace has turned greater sinners than you into greater saints - murderers, adulterers, pagans, thieves - all have found abundant grace and, in Christ, were able to persevere. This is no less true for you than for them. "But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more" (Rom. 5:20).
Therefore the two prayers that are necessary are, first, one for constancy: "Lord, help me to sufficiently detest the sin this temptation dangles before me, such that I not only do not commit it but no longer desire it. Grant me fervency in this resolution to never entertain this temptation or commit this sin again." Second, an act of hope in the mercy and goodness of God: "Lord, I know that in you all things are possible and that, by your grace, great sinners have become great saints. Grant me the grace to resist temptation, the confidence in the efficacy of such grace, and the vision to see myself transformed by grace, not deformed by sin."
The final principle is to not despair if we fail. God will come to our aid, even if we let ourselves down. He is quick to pardon and slow to anger, provided we are truly contrite. The important thing is not whether you have absolute success on your first endeavor, but whether you have turned your heart and are making a sincere effort. Repentance is literally translated as metanoia, which means "a new direction." When we repent, are we truly doing so from a desire to change our lives and start in a new direction, or is it just mere posturing? As long as our hearts are well disposed and penitent, God can work with whatever you are willing to offer Him, even in failure. "For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have" (2 Cor. 8:12). In fact, when we fall is when we need to cry out to God even more, to beg for His mercy and grace. If we fall, we repent, beat our breast, confess our sins then take up our cross once again, confident that in Him we can and will one day reach our destination.
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