If you’re Catholic, you’ve probably heard at least once in your life that you should pray, fast, and give alms. These are the three traditional acts of piety that the Church encourages above all others, especially during Lent (although we are supposed to practice them all year round). There are several reasons why these practices are emphasized, but in this article, I want to just focus on one: they help us to fight temptation. The Bible teaches that temptation comes in three main forms, and each of the three traditional acts of piety directly opposes one of those forms of temptation. More specifically, by praying, fasting, and giving alms, we cultivate the virtues that directly oppose the sins we’re tempted to commit, thereby strengthening our wills against temptation.
The Three Main Temptations
To see what I mean, let’s begin by looking at how Scripture describes the different kinds of temptations we face:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
In this passage, “the world” doesn’t refer to the whole created world; it doesn’t mean that God and his creation are entirely at enmity with each other. Rather, it is simply referring to everything that is opposed to God. Specifically, it points out the three main sources of temptation we encounter. First, there is the lust of the flesh. When we think of lust, we usually think of sexual sins, but the word has a broader meaning here. In this context, it refers to any bodily pleasure that tempts us to sin, sexual or otherwise. For example, if we are tempted to steal someone’s dinner because they are eating our favorite food, that would fall under this category even though there’s nothing sexual about it.
Next, we have the lust of the eyes. Again, the word “lust” here isn’t sexual. It simply refers to sinful desires for things that look nice. For instance, if we want to steal someone’s clothes because they are very fancy and stylish, we are experiencing this temptation. Finally, there is the pride of life, which is exactly what it sounds like: it’s pride. We experience this temptation if, say, we think we are better than everyone else.
The Fall of Humanity
And that’s not the only place in Scripture where we find those three temptations. If we look closely throughout the Bible, we can see that they actually pop up several times, even though they’re usually not explicitly named. For example, take a look at how Genesis narrates Eve’s temptation to eat from the one tree that was off limits to her and Adam:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
This is the first sin in all of human history, the first time anybody was tempted to disobey God. If we examine it carefully, we can see that the three sources of temptation laid out in 1 John were present from the very beginning. First, the text says that the fruit was “good for food,” meaning that it would taste good and satisfy her hunger. It would have given Eve a bodily pleasure, so this is the lust of the flesh.
Next, we read that it was “a delight to the eyes,” which is obviously the lust of the eyes. Finally, Genesis tells us that it was “to be desired to make one wise.” At first, this may not seem so bad, but we read a few verses earlier that eating the fruit would make Adam and Eve “like God” (Genesis 3:5). As a result, this was actually a temptation to try to transcend their natural human limitations and become God’s equals. By wanting to be wise in this way, they were refusing to accept their status as God’s creatures, so this temptation is the pride of life.
The Fall of Solomon
Similarly, we see these three temptations pop up again in the life of Solomon, the third king of Israel and the son of King David (the same David who famously defeated the giant Goliath in battle). While he led Israel to great glory in the beginning of his reign, towards the end of his life he turned away from God and began to worship idols. Now, the Old Testament says that he fell away because he took many pagan wives (1 Kings 11:3-8), but if we look at his story closely, we can see that there’s actually more to it.
In addition to his wives, Solomon also hoarded precious metals (specifically silver and gold) and chariots (1 Kings 10:14-15, 23, 26-27), and while the text doesn’t explicitly condemn these actions, a comparison with another passage of Scripture shows that they were in fact the beginning of his downfall. Back in Deuteronomy, before Israel ever had a king, Moses foresaw that the Israelites would eventually want one, so he gave them some guidelines for what their future monarchs should avoid:
Only he must not multiply horses for himself…And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold. (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)
The three things that Solomon had in abundance were the exact things that Moses said kings shouldn’t multiply for themselves. He had many horses (for his chariots), many wives, and a lot of silver and gold. Now, if we examine this list closely, we can see that it corresponds exactly to the three sources of temptation described in the New Testament. Multiplying horses for chariots is the pride of life (chariots give leaders military might, which often increases their egos), having many wives is the lust of the flesh, and hoarding gold and silver is the lust of the eyes. As a result, even though the text focuses on Solomon’s wives, when we read it in concert with the rest of Scripture, we can see that his fall actually came from three sources, the same three that led to the sin of Adam and Eve and that have led countless people to countless sins throughout all of human history.
The Victory of Jesus Over Temptation
Finally, let’s look at a story where someone faces these same three temptations but overcomes them and remains faithful to God. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the desert to fast and be tempted by the devil. The Gospels specify that he faced three temptations.
Secondly, the devil tried to get him to jump off the temple in Jerusalem, saying that since he was the Son of God, angels would come and save him if he did it (Matthew 4:5-6, Luke 4:9-11). In this temptation, Satan wanted him to exploit his status as God’s Son; he wanted Jesus to flaunt his divine authority, which is the pride of life.
Finally, the devil offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus bowed down and worshipped him (Matthew 4:8-9, Luke 4:5-7), and this is a combination of the pride of life and the lust of the eyes. Ruling the entire world obviously appeals to pride, but the Gospels also specify that the devil promised to give Jesus the “glory” of these kingdoms (Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:6). This “glory” included all the nice looking things that these kingdoms contained, so this temptation falls under the lust of the eyes as well
From all this, we can see that the sources of temptation specified in 1 John really are the main ways that we are tempted to sin. They pop up again and again in Scripture, and if we look at our own lives, we’re sure to find them behind the sins we commit every day as well. Now, as I said before, they’re also directly opposed to the three traditional acts of piety that the Church encourages, so by piety, we cultivate the virtues contrary to these temptations and strengthen our wills against them.
First, we have prayer, which fights the pride of life. When we pray, we acknowledge the greatness of God and our dependence on him, which helps to keep us humble.
Next, there’s fasting, which opposes the lust of the flesh. When we fast, we deprive ourselves of bodily pleasures, and in so doing we cultivate the virtue of temperance. We become more and more accustomed to doing without these pleasures, which in turn helps us to control our desires for them.
Finally, almsgiving fights the lust of the eyes because giving away our money makes us less able to buy fancy things. It forces us to become more detached from worldly objects, so we’ll be less susceptible to temptations that come from them.
Consequently, if we engage in these three practices, we will strengthen our wills against the multitude of temptations we face every day, and we’ll be able to conquer them just like Jesus did.