We are at war. Each day we are soldiers, walking out onto a battlefield. Some people are acutely aware of the ongoing battle and are fully engaged. Others are either completely blind or indifferent and, thus, put up no resistance. Because this war is a spiritual battle, far too many do not take it seriously. But this must not be our attitude because our souls are at stake.
In this war, we either stand with Christ or we stand against him. There is no middle ground or neutral territory! If we persevere in grace, it enables us to enter heaven and become participants in Christ’s victory over sin and death. But God has also revealed this will not be the outcome for many. Those who allow themselves to be overcome by sin will be lost for all eternity. Victory entails opening our hearts to God’s grace and persevering throughout our lives. It will be by God’s grace alone that we are conquerors.
It’s important for us to be aware of the ways that we can be attacked so we can protect ourselves. Temptations in themselves are not sins but they can lead us to sin if we succumb to them. And grave sin results in the loss of grace and salvation. So, as we prepare our defenses, we need to be mindful of the various temptations we may face.
Traditionally, temptations have been divided into three categories: temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil (see references to these in the Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Council of Trent), and it can be helpful to reflect on these to see where we may be vulnerable to assault.
Temptations of the World
When we consider the temptations of “the world,” this does not mean that material things are evil. This phrase refers to the fact that pain, suffering, chaos, corruption and death entered our experiences of the world because of sin. It is because of sin that things in this disordered existence can have destructive influences on us.
In this life, we encounter an opposition between the ways of the world and the ways of God. Unfortunately we tend to be drawn to the former. We also find that we are inclined to form strong (and often unhealthy) attachments to worldly things. While such material objects are not evil, we discover that we are tempted to abuse or misuse them.
The world also tempts us to become materialists – to hold that only things we can see, observe and experience with our senses are true – and to reject the supernatural. “The world” also bombards us with propaganda. It tries to persuade our darkened intellect to hold to errors by manipulating our emotions. Media, technology and the educational system are often the means to this end. Jargon, innuendos and half-truths are prominent, and we are discouraged from debate and using reason. We may be lured to blindly accept the opinions of the majority or to hold views simply because they will make us popular. The world will also try to convince us to rely on our feelings and passions to guide our decisions.
Our modern culture is trying to entice us to accept relativism – the philosophy holding truth to be subjective. But it starts with an illogical and irrational premise. It states a truth that rejects truth “what is true for me may not be true for you; what is right for me may not be right for you; as such, I will not impose my views on anyone and neither should you.” Such skewed logic is dangerous as it leads not only to the rejection of absolute truths but ultimately to the denial of the reality of sin (thus no need for repentance). It also instills individualism, an emphasis on autonomy and selfishness, and it inflames our pride and we turn ourselves into gods.
The world idolizes money, power, success, and fame, tempting us to do the same. It proclaims that happiness is achieved by having a license to live how you please, disregarding any moral standards. The world often calls good evil and evil good. It manipulates words to deceive us.
Be Not of the World
The “heroes” this world often puts on pedestals are Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, and millionaires, despite (or even because of) the immorality of their lives. The world even uses fear at times to dissuade us from doing the right thing. Other tactics are peer pressure, ridicule, bullying, persecutions and threats of imprisonment.
The temptations of the world are often alluring and these are merely a few examples. But God calls us to take care not to conform to the world as there is great risk if we do so. We need to be prudent with what we watch and read, what sources we use for learning and even what friends we choose. We need to recognize the dangers posed so that we do not let “the world” cloud our conscience causing us to fail to see the destructive influences surrounding us. God’s ways rather than those of the world should always be our sole guide. We need to listen to Scripture and the Church and imitate the true heroes that have gone before us – the Saints in heaven.
Temptations of the Flesh
The temptations of the flesh are some of the most difficult battles we fight because they come from within ourselves. This category of temptation is not to suggest that our material body is evil. It refers to the reality that after the Fall of Adam and Eve we lost the preternatural gift of integrity. Consequently, our passions, emotions, and desires became disordered and are not always subordinate to our intellect. Now “the flesh,” when left uncontrolled, seeks its own pleasures and tries to influence our will to indulge in carnal desires to the neglect of spiritual things.
Scripture warns us about these temptations, explicitly listing some of them: fornication, impurity, idolatry, licentiousness, strife, dissension, anger, selfishness, covetousness, drunkenness and adultery (Mark 7:21; Galatians 5:17-21; Colossians 3:5). The temptations of “the flesh” also include other vices such as gluttony, lust, pride, unhealthy curiosity, gossip, envy and hatred. These temptations are powerful, and, if we do not attempt to control these passions, we can easily become blinded to their influence. And because they are internal, we can also convince ourselves that these desires are normal rather than disordered. They can become perilously unbridled.
To defend ourselves, we must first recognize where each of us is most vulnerable. Then we need to frequently examine our conscience to see where we are struggling. We must be humble and honest with ourselves. We should also identify people or situations in our lives that are inclinations to sin and avoid them. And we also need to look to the Church to help guide us in how God calls us to live rightly. Then we must turn to God with repentant hearts and rely on his grace. God will give us the power to resist these temptations and submit our will to his.
Temptations of the Devil
The temptations of “the devil” refer to Satan and the other fallen angels who God permits to influence this world. These demons are liars. Anger, resentment, wickedness, pride, envy and selfishness fills them up. They hate God and everything that God loves. This motivates them to attempt to draw as many people away from God as possible.
The demons can never force or coerce us to sin. But through their keen observations of our behaviors and expressions, they identify our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They then use this knowledge to influence us. We have to realize that not every sin is a direct result of being tempted by the demons. Often, because we are prone to the temptations of the world and of the flesh, the demons can simply sit back and be entertained as we cause our own demise. But the devil and the fallen angels are real threats and are a powerful force of evil at work in the world.
The Devil Deceives Us
What are some examples of their common temptations? The demons inflame our passions and emotions, especially our pride. They keep us focused on worldly things rather than the transcendent. Demons try to keep us distracted in prayer. They induce us to deep levels of anxiety. They tempt us to idleness and spiritual sloth. Demons ignite an attitude of opposition against all authority and cause people to become carelessly self-reliant. They sow doubt, division, discouragement and despair.
Demons will convince us to seek apparent goods rather than what is truly good. They try to influence us to satisfy a desire for the pleasure of it while disregarding the sinfulness of the act. They will entice us to call good evil and evil good. Demons seduce us to justify our immoral actions because of our intentions or the ends we desire. They deceive people into thinking that obedience to God is oppressive and tyrannical. Demons persuade people into believing that there is no such thing as sin or acts that are intrinsically evil. They try to keep us more concerned with the sins of others than with the obvious sins in our own life.
What is our defense against this terrible foe? We must rely on God’s grace first and foremost. Then we should listen to the wise words of St. Peter:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:6-9).
We must be clothed in humility and then have a clear mind that is not blind to demonic seductions. We cannot for a moment take the temptations of the demons lightly but, because we have God’s grace at work in us, we should never be afraid of them. If we cooperate with grace it transforms us into people of heroic faith, charity and courage. It enables us to follow Christ even to the cross. It helps us to overcome the devil’s allurements to take the easy road that leads to our destruction. We should also receive the sacraments regularly, pray to our guardian angel for protection, listen to the Church, read Scripture and always strive for holiness. And we can never forget that our Blessed Mother and St. Michael the Archangel are powerful intercessors for us against the devil.
Every day we stand in a battlefield. We must remain alert to all forms of temptations, great and small. They will come like arrows flying at us from all directions. We must avoid being careless and we must never waver. We need to fight back because any singular mortal sin, freely chosen, could cause us to fall for all eternity if we remain unrepentant. In this war, we must humble ourselves before God, always aware of our sins, and we must pray to God fervently for his abounding grace. God has promised to make us more than conquerors and to give us the crown of victory, but we must rely on him and persevere in this battle (Romans 8:37; James 1:12).
In his Procatechesis (16-17), teaching catechumens preparing for baptism, St. Cyril of Jerusalem offered wise counsel related to the various temptations they would inevitably encounter – referring to them as “the serpent” (some translations use “dragon”). His words are helpful to us as well.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Counsel
“Great is the Baptism that lies before you….But there is a serpent by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware lest he bite you with unbelief. He sees so many receiving salvation and is seeking whom he may devour. You are coming in unto the Father of Spirits but you are going past that serpent. How then may you pass him? Have your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; that even if he bite you he may not hurt you. Have faith indwelling, steadfast hope [and] a strong sandal that you may pass the enemy and enter the presence of the Lord. Prepare your own heart for reception of doctrine, for fellowship in holy mysteries. Pray more frequently that God may make you worthy of the heavenly and immortal mysteries. Cease not day nor night: but when sleep is banished from your eyes, then let your mind be free for prayer. And if you find any shameful thought rise up in your mind, turn to meditation upon Judgment to remind you of Salvation. Give your mind wholly to study that it may forget base things…Attend not to the lips of the talker but to God who works in you. Guard your own soul, that thou be not ensnared, to the end that abiding in hope you may become an heir of everlasting salvation.…
“. . . Let us nerve our minds and brace up our souls and prepare our hearts. The race is for our soul: our hope is of things eternal . . . “