If you’re not tempted to violate your core values from time to time, you’re not growing in the most important dimension of your being: your spirit. Actually, we need temptation for spiritual growth. That is its purpose, and that is why God allows us to be tempted.
If you don’t believe me, just read through a few pages of the Old Testament and you’ll see my point. One very telling account gives the biblical rationale for why people fall into temptation and affliction.
After the people of Israel had entered the Promised Land, they repeatedly abandoned the Lord and went over to the idolatrous religions of the surrounding pagan nations. Here was God’s response:
The anger of the LORD flared up against Israel, and he said: Because this nation has transgressed my covenant, which I enjoined on their ancestors, and has not listened to me, I for my part will not clear away for them any more of the nations Joshua left when he died. They will be made to test Israel, to see whether or not they will keep to the way of the LORD and continue in it as their ancestors did. Therefore the LORD allowed these nations to remain instead of expelling them immediately. (Judges 2:20-23)
I hope the key phrase jumps out at you as it did at me: “They will be made to test Israel….”
Apparently, God left a few bad influences – a bunch of nasty idol-worshipers – around the Israelites to show His people the clear difference between true and false worship. That stark clarity about good and evil gave Israel the opportunity to see the alternative and firmly choose the good.
Moses and Joshua’s Challenges
This was not a new life-choice scenario for them either. Both Moses and Joshua had given the Israelites similar challenges just a generation prior to that:
Moses: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:20-21).
Joshua: “If it is displeasing to you to serve the LORD, choose today whom you will serve, the gods your ancestors served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).
Punishment or Test?
Was God punishing Israel’s lack of fidelity by surrounding them with idolaters? I find it hard to see how God would send them a temptation to something He clearly didn’t want them to fall into as a form of punishment.
There is another reason: the idolaters were tests, not punishments. God tested His people in their area of greatest weakness so they would become spiritually stronger. That makes good sense.
It’s the same logic as the slogan on the body builder’s t-shirt that says: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” No pain, no gain as they say. Exercising the weakest muscles brings the greatest gain.
What about Jesus?
A very logical question arises here. If Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God Himself in the flesh, why was He tempted in the desert? What kind of spiritual growth did He need?
It is a good question, and one that has an equally logical answer. The “in the flesh” part of that phrase is the relevant part. While Jesus, as God, didn’t need spiritual strengthening – He, as man, did.
Our theology tells us that Jesus is a divine Person with a divine nature but that His human nature needed to go through the same Moses/Joshua test of virtue that all people of faith must endure. Jesus had a human mind and a human will. He proved His fidelity to His Father by submitting to temptation. How amazing is that?
Not only that, but Our Lord also went through that experience for us in order to show us how to deal with the devil when temptation hits. In one of his commentaries on the psalms, St. Augustine said, “[Christ] could have kept the devil from himself; but if he were not tempted he could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.”
The Real Reason for the Testing
These insights are really the crux of the matter.
Human nature’s two spiritual faculties, mind and will, are not material parts of us. We can’t see them or point to them although we can certainly see evidence of them in our thoughts and decisions. Mind and will are capacities of every person’s inner life, which is why the purely spiritual beings – angels – have them too (minus the bodies).
In short, our minds need to be tested. Our wills need to be tested as well. Why? The Book of Judges said it best: “To see whether or not they will keep to the way of the LORD and continue in it.”
The Lord showed the Israelites convincing evidence, through proximity to idolaters, of the difference between worship of the true God and worship of demons. That was God testing their minds to see if they would recognize and accept the truth. They then had to make the decision of fidelity to the true God on their own. That was Him testing their wills.
In order to live a virtuous life, these two human faculties need to prove themselves to be superior to our lower nature — our flesh, our desires, our passions, our base instincts, even our emotions. These faculties raise the lower aspects of our nature to a higher life, and we must exercise them to make them strong.
As already noted, our bodies don’t get stronger without exercising areas of weakness. Why should our souls be any different?
God Tempts No One
We have to go into spiritual exercises with the right mindset, however. The Epistle of James clarifies something for us: “No one experiencing temptation should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:12-13). In our spiritual battles against temptation, we need to understand that God is not a tempter.
Rather, as with the Israelites, He “allows” us to be tempted, but within His merciful limits. “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The Role of Satan in God’s Plan
And this brings us to the essential role of the most wretched creature in existence: Satan. Yes, Satan and his devils actually have a role to play in getting people to heaven. We saw it in the Garden of Eden, and we see it played out in every sinful human action throughout history. God allows Satan to tempt us to works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) so that we can resist him and prove ourselves to be spiritual men and women, true servants of God in mind and heart, like Joshua of old.
God tests our spiritual nature by allowing free spiritual beings (rebellious angels) to operate in a hostile but limited way against other free spiritual beings (weak humans). By doing so, God can potentially bring something even greater out of those free acts than what is lost by sin.
The most perfect example of this abstract theological point is the Crucifixion of Jesus. God permitted the greatest act of evil in history to take place, but He turned it into the greatest good ever bestowed upon man.
No End in This Life
The critical element in bringing good out of temptation and evil is our cooperation with God. Jesus’ temptation in the desert was the preview for a greater temptation three years later in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He chose again, despite His extreme desolation, to do God’s Will.
In other words, spiritual warfare will not end in this life. The devil paints a target on the back of every follower of Christ, and as Christians, we must engage the battle to the end with full confidence in God’s assistance.
Here’s a fair question: Have you ever transgressed God’s covenant by sin or negligence, abandonment or ill-will? I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t.
Another fair question: Could we all use a little strengthening of our inner resolve to serve the Lord with undivided hearts, like Joshua? That question answers itself.
Let’s make it our purpose this Lent to do what the Church asks of us in our baptismal promises, namely, to “reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises.”
This is no easy task. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s an arduous exercise for all of us, but it is one that the sacred humanity of Christ Himself embraced.
Fighting temptation is a necessary and blessed work of our spiritual nature. It gives us great hope of spiritual growth – no spiritual pain, no spiritual gain.
So says St. James: “Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).