What is temptation? Why does God allow us to be tempted?

by May Tam
First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

The subject matter of this Sunday's Readings focuses on “temptation”. There are countless temptations that each of us faces but there are two great temptations in the human history which have brought a tremendous repercussion in our lives. The first one, recounted in the First Reading, plunges the human race into sin with the consequence of condemnation and death. The second one, recounted in the Gospel Reading, begins the way back in victory with the consequence of justification and eternal life. In the Second Reading, St Paul summarizes neatly the parallels and the contrasts of the two great temptations: sin is overcome by grace, condemnation by justification and death by eternal life. But what is temptation and why does God allow us to be tempted?

Temptation generally means a desire/urge to do or have something that we know we should not do or have. But why do we desire to do or have something that is wrong or unwise? The reason is none other than what is presented to Eve, “ . . . the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gn 3:6), that is, temptation works by appealing to our physical, aesthetic or intellectual senses. Temptation is most appealing when it contains some degree of truth; and is strongest when it disguises under the appearance of goodness so that self-gratification can be justified. According to the teachings of Christianity, temptation is the enticement to disobey God's words, with the objective to distort God's way or to defy God's will. While Christians understand that temptation comes from the devil, the flesh and the world, the nature of the bait is the same. In short, temptation is an invitation to walk away from the path that leads to God; to incite us to obtain satisfactions different from what God intends.

In English, the word “temptation” usually carries a negative connotation; but in Hebrew and Greek, the word has a broader meaning. It can also mean “testing”, like the testing of Abraham and Job (rf Gen 22:1, Job 1-2). Jesus, being God Himself, cannot be tempted; but as the incarnate Son of God, He can be tested (rf Jas 1:13). If God the Father allowed His son to be tested, we can be sure that we have no exemption. Testing allows us to prove our character, to reveal the depth and integrity of our faith in God. Like flexing the muscle in order to strengthen it, every temptation can be an opportunity to help us grow in our spiritual lives and enhance our spiritual health. In the process of struggling with temptation, we become more mature in moral formation and in volition. We learn to handle our given freedom properly and come to realize our shortcomings and weaknesses. Temptation thus can be a guard rail for us lest we mislead ourselves into over confidence and self-reliance. “Temptations are very profitable to man, troublesome and grievous though they may be, for in them a man is humbled, purified and instructed” (Imitation of Christ Bk 1 Ch 13). St Leo the Great also said: “Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife”.

Thus, sin occurs if we are conquered by temptation like Eve and David (rf Gn 3:6, 2 Sam 11:1-5). Joseph, enticed by the chief steward Potiphar's wife, is a great example of one who does not let temptation to take root and become sin (rf Gen 39:6-12). Saints overcome many temptations in order to be purified and perfected in their virtues. St. Paul shares with us his own struggle, “when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind” (Rm7:22-23). He gives some advice on avoiding situations that may lead to temptation: “conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rm 13:14). The good news is that as Christians we do not face temptation alone, for we have a Savior who has fought and struggled with temptation and is always victorious (rf Hebrews 2:18). God “will provide the way out” when we are tempted (1 Cor 10:13), but it is our responsibility to be vigilant, especially at the onset of a temptation. “Fire tries iron, and temptation a just man. We often know not what we are able to do, but temptations discover what we are” (Imitation of Christ Bk 1 Ch 13).

Therefore, we should not be afraid or despair when we are tempted. With patience, true humility and prayers and by the grace of God, little by little, we can make progress. Yes, God does not preclude us from temptations but He sustains us in the midst of them (rf Hebrew 4:15–16).