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Temptation, wisely responded to, can actually make us stronger.
Today, I explore what became for me a profound lesson from a young monk's encounter with an old abbot. This is the second installment in our multi-week series on navigating the experience of temptation in the Threefold Way.
A young monk came to the abbot Pastor and said to him,
“Many thoughts come into my mind, and I am in peril from them.”
The old man pushed him out under the open sky, and said to him, “Take a deep breath, now try catching the wind.”
He answered, “I can’t.”
And the old man said to him:
“If you can’t catch the wind, neither can you prevent thoughts from entering your mind. Your job is to resist them.”
My job, the old man wisely said, was not to stop temptations from coming, but to resist the ones that do. Before reading that, I spent far too much energy trying to rid myself of temptation entirely. I assumed their repetitive presence in my life, regardless of whether I succumbed to them or not, was sinful. The old man showed me a better way. Encountering a dark thought in my mind was not sinful. What mattered was how I responded to it, that’s what made it sinful or not.
This was a relief.
If the great desert ascetics couldn’t escape temptation, then neither could I.
It was also a turning point.
Not that it gave me the strength to overcome temptation, it didn’t, but it did help me begin to channel my energy in the right direction. The more I put this into practice, the more temptation became a learning exercise, a self-discovery, a deep dive into my own disordered desires.
I didn’t always resist well, I surrendered to temptation more than I’d like to admit, but I was getting to the heart of things. Put differently, even when I was losing, I was winning. I was acquiring something new, a subversive strength — and I’ve been using that new strength against these dark forces ever since.
Which, when you think about it, makes sense. You increase your strength by making your muscles work against an opposing weight or force, which is the basic principle of strength training: if you repeatedly strain your muscles appropriately, they don’t decrease in strength; they increase.
And this, perhaps, is one important reason God allows rebellious forces on earth. Temptation, wisely responded to, can actually make us stronger. As St. Isaac the Syrian said, “If a man is not first tried by the experience of evils, he has no taste for the good.”
All of this helped me make sense of Jesus’s warning to Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat (Lk 22:31).” You sift wheat by spreading it on a stone surface and beating it until the grain is freed from the husk. Temptation, Jesus wants Peter to know, may feel like one arbitrary blow after another, but the result is purifying.
Jesus could offer this warning to Peter because he lived it.
He, too, was “led up of the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1).” He, too, took the blows. And he, too, gained strength in the resisting.
The more I began to see temptation as resistance training, the more I began wondering if I should seek it out, like a budding athlete pursues weightlifting?
If resistance made me stronger, why not engage it? After all, Matthew does tell us that the Spirit led Jesus into temptation (Matt 4:1). Why not take the initiative?
And, here again, is where you can learn from my blunders. Because, it’s true that the Spirit led Jesus into temptation, but Jesus didn’t choose it; he submitted to it.
And it’s the same for us.
Temptation is not something we engage; it’s something we endure
It’s not something we seek; it’s something we suffer
It’s not something we choose; it’s something chosen for us
The Spirit leading Jesus into temptation was the divine prerogative.
God decides: we don’t.
But right here, I want to be careful because it may sound like I’m saying the Spirit is tempting Jesus — or us for that matter. That would misrepresent the truth. Being led into temptation is a very different thing from the Spirit tempting Jesus.
A good father leads his toddler to the staircase, knowing the only way to secure their ultimate safety from tumbling down the steps is for the youngster to learn how to get up and down on their own.
But a good father doesn’t suggest she let go of the banister halfway up. He leads her to the staircase, so she can gain a little confidence, develop muscle memory, and ultimately learn to climb.
God may lead us into temptation from time-to-time, but he never tempts. St. James was emphatic (Jm 1:13). He isn’t the causal factor of temptation, but rather he can use it for our ultimate good.
That’s what it means to be God.
He can use any and everything — human choices, angelic choices, even demonic choices — to ultimately bring about his purifying purposes within us.
But none of this means God needs temptation to develop his likeness within us. He doesn’t need or require any form of evil to bring about his good ends. Rather, he can turn any evil for our good (Rom 8:28).
Even rebellious powers seeking to frustrate his plan, will, eventually, end up serving it.
Fallen angels tempting fallen humans is not even close to being outside of God’s redemptive scope, as if anything could be.
But how did all of this get started, I wondered? What was the origin of temptation?
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