To Overcome Temptations, Embrace Humility And Prayer

To Overcome Temptations, Embrace Humility And Prayer February 23, 2024

St. Moses the Black: Photograph of an icon owned by and taken by Henry Karlson.

Spiritual masters warn us that we will likely encounter all kinds of temptations throughout our temporal existence. We should not be surprised by them. We should not fall into despair when we experience them. We should know that they are trials which help build us up, and in this fashion, see them as a sign of hope, a sign that we have been given the opportunity to grow and become better. We do not have to give into temptation (and, if we are talking about an addiction, instead of mere temptation, we can slowly fight against it, and until we overcome it, our culpability is limited, if at all existent, when we fail to resist it). We should also realize, through humility, that our temptation reveals something about ourselves and our personal weaknesses and challenges.

If we find we cannot overcome our temptations all by ourselves, we should not give up hope. Instead, we should see that we have been given the opportunity to accept help from others, including and especially God. We all have various wants and desires, and our temptations work on them and use them to try to get us to go astray. If we rely only upon ourselves, if we lean on ourselves, we will not have the resources others can give us to help us see beyond our desires, and therefore, our temptation will be able to work on them and use them to lead us astray.

All our desires are based upon some good which attracts us and makes us want it; the problem is, we can desire them in the wrong fashion, engaging all kinds of shortcuts to attain them, and this is what temptations suggests to us. They would have us seek immediate gratification in the good we perceive instead of seeking after and attaining the greater good; sadly, because that good is cut off from the greater good, what we receive is only temporary, and the satisfaction it gives us does not last. This why we can be tempted, because we grasp after and perceive some good in what we wish to attain, but on the other hand, this is why, if we give in to temptation, we find no lasting joy. When the joy is gone, we will then find ourselves at the crossroads, where can either continue to do what temptation suggests, finding ourselves constantly repeating the mistakes of the past, and  never attaining any true, lasting peace, or we can take the time to resist temptation and instead embrace the greater good.

Humility helps us accept the fact that we often seek after and grasp after some good in the wrong fashion, that we can be and often are mistaken. It will have us realize that we are never truly independent, that, if we are not dependent upon God and God’s grace, we are dependent upon the lesser good which we seek after and attain. The lesser good will not satisfy us for long, but what God offers can and will satisfy us without end. And without this recognition, we will not be able to purify our will, for it is only by recognizing this can we begin to overcome the way temptation engages our desires and see that we need to embrace those desires properly by seeking after the greater good from which the lesser good emerges. St. Moses the Black, therefore, when asked what we should do when we are tempted, gave a rather typical ascetical answer, one which is legitimate, though one which needs to be adapted if it is to be useful to those who are not ascetics:

The old man was asked, ‘What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?’ The old man said to him, ‘He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?”’ (Ps. 118.6).[1]

What, exactly, are evil thoughts? Evil is the absence of some good; ontologically, evil is nothing, while practically, it is a corruption of some good. Evil thoughts, therefore, come to us, and tempt us, because there is something good which is being grasped, but grasped for in the wrong way, in a way which hurts ourselves (and others), and so leads to our own corruption if we attach ourselves to them. Pleasure, itself, is a good, but it is not the ultimate good; seeking after pleasure in and of itself does end up having us seek after some good, but we do so in such a fashion we turn pleasure into our ultimate end, making all things give way to what gives us pleasure. Sadly, as we seek pleasure in this fashion, disconnecting it from the greater good, and the holistic relationship all goods must have in connection with each other, the pleasure we receive will be temporary, offering us only brief satisfaction, and then, when it is done, we will find ourselves in a worse state than before we attained it, one filled with angst if not actual suffering. Until we see beyond the claims of hedonism, we will then seek after such pleasure once again, finding, however, what we attain will satisfy even less, until, at last, we form a habit which leaves gives us little to no true satisfaction. That is, we will have become addicted to pleasure, suffering withdrawal symptoms when its presence is not felt. We can see this in alcohol addiction, where those who are alcoholics find themselves needing more and more alcohol to satisfy their desires, finding  what they experience is less and less satisfying, all the while, the good they have found in drinking will be overturned by the good which they have ignored, like the good of their own body, so that they will find themselves physical harmed by the alcohol they drink, a harm which could ultimately lead to an early death if they do not stop drinking.

What is seen in alcohol addiction, or any other, similar forms of addiction, is true with sin in general: it leaves us addicted to it, desiring the pleasure it gives us, while leaving us in a situation where we need to sin more and more to attain less and less of the pleasure it offers. When we stop sinning, we will find the habits we formed will be difficult to overcome, leaving us in a state similar to that associated with withdrawal symptoms. Evil thoughts, therefore, are those which misdirect us, causing us to seek after some limited good, hiding from us what we should be doing, until at last, we find ourselves addicted to some vice, making it difficult for us to overcome it. When we find ourselves in such a situation, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem, which is where humility comes into play. Then, we need to pray, for by prayer, we can come into the presence of God and open ourselves to God’s help, help which we need if we are to overcome all the evil sin has done to us and the way it has corrupted our will. The more we implore God for help, the more we will open ourselves to it, allowing us, therefore, to slowly have the grace we need to overcome even the worst sinful habits. Similarly, as we do so, we start focusing ourselves on God, and the greater good which God will have us follow, thereby giving us something to use as a counter to the bad thoughts which go through our minds.

Why, then, should we weep? Because we should be sorry for what we have done when we have been led us astray, but also, because we should have tears of joy as we realize the transformation which is taking place in us, as we open ourselves to the greater good and the way it can and will make us better.  We need a change of heart, and often, we find, when we have one, we will feel sorry for what we have previously done, and then, when we have true sorrow. God will come to comfort us, helping to end our sorrow and leave us with peace and joy.  God certainly offers us love and grace, with or without such pleading, and therefore, without such tears; it is only how we respond to God that determines if we will truly let them work in us and transform us from within. If we do so, we will find the peace and joy which we desire.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 142 [Instructions of Abba Moses  #6].


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