I do not think it an understatement to argue that temptation is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for sin. If that is true, then one faces a dilemma. If God works all things for the good (Romans 8:28), and temptation is an efficient cause of sin, why does God allow us to be tempted?
In this paper, I will explore the concept of temptation within the biblical framework and seek to explain the dilemma of temptation.
As anyone familiar with Christian prayer knows, the concept of temptation is not unknown and is indeed prevalent in the most significant of prayers, the Lord’s Prayer. In this particular prayer, we are to ask God to keep us from being tempted (see Matthew 6:9-13). If we take the wording from the Lord’s Prayer in conjunction with the claim that God does not tempt anyone (see James 1:13), it is evident that the temptation to sin is not of divine origin.
So, what exactly is temptation, and what does Scripture have to say about it and its origin?
For the purpose of this paper, I will define temptation as an offer or opportunity to engage in an act that appears pleasurable but is, in fact, a sin. Sin is defined as a deliberate act against the will of God. It may arise from the world, the flesh, or even the Devil.
Temptation from the world is the attractiveness of bad examples and the psychological pressure to conform. Temptations from the flesh are all the urges of concupiscence, whether carnal or spiritual, where man’s fallen nature has built-in tendencies to the seven deadly sins. Demonic temptations arise from instigations of the evil spirit, whose method is to encourage every form of avarice or selfishness to lead one to pride and, through pride, to all other sins. (See Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary, 2013).
The Bible does not wait long before introducing the subject of temptation. In the third chapter of Genesis, we read how the serpent (generally a symbol of the Devil) tempts Eve by promising her that she will have knowledge of good and evil if she eats from the forbidden tree. This knowledge meant that human beings would determine for themselves what is moral, arrogating to themselves a privilege owed to God alone.
Perhaps the most remarkable depiction of temptation involves Christ Himself. All three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell us about Jesus’ being tempted by the Devil, although each writer emphasizes different aspects. Regardless, the point to be understood is that the Devil’s tempting of Christ is an actual and historical event that took place after Christ was baptized.
The following is the temptation of Christ as depicted in Matthew’s Gospel. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterward, he was hungry. The tempter (i.e., the Devil) approached and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’ He said in reply, ‘It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’ Then the Devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’ Then the Devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’ At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve.’ Then the Devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.”
Obviously, there is much theological data provided by Matthew. However, I will focus on the three temptations proffered by the Devil, for I think they represent the genus within which all sins can be placed.
The first temptation is to place our physical needs over and above our spiritual needs. The second temptation is similar. However, it is the temptation to put our emotional desire for an easy and comfortable life above our personal sanctification. Finally, the third temptation seeks to take advantage of the very human desire to worship. Remove God, and human beings will not cease to worship; they will replace the object of that worship. Often, the new gods are those of power, pleasure, or fame.
It must be said that temptation in and of itself is not a sin. It is only when we act or give in to the temptation that we sin. Moreover, owing to God’s omnipotence, we must admit that while God does not cause us to be tempted, He does allow it. These facts lead to the question at issue: why does God permit human beings to be tempted if it may lead to sin?
While it is presumptuous to claim to know the mind of God, it is possible to infer two reasons why God allows us to be tempted.
First, it should be accepted that to grow in holiness, one must be virtuous. Virtue being those sets of habits and behaviors that enable one to act morally. Yet, to be virtuous and moral is meaningless without the capacity to act immorally. The virtuous person must be tested, which is a purpose of temptation.
The second reason for the existence of temptation is that it provides an opportunity to place one’s hope in God. A reliance upon God is necessary for humility, which is crucial to the spiritual life. In many ways, the temptations of Christ provide Catholics with a model of how to respond to temptation.
In a fallen world, we are all subject to various temptations. While they may be a thorn in the sides of the faithful, temptations also provide an opportunity to grow in virtue and in holiness and, thereby, grow nearer to God.