We are blessed with free will… and cursed by it. We can choose the greatest good… or the worst evil. We can choose Heaven or Hell. God could cancel our free will and end evil in a moment. However, doing so would also be the end of love. There can be no love without free will. We were created to love. We were created by love. We were created for love. The end of free will would be the end of our reason for existence.
In our free will, we face trials and temptations. Through these, we can discern the fruit of the Spirit and the magnitude of grace given to us.
The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man [Cf. Lk 8:13-15; Acts 14:22; Rom 5:3-5; 2 Tim 3:12], and temptation, which leads to sin and death [Cf. Jas 1:14-15]. We must also discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation. Finally, discernment unmasks the lie of temptation, whose object appears to be good, a “delight to the eyes” and desirable [Cf. Gen 3:6], when in reality its fruit is death.
God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings. . . . There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us [Origen, De orat. 29:PG 11,544CD] (CCC 2847).
We are surrounded by temptations… thousands of them… constantly. They bombard us from all sides especially through media and advertising. Through the products and trappings of modern life, we are promised to be made healthy, wealthy, and wise! It can be overwhelming if we focus on the cacophony.
Because of this, I used to struggle to understand how the Bible could say that Jesus was finished with every temptation in the desert (Luke 4:13). I counted three. Surely there are more temptations than three, right? In my own life, I can count hundreds without much effort.
Our Jewish ancestors taught that we are tempted in just three ways: the lust of the flesh, the lust of eyes, and the pride of life. The First Letter of John references them in the New Testament.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:15-17 RSV).
The temptations of man began in the Garden of Eden. The devil approached and challenged Eve…
He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” (Gen 3:1-5).
First, he twists the words of God to Adam and Even to sow doubt. When challenged, what makes that tree different from the others? It seems a capricious direction. As children, they can wonder why that tree is special and why it should condemn them. Then, he takes advantage of their trust in God by contradicting Him and even accusing God of jealousy. He paints an unflattering picture of God in the same sentence as flattering them—they could be gods themselves and know good and evil. What does it mean to “know good and evil”? It means they could decide for themselves what is right. Isn’t that still man’s quest today—to decide for himself what is good and what is evil? In man’s eyes, there is no objective measure. What is good is what each man approves. What is not is what a man disapproves. It’s a standard full of contradiction and true capriciousness.
In every lie, there is an element of truth… or it would be unbelievable. God wants us to be like Him. He created us to be with Him forever. However, He isn’t just a God in power and majesty. He is love-personified. Man must learn love and obedience—not reach for power—if he would be like God.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
We can see the results of the temptation of our first parents in the Garden of Eden in the prose used to describe it. When Eve gave in, the Bible records that The woman saw that the tree was good for food (lust of the flesh) and pleasing to the eyes (lust of the eyes), and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom (pride of life) (Gen 3:6). To a Jewish reader it says she was tempted in all ways… and failed.
In the failure of our first parents, it may appear the devil told the truth… they didn’t seem to die when they ate of the tree. They did. In disobedience to God, they killed the life of grace within them. They broke the covenant. They lost paradise. They were driven out of His presence. They were condemned to mortality.
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. 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. Rather, each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death (James 1:12-15).
We call the shame they endured “original sin” and we still suffer today from its effects. Some see it as a stain on our souls. Rather than a stain on each soul passed down through the generations, it may be seen as an emptiness that we can’t fill. It is that family kinship with God established in creation that we cannot repair ourselves. It is the absence of grace.
God Himself came to our rescue and started fresh with a new Adam and Eve (1 Cor 15:45-49), born under the Law but already filled with the grace of God—born without sin as were our first parents before the Fall. In the Garden, Eve came from Adam. The new Adam is drawn from the new Eve (Jer 31:22). Where our first parents failed, our Lord and His mother brought restoration in their faithfulness.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Luke 4). When absolutely famished from 40 days of fasting, the devil came and tempted Him to turn rocks into bread. The devil begins with a taunt, “If you are the Son of God…”. He knows who Jesus is. He’s appealing to our Lord’s vanity and daring Him to display His authority. The devil tends to come at us in subtle ways also. He doesn’t usually start with, “Disobey God and renounce your faith!” He comes at us like a friend, whispering soothing words… “God loves you, doesn’t He?” “Would He want you to suffer?” “Why not take the easy road rather than sacrificing?” “Don’t you have free will?” “It’s not wrong to enjoy all of God’s creation.” Yes, it is… if we do so outside of His will.
When tempting us to sin, the devil says it is no big deal. After we sin, he says we are beyond forgiveness. In both, he lies. Before the sin, our Lord seems harsh in His prohibitions. After our sin, He is tender in His invitation to reconciliation. In both, He is shepherding us in love.
In attacking Jesus’s hunger, the devil was tempting Him through the Lust of the Flesh. Is there anything wrong with the Lord of the universe doing what comes naturally to Him? Could He not simply satisfy His hunger? Can He not exercise His authority? Notably, after these temptations were done, our Lord would be asked again to change the substance of matter at the Wedding at Cana. What He wouldn’t do for Himself, He will do for others in His love for them. More on that another time.
It isn’t right to give in to temptation. Temptation leads to sin and death. Our Lord came to serve, not to be served. He came to do the will of His Father, not that of the devil. The devil was concerned with earthly sensuality and enticed Jesus to see things his way. Jesus reminded the devil that man needs more than what the earth offers.
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (Luke 4:4).
The devil then showed Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world in an instant and offered them to Him—if Jesus would just fall down and worship him. Was this an idle boast? It couldn’t be. It would be an empty temptation if the kingdoms weren’t the devil’s to offer. Looking back in history, the greatest atrocities against man have been committed by governments. This is no bluff. The devil is offering Jesus the world. It is in his grasp. Jesus came to call all men to Himself—and here they are for the taking. No suffering. No sacrifice. No cross. Just bend the knee to the devil in homage and it’s all done. The devil is tempting Jesus with the Lust of the Eyes—here before Him is all He desires.
Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written:
‘You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve’” (Luke 4:8).
Finally, the devil led Jesus to Jerusalem and made Him stand on the parapet of the Temple. The devil told Jesus to throw Himself down and let the angels rescue Him. The devil shows his knowledge of Scripture here. He can read. He likely knows Scripture better than any Bible scholar. When faced with temptation, we should be careful of relying on our own interpretation of Scripture to find our own solutions. It is possible to twist any text to justify disordered desires as the devil does with Jesus. The difference between the devil and a Bible scholar is that the devil reads to understand his enemy while the Bible scholar reads to commune with His Lord. Any reading of Scripture that doesn’t humble us and remind of us the sovereignty of God is a misreading. Here, the devil has tempted Jesus with the Pride of Life—to show the world His greatness and majesty even if it isn’t the will of God.
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’” (Luke 4:12).
Our Lord is our creator. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we need. Having come in the flesh, He empathizes with our frailties and knows how to help us overcome them. He has faced temptation and succeeded where we—and all of our ancestors—failed. In His victory is the promise of our own, if we follow as He leads us.
No trial has come to you but what is human. 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 Cor 10:13).
In the desert, the devil tried to lure Jesus away from the cross. He failed… but that doesn’t mean he gave up. When Peter rebuked Jesus in His prediction of His death, Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt 16:23). When our Lord hung on the cross, the crowd yelled at Him, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matt 27:40). The devil would like to separate us from the cross, too. The spirit of evil manifests whenever we take our focus off of the will of God.
When I am tempted to unnaturally fulfill the desires
of my flesh, may I envision Your pain and deny
temptation through conscious acts of self-denial.
(The Personal Rosary)
How can we overcome the Lust of the Flesh? We can overcome the desires of our flesh by denying ourselves the pleasures of the flesh in fasting. It’s a matter of discipline to not reach for all that we want so that we can allow the Lord to give us all that we need. We shift our focus from ourselves to Him. We must decrease so He may increase in us. We focus less on what we will so we can focus on the will of God.
When we indulge ourselves on the pleasures of this world, it only kindles a fire for more indulgence. We have an unlimited capacity to want. Fasting breaks this cycle and focuses our attention on the only one who can fill the emptiness within us… God Himself. It isn’t a diet plan. A diet plan is still self-focused. Fasting is an act of devotion to the God who loves us. It requires an act of the will to deny ourselves for the glory of God.
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (Mark 8:34-36).
During penitential times in the Church, there has been a movement to “fast” from doing bad and focus on doing good. As commendable as that may be in the conduct of our daily lives, that isn’t a fast. Our Lord said we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. Fasting is denying our flesh the pleasures to which it has become accustomed. It is a sacrificial offering. It’s meant to be difficult in practice. It’s meant to be self-denial.
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matt 6:16-18).
Our Lord didn’t say, “If you fast…”. He is telling us that fasting is part of our life in the Spirit. It is a denial of our fleshly desires. We aren’t called to fast when it’s convenient or when we feel like it. We are called to follow Jesus in His walk of self-imposed poverty. If we do not focus on our own self-indulgence, we allow God to bless us in His own way. We hear His voice better in our lives. In self-denial, we find one of the preconditions of all true freedom (CCC 2223). We are called to fasting. It’s part of our life lived in imitation of Christ.
Then the disciples of John approached him and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast [much], but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:14-15).
The Lust of the Flesh leads to sins against the body. They are realized in the capital sins of lust (obviously), gluttony, and sloth. These are sins we commit against ourselves. Through fasting, lust may blossom into the virtue of chastity; gluttony may give way to the virtue of self-control; and sloth may be chastened into the virtue of diligence. Failing to fast invites the embrace of evil. When the disciples failed to cast out a demon, they asked Jesus why.
And when he was come into the house, his disciples secretly asked him: Why could not we cast him out? And he said to them: “This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:27-28 DRA).
In fasting, we discipline the flesh against the temptations of evil.
When I am tempted to take what is not meant for
me, may I envision Your stripes and deny
temptation through acts of charity.
(The Personal Rosary)
How can we overcome the Lust of the Eyes? If we focus our attention on the needs of others in almsgiving, can we at the same time be focused on our own heart’s desires? Almsgiving is another form of self-denial where we let go of our want for the treasures of this world by giving our treasures to those in need. Through self-denial, we learn moderation. In moderation, we find we have much to share.
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt 6:1-4).
In our miserliness, we sin against others as we fail to provide for their needs. In love, we are supposed to provide for others as we provide for ourselves. Failing to provide for others is a failure to love. In this, we sin against our neighbor. The remedy is almsgiving. We are to give with a generous heart, not grudgingly.
Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:6-7).
Why does God enrich us except that we may use our riches to bless those He loves? In our generosity, we share the Gospel most eloquently.
You are being enriched in every way for all generosity, which through us produces thanksgiving to God, for the administration of this public service is not only supplying the needs of the holy ones but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. Through the evidence of this service, you are glorifying God for your obedient confession of the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your contribution to them and to all others, while in prayer on your behalf they long for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you (2 Cor 9:11-14).
In our greed, we sin against our own minds in failing to do as we know we ought to do. Seeing our neighbor in need, we turn our gaze and cloud our thoughts lest we be moved to pity. Almsgiving disciplines the mind to turn our greed to generosity; our anger into patience; and our envy into kindness.
When I am tempted to pridefully make of myself
more than God has made me to be, may I envision
Your sorrow and humble myself in prayer.
(The Personal Rosary)
How can we overcome the Pride of Life? We can overcome all pride by humbling ourselves in prayer. How can we be prideful when on our knees in adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication?
We must control our own ego. The dictionary defines ego as simply “self.” There’s a bit more to it in theology, though. Ego comes from Latin where it means, “I.” When I am the center of my own heart, I am full of conceit and focused on what the world owes me. Our Lord describes Himself as “I am” (Ex 3:14, John 8:58). He wants to be the center of our hearts, the focus of our love. Why? Is it conceit on His part? No. We were made for union with Him who is Love. In His love for us, He wants what is best for us. He knows we can only find fulfillment in Him. He gives us the greatest good He has to offer—Himself. In return, He asks for the only thing we have to give—what was first a gift to us from Him—ourselves. We are because He is. Our pride leads us to sin when we try to be without Him. Prayer expresses humility to Him and an openness to His will.
Our pride is a direct affront to God Himself—it shows Him contempt. In our pride, we believe ourselves to be the judge of what is right and wrong. It is the fulfillment of the self-love with which the devil tempted our first parents. Through sincerity of heart for the will of God, we discipline our spirit to boast of nothing but His great love for us. We seek to be more like Him and not to elevate ourselves in vainglory.
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:5-8).
Pride is the excessive love of one’s own excellence. It is an inordinate esteem of the self. What’s inordinate about pride? Such high regard for ourselves is contrary to truth. We are just dust unless we have the grace of God within us. From his beginning, man was created from the dust of the earth. Unique among creation, he is the combination of earthly, natural material and the life-giving breath of God (Gen 2:7). Made from lowly substance, man’s worth isn’t in his mortal form—only in the supernatural life of God within him. In God’s breath is the glory of man while the dust of his formation is a reminder of his mortal fragility. Of what can man boast?
Yet man does boast… quite often… about a great many things. Man boasts of his wealth and his poverty. He boasts of his intelligence and his ignorance. He boasts of his abilities and his disabilities. He boasts of his sins and his piety. He boasts of his race, his politics, his appearance, his sports teams, his home, his family, his car, and his watch. It would be easier to list the things about which a man doesn’t boast! Man tends to shun people not at the level of his social status. Those who aren’t as richly blessed are beneath him while those above him are snobby elites. Even within his socio-economic circles, he tries to seem better than others in his class. Driven by pride, man tries to seem better than other men by any measure he can find. Looking down on others seems the most comfortable perspective.
I picture the earth as a sandbox and we are just children at play. We like to show the other children our toys and sticks and explain to them why ours are better than theirs. In fact, we can build better sand castles than them, our clothes are nicer, and my dad can beat up your dad! It’s all vanity and nonsense (Eccl 1:2). When our time in the sandbox is done, we won’t take any of it with us. God watches all of this interaction in the sandbox and just shakes His head. He tries to tell us not to be so competitive and just get along with each other. At the end of the playdate, He knows that He has so much more to give us than we can even understand. What He gives is life and permanence. It’s a home. It’s love.
Man also tends to take great indignation at other men for their slights while dismissing his own sins against his fellow men. We can see this readily in an every day commute. We may cut in front of others to gain advantage and take great umbrage at those who do the same to us. The anger we nurture toward others is a form of pride. Perceiving disrespect from others, we vow to get even. We seek vengeance. We seek our own will to be done. We come to see ourselves as more important than the ones who harm us. They become less important in our eyes. They become an obstacle to be overcome. They become a target of our wrath. It’s times like these where we should remember the words of our Lord and love those we perceive to be enemies. In doing so, we let go of our prideful anger and humbly seek the will of God. We should practice patience with the sins of others as God has shown us patience with our sins against Him.
Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).
Man has a need to be more than ordinary… more than simply a man. He wants to be set apart and unique. In his pride, he reaches for all he can see and grasp to elevate his status. He adorns his body and his possessions so the world may see in him what he wants to see in himself. He takes on titles to show his greatness and differentiate himself. What the worldly man doesn’t understand is that God also wants him to be set apart from the rest of creation. That need within man was given to him by God at his creation. The definition of holiness is to be set apart. It’s an elevation from what is base and shameful to be made pure and blameless. What greater title can we hold than to be a child of God?
God told us to be holy because He is holy (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, & 20:26). The goal of our lives is to be one with Him. We can only become one with holiness if we become holy ourselves. Man finds many ways to sin but there is only one way to holiness… union with God. When we pray, our goal isn’t to change God’s will. Prayer changes us to conform ourselves to Him. Prayer is humbling to our pride.
Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Make for it two wings: fasting and almsgiving” (St Augustine).
In all of the above devotions to God (fasting, almsgiving, and prayer), we should take care not to do them for our own personal glory. Ask yourself, “If no one in the world noticed or cared that I fast, give alms, and pray would I still do them… and to the same degree?” If we can’t truly answer in the affirmative, we should reevaluate our spiritual life. If we fast as a preparation for swimsuit season, give alms so friends will see our generosity, and pray so the world will think us pious, we are focused on ourselves. Our pride is our motivation. Through these outwardly signs of personal piety, we can attain worldly acclaim. However, if it’s worldly acclaim we desire, we have missed our calling. We will receive rewards for the spiritual work we do. If those rewards are temporal, they will be temporary. We should desire only the rewards of our loving, heavenly Father who sees and delights in the work of His children—and whose rewards are ever-lasting.
Pride isn’t just one of the deadly sins… it is the father of the rest. In our pride, we fail to humble ourselves before God and accept His will for us. Striving to be greater than we are, we reach for all we desire. The devil takes advantage of our desires in temptation. Our desires are a gateway to sin and death (James 1:12-15). The devil offers us all we want with the promise of happiness. Notice that he doesn’t start with demanding our fealty to himself. It is enough that we worship ourselves rather than God. Humanism is the foundation of Satanism. We find happiness when we realize that in God we already have all we need (1 Tim 6:6).
Our desires are not wrong. They were given to us by God to guide us along the path He leads us. He knows what we want and what we need. He wants us to trust in Him as He fills us with His goodness. Our desires become disordered when we seek them in a way that is outside of God’s plan. When our desires become the goal of our existence, we’ve strayed from our longing for God. In self-denial, we can feel that longing within us. It brings us closer to Him. It gives us a heart for patience as we wait on the Lord to bless in His own way and time.
His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone who lacks them is blind and shortsighted, forgetful of the cleansing of his past sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more eager to make your call and election firm, for, in doing so, you will never stumble. For, in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you (2 Peter 1:3-11).
Our desires tend to be related to our talents. We develop our talents in pursuit of our goals. Our careers and our very way of life usually come from the talents God has given us. In a way, fasting could be seen as a tithe of our talents. Almsgiving is a tithe of our treasure. We give our time to God in prayer. By offering the time, talent, and treasure entrusted to us by God, we discipline ourselves in using them for the glory of His Kingdom. We offer back to God what He has given to us.
Modern science is catching up with ancient wisdom. The modern world tells us that intermittent fasting and “Meatless Mondays” are good for our health. Where there is charity and wisdom, there is no fear nor ignorance. Mindfulness and meditation calm the soul. It’s almost like the God who made us knew what He was doing when He called us to these things millennia ago! He knows what we need before we even understand why we need it.
Our Lord gave us the tools to deal with our temptations in Matt 6:1-18. When [we] fast… we deny the lust of the flesh. When [we] give alms… we deny the lust of the eyes. When [we] pray… we humble ourselves before God. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are antidotes to temptation. We aren’t focused on our own desires when we deny our flesh in fasting. We aren’t focused on all we want when we are giving to others in charity. We aren’t focused on our own greatness when we acknowledge the providence and sovereignty of God.
In fasting, we deal with our own flesh to not sin against ourselves in gluttonous behaviors. In almsgiving, we show charity to others to not sin against them in our neglect. In prayer, we are humble before God—not seeking our own will and way. May we seek to walk in humility before God and trust Him through this valley of tears. He knows what we need before we even ask… but in asking, we acknowledge our dependence upon Him. We become childlike.
My life isn’t about me and my wants. It’s about what God wants for me. It’s a story of trust… trusting the God who made me to know what is best for me and waiting on Him to provide for me in His goodness. May I find pleasure in denying my own wants for the enjoyment of others. May I receive great joy in my gifts to others. May I be humbled in contemplating the inherent dignity of all who are made in the image and likeness of God. May I think less of myself so I may think more of my Lord and His love for me.