“I can resist anything but temptation,” quipped Oscar Wilde.
His remark is really more humorous than cynical. But it does underscore a truth, namely, that there is some measure of difficulty for all of us in resisting temptation. Even the saints had to wrestle with temptation.
“I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man,” writes St. Paul, “but I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members” (Romans 7:15).
Temptation is an ever-present problem. “Opportunity knocks but once,” as a pundit once remarked, “but temptation leans on the doorbell.”
In this case, the exaggeration brings the point into high resolution. Temptation is something we need to deal with on an almost constant basis.
In the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God not to lead us into temptation. This is the most baffling of all the seven petitions. Would God lead us into temptation? On the one hand, St. James tells us that “God tempts no man” (James 1:13). On the other hand, we read in Gen. 22:1 that “God tempted Abraham.” What appears to be a contradiction, however, opens the door to a most important and illuminating distinction.
In Father Francis J. Remler’s insightful book, How to Resist Temptation, the author explains that there are two different kinds of temptation. He calls one “the temptation of probation.” By this, he refers to the trials that God sends us that we need in order to grow to spiritual maturity.
The probation officer hopes that his ward will prove, over the period of probation, that he is sufficiently trustworthy to be given a wider range of freedom. We need trials and challenges to prove our fidelity to God. These temptations, like those visited upon Job, are purifying. Therefore, God tempted Abraham in this sense.
Father Remler identifies the second kind of temptation as “the temptation of solicitation.” In this case, the person “solicits” or welcomes temptation. This is the form of temptation that God does not introduce. It is the temptation that we ourselves choose, directly or indirectly.
Someone once said that women flee temptation, but men crawl away from it cheerfully hoping that it will overtake them. This would exemplify, with due apologies to all men, the indirect form of temptation.
The distinction that Father Remler makes between the two kinds of temptation is most helpful. Nonetheless, in the interest of simplicity, I would like to make a parallel distinction between a “trial” (that God sends us) and a “temptation” (which we invite upon ourselves).
Consequently, when we ask God not to lead us into temptation, we are not requesting that he spare us trials, but that when trials arrive, we do not misinterpret them precisely as temptations.
In other words, we should regard trials as an opportunity for purification. Job proved to be steadfast and faithful and was justly rewarded. He did not view his trials as temptations to despair. His trials had a positive function, not a negative one. Thus, we should regard our trials in a positive sense and remain firm in our conviction that God will help us to understand them in this way.
In the first volume of his three-volume opus, Jesus of Nazareth, the then Pope Benedict XVI states: “The Book of Job can also help us to understand the distinction between trial and temptation. In order to mature, in order to make real progress on the path leading from a superficial piety into profound oneness with God’s will, man needs to be tried.”
Nevertheless, trials are dangerous. Although they are indispensable as paths which purify the person as well as binding the person closer to God, they do offer him an opportunity to fall. Hence, all the more significant is the petition in which we ask God not to lead us into temptation.
The expression “pride comes before a fall” illustrates the intimate relationship between a temptation and a negative outcome. The proud person is tempted to believe himself to be more important than he really is. He has an unrealistically inflated view of himself. As G.K. Chesterton has described it, “Pride is the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.”
Being top-heavy with illusory self-importance, the proud man is bound to fall. In this way, as Chesterton goes on to explain, “Satan fell by the force of gravity,” whereas “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” We should not take ourselves too seriously. Again, as St. Paul warns us, “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
Trials are humbling. They teach us that we are not self-sufficient and must constantly rely on God’s saving grace. They help us to form a stronger relationship with God.
“Even saints must be held by the hand of God,” writes Father Remler. “The moment they let go of it, perhaps thinking they need His help no longer, or the moment He stops holding them up, in punishment for their pride or want of charity, they are bound to fall and sustain serious injuries in doing so.”
Cardinal Newman remarked that a thousand difficulties do not make a single doubt. So too, a thousand trials do not make a single temptation. Keeping in mind the distinction between a “trial” and a “temptation” helps us to appreciate the critical importance of relying more on God and less on ourselves.
Lead us not into temptation also means, help us to understand the salvific meaning of your trials and give us the grace to accept them in accordance with your will.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn. This editorial appeared in the Dec. 14, 2017, edition of The Wanderer.