Timeless Temptation Tactics & Traps

1st Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Victor Feltes

The Book of Revelation identifies “the ancient serpent” who “deceived the whole world” as the one called the Devil and Satan. In the Garden and the desert, his tactics against human beings were similar.

For instance, Satan points out a desirable, material good and encourages grasping for it against God’s will. In the Garden, the serpent told Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and she saw the tree was “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” But God had commanded, “You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.” Jesus in the desert had eaten nothing for forty days and he was hungry, so the Devil encouraged him to break his fast by conjuring a stone into bread. This was apparently against God the Father’s will, for Jesus responded, “One does not live by bread alone, (but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.)

Another thing Satan does is promise power and happiness separate from God. The serpent told Eve in the Garden, “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.” And the Devil told Jesus in the desert, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

And a third tactic Satan tries is to say that sinful decisions will have no painful consequences. The serpent said to Eve before her Fall: “You surely will not die!” And the Devil told Jesus atop the temple, “throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’

Our Father knows how to give good gifts to his children. He wills to glorify us through and with and in himself. And he commands us not to sin because he knows it’s bad for us. The Devil, however, urges us to grasp after forbidden things, promises power and happiness apart from God, and lies to us that our sins will cause no harm or pain. Satan tries the same tricks on us today as he did in ancient times.

What if the Devil and all his demons were to suddenly cease existing? Would all our sinning end and disappear tomorrow? Sadly, no. Ever since the Fall, we human beings experience concupiscence; we feel unwieldy passions and misdirected desires. So, even absent demonic temptations, some sinning would still occur on earth. When we sin, how much is due to our wounded human brokenness and how much is instigated by demonic activity? Whatever the mix or mixture of the two, regardless of whether a particular temptation is coming from inside us or outside us — from inner wounds or external enemies, Jesus’ temptations in the desert reflect the ways we are tempted.

For example, in today’s gospel when does Jesus’ first temptation come? When Jesus is very hungry from extreme fasting. Temptation often attacks us in our weakness. Alcoholics Anonymous has an acronym called “HALT.” They observe that someone is more likely to fall off the wagon of sobriety when they are “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.” I’ve noted this in the confessional as well. For instance, when parents confess to having lost patience with their children I commonly ask them if they’re tired. The answer is almost always “yes.” Now this doesn’t mean we should never make loving sacrifices which might leave us hungry or fatigued, but it does mean that we need to be aware of our vulnerability at such times and be extra careful in our actions.

Do you find that the sins you bring to the Sacrament of Confession are often much the same? This is common and can discourage some people, but thank goodness it’s not something totally different each time (gossip one day and arson the next)! As creatures of habit, the times and places and ways in which we will be tempted should not be total mysteries to us. Be conscious that you are most likely to be tempted again when and where and how you were before. Realizing this, make any necessary changes in your life, and live with your eyes wide open on the lookout for your known stumbling blocks.

In his second temptation today, Jesus is shown “all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant,” to tempt him toward idolatry. This seems to describe a vision, perhaps within Jesus’ imaginative faculty – a very real experience perceived within his mind. Our temptations often play upon our imaginations. Jesus responds to this temptation abruptly: “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Like a snowball beginning to roll at the top of a mountain, Jesus shows us that it is best to resist temptation early and firmly, before the snowball becomes an avalanche which brings disaster. Though we should not give our imaginations free rein to present us sinful shortcuts falsely-promising happiness, examining our daydreams can be revelatory. Consider: “I could fantasize about absolutely anything, so why am I fantasizing about this?” What is the good desire behind it which God wishes to ultimately fulfill for you somehow? Allow me to share a story about what I mean.

I once met a seminarian who felt strongly called to be a Roman Catholic priest but also felt drawn to marriage. Obviously, these two vocations were incompatible and this tension greatly vexed him. When he shared this internal conflict with his spiritual director, that priest asked him, “Could it be that what you are longing for isn’t actually marriage, or sex, but intimacy?” The young man then realized that he had simply always associated and identified deep intimacy – knowing and being known, loving and being loved – with marriage. He came to realize God was calling him to greater intimacy with himself. Through seriously examining his desire he discerned the deeper, holy desire behind it. Notice, too, how this seminarian gained a helpful perspective by sharing what he was experiencing with a wise and spiritual person. If he hadn’t, he might have made a grave mistake and missed out on his life’s calling.

In the gospel’s third and final temptation, we witness the Devil challenge Jesus’ identity and attempt to confuse him: “If you are the Son of God, [observe this is the third time the tempter says this phrase] throw yourself down from here.” The Devil then quotes two passages from Scripture to argue that Jesus should do something which would be wrong. When someone is going from good to better, our demonic foes often seek to confuse and confound us. Where the demons cannot make us wicked, they will seek to discourage and impede us.

For example, for a couple weeks in college, I continued going to Mass but refrained from receiving the Holy Eucharist. I worried that I lacked sufficient faith to receive our Lord worthily. But then I was enlightened in prayer with an (in retrospect) obvious insight: people who don’t believe in God don’t worry about whether they believe enough in God – that’s something believers do. My anxiety was relieved and my regular Communion was restored when the misleading illusion was dissolved.

When I started learning more about our Catholic Faith as a teenager, I would come across some seeming contradiction in the Bible or a Church teaching I didn’t understand and become greatly troubled, for if the Bible or the Church were wrong about this then how could they be trusted? But then I would learn how the bible passages were not actually in conflict, or that there were actually good reasons for the Catholic teaching. I experienced this cycle enough times that I learned to handle it with confident, trusting patience. I reflected, “There are good answers to my questions, but I don’t have to find them immediately, right this second. It’s going to be fine.” Don’t fall for the temptations to doubt and self-doubt which would rob you of your peace.

Challenges to our identity are another common temptation trap. The Devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” implying, “If you don’t jump, then you don’t believe your Father’s word can be trusted, or you don’t really believe that you are his Son.” The Devil is attacking Christ’s identity and Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Temptation tells us, “You’re a fake, you’re a phony, you’re a hypocrite, you’re a failure, you’re an embarrassment, you’re worthless, you’re shameful, you’re rejected, you’re unlovable, you’re unloved.” Don’t fall for that garbage. Instead, ask our Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to show you who you are to them and live in that beautiful truth.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Through knowing these timeless temptation tactics and traps, may you prevail in the spiritual battles ahead of you this Lent.

One Response to “Timeless Temptation Tactics & Traps”

  1. pussywillowpress Says:

    Preach it, Father :)!

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