How to Handle Temptation

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Listen to my podcast episode here.

Anyone who expects the Christian life to be a cake walk is in for a bitter disappointment. The notion that being a disciple of Jesus shields one from trouble is a myth. The idea that being a Christian guarantees a life of earthly abundance is outright heresy.

In the reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the young bishop Timothy that we heard this morning, Paul says:

You have followed closely my teaching and my conduct. You have observed my resolution, fidelity, patience, love, and endurance, through persecutions and sufferings in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. You know what persecutions I have had to bear, and you know how the Lord saved me from them all. (2 Tim. 3:10-11)

Note the use of the words “patience,” “endurance,” “sufferings”, and the mention of “persecutions”… twice. Yes, the Lord delivered St. Paul from his struggles, but that did not mean that Paul was able to avoid them altogether.

Last week, when speaking about Zacchaeus, I mentioned that when we begin to take our faith seriously, we will experience resistance from two directions. The first direction is from the outside, from fallen culture that is not interested in God and that doesn’t want to see us interested in God. Second, we will feel resistance from the inside, what we collectively call temptations.

St. John Chrysostom taught that temptations come from two sources. The first source is the demons, who hate us and the singular relationship that we have with God; they want nothing more than to see us fall and join them in misery. The second source of temptations is our own broken human nature, what we would identify today as our insecurities, neuroses, obsessions, compulsions, and addictions. St. John went on the say that, given how truly broken most of us are, the demons really don’t have to work that hard at all.

In life temptation is unavoidable. St. Anthony the Great said:

This is the great work of mankind; always to take responsibility for our own sins before God and to expect temptations to our very last breath.

Let’s not forget that even Jesus endured temptations.

As crazy as this is going to sound, sometimes, temptation is exactly what we need to help us grow. Again, St. Anthony the Great went as far as saying:

“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Without temptations no one can be saved.”

Consider, for example, the virtue of patience. Many of us have, at one time or another, prayed for God to give us more patience. There is really only one way to tell whether or not you’re improving in the area of patience. You have to encounter people who try your patience. If we ask God to make us more patient, we can be sure that he will send us people and situations to hone that skill.

Our question, then, is how to handle moments of temptation. The way to not deal with temptations is by trying to convince ourselves that the sin we are tempted to is really not that bad, especially in comparison to someone else (“At least I’m not as bad as [___]”). This is precisely where the Pharisee in today’s parable was coming from. We cannot keep our own heads above water by trying push someone else underneath us.

The way Jesus handled the temptations he faced at the beginning of his ministry provides us with a model for how we should handle temptations:

Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry.
And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’ ”
Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.”
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”
Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. For it is written:
‘He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you,’
and,
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ”
Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

Christ responded to his temptations by turning the light of the scripture onto each one of them. Wrestling with the darkness is never a good idea, because in this world the darkness always has the home field advantage. Our greatest asset in the war against temptation is being filled with the light and life of God. In the words of the modern day Athonite Father, St. Porphyrios:

When a bad or gloomy thought, fear, or temptation threatens to inflict you, don’t fight it to try to get rid of it. Open your arms to Christ’s love and he will embrace you, then it will vanish by itself.

A basic principle of self-defense in martial arts is that, rather than trying to work against your opponent’s attack, you use your opponent’s energy against them. Similarly, temptations become far less imposing if we re-frame them. Instead of looking at them as insurmountable obstacles in our lives, we can choose to look at them as moments that teach us humility and compassion for others, and as opportunities to exercise the very virtues that open for us the gates of paradise.

When we accept our temptations as inevitable, and have faith in God as all-mighty, we diminish the possible impact temptations have on us. Like the publican in today’s parable, what we need to do is we cast ourselves into the Light of Christ, fall down before him and say:

O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.

And we repeat those words… and repeat them… and repeat them… as necessary.

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