Avoiding Temptation: A Three-Step Program

The phone rings

Douglas Faneuil takes the call. According to the allegation, he hears the soft voice of American's most famous domestic entrepreneur, Martha Stewart: “Hi, this is Martha.”

Martha knows Faneuil. He works for her stockbroker, Peter Bananovic. Faneuil discloses some interesting information to her.

“Peter thought you'd like to act on the information that Sam is selling all his shares.” Martha knows Sam as well. Samuel Waksal, at the time, was chief executive of ImClone Systems Inc. Martha held 3,928 shares in this company.

Martha replies: “All of his shares?” She wanted to make sure she understood.

Faneuil drives the point home well by saying: “What he does have here, he's trying to sell.”

She continues to listen and considers her options. Martha at this point faces a classic temptation. She can ignore this secret tip or act on it. If she ignores it, she will lose approximately $40,000 on her stock. That's not much for a millionaire like Martha, but it's money nonetheless. On the other hand, if she acts on the confidential tip she will break the law.

Later in the call with Faneuil, Martha takes a stand: “I want to sell.” And the Martha Stewart saga begins.

We all know what happened later after this alleged phone call. The government hauls Martha off to court and charges her with lying, obstructing justice and cheating investors in the stock market. The Martha Stewart story depicts a tough reality that all of us deal with every day. It's called temptation.

Everyone struggles against temptations. The rich, the poor, the young and the old all struggle alike with temptations of one type or another. No one is exempt.

People trying to lead a Christian life or at least a decent one don't want to give in to their temptations. Yet too often our temptations get the upper hand on us. Why? Many people don't know enough about temptations to overcome them. I think Lent offers an excellent opportunity to learn how to deal with our everyday temptations. So where do we begin?

A 12-year-old girl at a language academy where I work as chaplain asked me once: “Father, what's a temptation?” Sounds like an easy question — but for many it isn't. Quite a few adults don't know how to answer this question. Some modern secular thinkers characterize temptations as dominant character flaws.

The Fathers of the Church offer a more accurate description of temptations. They define temptations as a solicitation to do evil by our spiritual enemies.

This answer opens the door to another fundamental question: Who are these spiritual enemies, and why do they want us to do what is evil? Scripture speaks of three spiritual enemies: Satan, the world and our concupiscence. We could call this an axis of evil we face every day.

Let's start with enemy No. 1: Satan. He's a fallen angel and the most powerful malignant force working against us. He hates God and man. If you need proof of his existence, just look around at what's going on in our world today. Why does he tempt us to sin? He wants to pull us down, body and soul, into hell to suffer horrendous torments for all eternity. Think about it.

Then there's the world. When Scripture speaks of the world as our enemy, it's not referring to God's creation, which is good. It's speaking about worldliness, which emphasizes enjoying only the here and now as the sole purpose of life.

And finally, there's concupiscence. Most people today haven't a clue what concupiscence is or means. It's not as difficult as it might sound. In general, concupiscence means desire or covetousness. More precisely, it refers to our disordered desires that come from original sin, which remains in us even after baptism.

I think the most practical question people have about their temptations is how to defeat them. The Church recommends a three-step defense.

Step 1: prevention. Remember what a good doctor always says to his patients: One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our Lord sums up this maxim by warning his apostles to “keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Watchfulness implies knowing your temptations and avoiding them.

For example, a certain person always drinks too much with his friends at the local bar. He makes a decision: “I'm not going to drink anymore.” Excellent. Yet he convinces himself he can continue to enjoy the company of his friends at the bar without drinking. He's stepping in front of an oncoming truck. If he steps foot in the bar, he's not going to resist that smooth scotch on the rocks that takes the edge off a long day at work.

Our vigilance against temptations should center on our weak points with prayer and the sacraments. This places God on our side and renders us almost invincible.

No matter how hard we try, we can't prevent everything. Some temptations will surprise us. For this we need Step 2: know how to resist an unexpected temptation. When a temptation tries to pick a fight, ignore it by turning your mind to something else. Don't debate it or caress it. Reject it. Be tenacious until it subsides.

This brings us to Step 3: always give thanks to God after overcoming temptation. This is a duty of gratitude and the best means of obtaining new graces at the opportune moment to tackle future temptations. Humility attracts God's grace and grace gives us victory.

In a word, we shouldn't be discouraged by our temptations but recall the words of the Master: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Higher Studies for consecrated women in Greenville, Rhode Island.