Considering how much of the moral life involves overcoming temptation, it’s surprising how little attention the subject receives. (Let’s be honest: when was the last time you found yourself in a discussion with friends about the best ways to overcome temptation?) As a possible prelude to sin, temptation—even victory over temptation—may strike us as a depressing topic. It does not help that teachers and catechists often focus on a negative prohibition: overcoming temptation is about avoiding evil—no more, no less. We need to appreciate, however, that overcoming temptation is a great good.
In his Explanation of The Lord’s Prayer, Saint Thomas Aquinas writes there are those temptations that constitute a “solicitation to evil,” and though God may allow these temptations, Aquinas assures us, “God tempts no man in this way.” Nor does God want us to intend or seek to be tempted; God wants us to avoid the near occasion of sin and persons, places, and things that lead us into sin. Though we can make great efforts in avoiding temptations (which in itself can be a hard-won victory), we can nevertheless find ourselves tempted—as Aquinas observes—by our “own flesh, by the devil and by the world.”
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, however, we must learn to “discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation.” Aquinas writes that, “it is human to be tempted, but to give consent is devilish.” The Catholic Encyclopedia clarifies: “as long as there is no consent of the will, there is no sin.”
Thus, there is a chasm between temptation and sin—a divide that cannot be bridged without the will. And though a man might experience an almost gravitational pull toward the sinful side of that chasm, he can be aided by prayer and assisted by grace to stand his ground. As the Catechism puts it, “Such a battle and such a victory become possible only through prayer. It is by his prayer that Jesus vanquishes the tempter... In this petition to our heavenly Father, Christ unites us to his battle and his agony.”
Overcoming temptation through prayer imitates Christ and implores His grace. In addition, it directs our will toward God and reaffirms our love of Him. Aquinas reminds us of the Letter of James 1:12, which reads: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.” Thus, we begin to see the great good not in temptation, but in overcoming temptation. Even beyond that, our victory over temptation—the victorious battle to choose good—increases the extrinsic glory of God.
We might also consider that overcoming temptation delights God. In Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes:
To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
Here C. S. Lewis refers to the Blessed in Heaven, but God delights not only in those who have reached Heaven. We know that God is perfectly happy, and we cannot add or subtract from that perfection. But we also know that the soul in the state of sanctifying grace—the soul who fights the most just of wars to keep that grace—pleases God. If God delights in angels and humans who do His will in Heaven, surely God also delights in those who do His will “on earth as it is in Heaven.” If God delights in Saint Michael, who fought the devil on celestial planes, does God not also delight in us, who fight the devil on the terrestrial runways of the soul?
Looking back on my life, it is clear that I desperately need what Lewis called the “pity” of God. But to Lewis’ point, I do not want to be “merely pitied.” I want to please God. I want “to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness.” I want God to delight in me “as an artist delights in his work.” And I believe that God delights in my free will decision to resist temptation and embrace Him.
When we are tempted, we should say a quick prayer: “Jesus, I trust in You.” Or say a Hail Mary. Or picture the Passion of Jesus in our minds and thank Jesus for loving us. Though temptations are unwanted guests in our minds, we can respond by re-inviting God into our hearts. Far more than the mere negative prohibition of avoiding evil, we should know that every time we pray for grace and overcome temptation, we please God. We are answering the call of Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”