A saint offers counsels for the battle against temptation

November 21, 2011

Last week's article noted that even the strongest temptations cannot overwhelm a person's desire for the good. The fire of the good always burns.

However, in the face of strong temptation, it may not burn brightly. Temptation must be overcome. So how does one do that?

The first thing is that one needs to believe that temptation can be and should be overcome. In today's world, neither of those is a given.

One may excuse one's outbursts of temper as "venting," as though one were a human pressure cooker. One may excuse one's pride-filled boasting as an exercise in self-esteem. One may rationalize one's premarital sexual liaisons as a necessary part of coming to maturity.

We need to give ourselves more credit than that. We are not machines that work by unassailable laws; we have a will and that will determines the course of every action that is not physically coerced.

Until one recognizes excuses for what they are – excuses, not good reasons - one will make no progress in the spiritual life. But once that recognition occurs, there is hope. Then the advice St. Francis de Sales gives in his Introduction to the Devout Life can kick in:

"As soon as you are conscious of being tempted, follow the example of children when they see a wolf or bear out in the country. They immediately run to the arms of their father or mother or at least call to them for help and protection.

"Turn in the same way to God and implore his mercy and help. . . . Insist that you will never consent to the temptation, implore his assistance against it, and continue steadfastly to protest that you will refuse consent as long as the temptation continues."


Turning to God is surely the first thing to do in the face of temptation. God does not want us to fall into sin; he made us to share in his divine life. He wants to always hold us close to his bosom.

Moreover, we shouldn't wait until we are in the throes of fierce temptation to pray for the Lord's assistance. When life is calm, we should be aware that this is a temporary state. The battle for one's soul will soon resume and a week of calm is the best time to pray for divine assistance for those periods when life gets hairy.

This is not to imply that the devil is the source of all temptation. The classical spiritual writers say temptation has a three-fold source - the devil, the world and the flesh.

'As soon as you are conscious of being tempted, follow the example of children when they see a wolf or bear out in the country.'

The world is not evil. It is our enemy only when we become too attached to its offers of pleasure, fame, riches and power. Or, we can be reduced to mediocre conformism by our gutless refusal to stand up to peer pressure.


The "flesh" may be an even greater obstacle to holiness than the devil. Especially in our comfortable age, we have a great horror of suffering and an insatiable desire for pleasure. The spiritual masters said with one voice that we must learn to love suffering as an opportunity to share in Christ's act of redemption and to hate pleasure because it destroys our love for things of the Spirit.

If there is anything that goes against the grain, that is it. Yet we each need to learn to find ways to say "no" to honest pleasures so that we may also be capable of saying "no" to dishonest pleasures.

For different people, this can mean different things. But it is crucial to recognize that our sensitive appetites - whether for food, wine, music or sex - can be insatiable and that they cannot be allowed to run our lives.

Further, if our love of pleasure is a major obstacle on the road to sanctity so is the fear of suffering. If one seeks a share in divine life, he or she must embrace Jesus' words "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16.24).

St. Francis de Sales counsels us to guard not only against temptations to do great sins, but also against small temptations. Fighting small temptations has greater spiritual benefit than battling large ones, he says, because there are so many of them.

We should not struggle mightily against small temptations; that gives them too much power. Instead, we should perform actions of a contrary nature.


Here, we need to know our point of greatest weakness. If one is avaricious, he should give away his money and possessions to a greater degree. The one who is arrogant should perform acts of humility and self-abasement. If one is prone to anger, it is essential to strive to be gentle.

This is far from impossible. It was the well-to-do Francis of Assisi whose most evident virtue was the love of poverty. It was the vain Ignatius of Loyola who found sanctity through an extreme self-abasement. By striving for excellence in one virtue, these saints grew in all virtues.

The struggle against temptation is of great value for God's kingdom. When we are victorious, we humiliate Satan, give glory to God and grow in confidence regarding divine assistance. By annihilating the negative, we give the positive room to flourish.