The Purpose of Temptation

(Homily for First Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Bottom line: God allows the devil to tempt us so we can gain humility, trust and strength.

Once four priests were spending a couple of days at a cabin. In the evening they decided to tell each other their biggest temptation.

The first priest said, "Well, it's kind of embarrassing, but my big temptation is bad pictures. Once I even bought a copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition."

"My temptation is worse," said the second priest. "It's gambling. One Saturday instead of preparing my homily I went to the race track to bet on the ponies."

"Mine is worse still," said the third priest. "I sometimes can't control the urge to drink. One time I actually broke into the sacramental wine."

The fourth priest was quiet. "Brothers, I hate to say this," he said, "but my temptation is worst of all. I love to gossip - and if you guys will excuse me, I'd like to make a few phone calls!"

Well, we all have temptations. This Sunday I want to address a difficult question: Why does God allow the devil to tempt us? It may surprise you that God uses the devil. He is not an independent power, equal to God. At any moment God could banish Satan, but he does not do so. Temptations have a purpose in God's plan.

We see today that even Jesus experienced temptation. He was "led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." The Spirit led him - in order for the devil to tempt him. Temptations have a purpose.

The first reason that God allows the devil to tempt us is to expose our real selves. I remember once I was having a pretty good Lent. I had given up candy and had set aside extra time for prayer and spiritual reading. When I got to Holy Week I felt pretty confident. On Palm Sunday someone gave me an early Easter present - a box of See's Chocolates. They are my favorites. I looked at the box and started thinking about which one I would eat first when Easter came. Then I reminded myself that today is Sunday - a kind of little Easter. And I noticed that some of the chocolates have nuts which, of course, are nutritional. Well, you know what happened: I stripped the plastic off the container and ate one. By the end of the afternoon I had finished the entire box.*

That temptation exposed my true self. I am nowhere near as strong as I think. It's a good thing to recognize one's weakness. It is part of our common humanity. Our common humanity, however, has an unattractive side: As we heard in the first reading, ever since our first parents reached for the forbidden fruit, we humans have developed an almost unlimited capacity to deceive and allow ourselves to be deceived. When we want something badly - like me wanting that chocolate - we easily fall into self-deception. Temptation - and in my case, falling into it - left me with a reminder: a nauseous stomach and the blues that follow a "sugar high." It was a lesson in humility.

When I recognize my true self, I grow in humility - and that leads to another purpose of temptation: To acknowledge dependence on God. In response to the devil's temptations, Jesus says that we do not live on bread alone, "but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." Temptation - when we see its true danger - can bring a person to his knees. We can see that even in Jesus. He is God in human flesh. As a man, Jesus had to submit his will totally to the will of the Father.

When we give in to temptation, when we sin, we go it alone. At first a guy feels like he is freeing himself from restraints, but in fact he is falling into bondage. On the other hand, to resist temptation requires God's help. It takes humility to ask for help, but in the end it leads to freedom. A classic example is alcohol. A man might think, "I am free to do what I want. I can have a second or third drink, if I like. I am free." That man becomes a slave - to alcohol and ultimately to the devil. But the person who recognizes his powerlessness and entrusts himself to a Higher Power becomes a free man. So the second purpose of temptation is to lead us to depend on God, to trust him.

From this I think you can see a third purpose of temptation. When we resist temptation, we gain strength. Similarly, when we fall into a temptation, we lose strength.

When I devoured the See's Chocolates, I gave up power. I became more susceptible to other temptations - laziness, lust, short temper - you know the sins as well as I do. But if I turn away from one of those temptations - even the smallest one - I gain strength.**

A Sufi Master, Abdullah Ansari, said, "If thou canst walk on water, thou art no better than a straw. If thou canst fly in the air, thou art no better than a fly. But if thou canst resist temptation, thou canst conquer the universe." Genuine power, real strength, comes from resisting temptation by God's grace.

Only one man totally resisted temptation. We heard about him today. Jesus alone experienced the full force of temptation. You and I are like plants that waver according the way the wind blows.*** But Jesus is like a mighty Oak with no internal decay. He only has withstood the full power of temptation. The temptations occurred at the inauguration of Jesus public ministry so that - in his humanity - he could take power from those temptations.

We are weak, but each time we stand with Jesus, each time we resist temptation, we gain power. That power ultimately does not belong to us, but to God. The power is real, but when we think it is our own, we set ourselves up for a big fall. With that in mind let's review the three purposes of temptation:

Humility: to expose ones real self.
Trust: to entrust one's self to God.
Strength: by God's grace to take power from temptation.

Humility, trust, strength. A way to remember this is by the phrase "His True Servant." HST: God allows the devil to tempt us so we can gain humility, trust and strength - become his true servants. As Jesus said in response to Satan's final temptation: "The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve." Amen.


*Note to fellow homilists: You are free to use this example ("I read about a priest who was having a pretty good Lent...") Notwithstanding, I encourage you to come up with your own example. As Archbishop Sheen pointed out, people enjoy a humorous story where the speaker comes off second best.

**On the power that comes from resisting temptation, Steve Chandler wrote:

Say "No" to yourself. A lot of people are afraid of the word "discipline" but the root of the word discipline is the word "disciple." When you're self disciplined, you simply decided in the matter of the will to become your own "disciple." Once you make that decision, your life's adventures get more interesting. You start to see yourself as a stronger person. You gain self respect. Abraham Hassel said: "Self respect is the fruit of discipline. The sense of dignity growths with the ability to say No to oneself." Emerson said:"When we say no to temptation, the power of that temptation passes into our will power." And William James recommended that "We do at least two things everyday that we don't want to do. By doing this, we stay powerfully aware of our own will power." (100 Ways to Motivate Yourself)

***The self-deception of those who drift with the currents of our society is sometimes breathtaking. I've known guys who picture themselves as brave rebels because they are cohabitating.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year A homilies for First Sunday of Lent):

Best Lent Ever: Prayer Changes Everything (2017)
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1 (2014)
The Purpose of Temptation (2011)
The Devil is a Logician (2008)
The Temptation of Sloth (2005)
First Signs of Spring (2002)
Original Sin & Temptation (1999)

Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2017 (Year A): Best Lent Ever: Prayer Changes Everything
2016 (Year C): First Things: Prayer
2015 (Year B): New Mind and Heart Week 1
2014 (Year A): Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013 (Year C): Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012 (Year B): The Convenant with Noah Today
2011 (Year A): The Purpose of Temptation
2010 (Year C): Who Is Like God?
2009 (Year B): Knee Mail
2008 (Year A): The Devil is a Logician
2007 (Year C): More Powerful than Satan
2006 (Year B): Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005 (Year A): The Temptation of Sloth
2004 (Year C): Temptation of Spirituality
2003 (Year B): Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002 (Year A): First Signs of Spring
2001 (Year C): How Satan Operates
2000 (Year B): The Rabbit's Foot
1999 (Year A): Original Sin & Temptation
1998 (Year C): Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997 (Year B): Jesus' Temptation & Ours

From Archives (Ash Wednesday Homilies):

Best Lent Ever: Even Now (Homily for March 1, 2017)
First Things
New Mind and Heart
Go to Your Inner Room
Return to Me
The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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