For many people, temptation is the last station before sin. People who are scrupulous may even regard temptation as identical with sin. In the New Testament, even though the word for temptation is used twenty-one times, only once does it mean temptation to sin. So what else can it mean then?
In the Bible, temptation refers to a testing of the human heart by God. According to the Book of Proverbs ‘the crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tries hearts (17.3). The Book of Sirach says, ‘My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity’ (2.1-2). In the acts of King Hezekiah recorded in the second book of the Chronicles, we read that God left Hezekiah to himself in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart (32.31).
God weighs human hearts and tests them to see what they are made of. Why would God do this? In order, it seems, to purify our hearts so that we can love with greater integrity; in order also, it seems, to make human hearts grow bigger so that we can love more.
If this is true, then temptation is inevitable and a necessary part of life with God. Temptation is not a bad thing, and can even be seen as something useful for us. Indeed, Saint Luke pointed out that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the not-so-holy spirit.
Temptation helps us to know what we really stand for. Only by facing options and making decisions do we come to know what it is we really value and where our hearts are really given. The struggle with temptation brings about a growth in self-knowledge. In fact, and in practice, it is only through temptation that we come to distinguish what we really value from what we think we value. The struggle with temptation helps to clarify this difference for us.
It is easy to be virtuous when we have no choice. Faced with the choices that temptation offers we can, by choosing wisely and well, grow in virtue. Saint Teresa of Avila says that love is seen, not if it is kept hidden in corners but ‘in the midst of the occasions of falling’. Temptation then helps us to set our hearts right and to purify our loving by giving ourselves clearly and decisively to what is of real value.
Temptation sometimes involves struggle, difficulty, sweat, and tears, but through such suffering we grow. Rather than shrinking us by limiting our options, our survival of temptation helps us to become greater and bigger than we were. The experience of struggling with temptation will mean that we will not be hasty in time of temptation but will grow in that calm wisdom which is a hallmark of holiness. Temptation hones the spirit and moral character of the human being.
Temptation is, therefore, a useful thing although the outcome of our struggle is not guaranteed. Through temptation we learn about our weaknesses and blind spots, about the depth of our commitments, about the extent to which we are ready to serve God. During Lent it is as if we consciously invite this kind of testing, place ourselves in the firing line, as it were, as we hold our lives up to the scrutiny of God. Paul invites the Corinthians to do exactly this in his second letter to them: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!’ (13.5)
The season of Lent is a time for testing and training, for honestly facing up to what we value, and for growing (even with some pain) in the faith and love of the Lord.
The forty days we observe is in memory of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism by John and before his public ministry. There he was tested. Although in his case the outcome was guaranteed, it was still a real experience of temptation as God probed his integrity. Was he really serious about the mission to which he was called? Did he love the Father with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his strength? Was he, at heart, the servant for whom Israel longed, ready to serve God with all of himself? The testing of Jesus in the wilderness was to see whether he loved the Father and was ready to serve him through and through. The texts he quotes in response to Satan’s urgings all belong to that part of Deuteronomy where God’s people are commanded to love God with all their heart, all their mind, and all their strength. This gives shape to the threefold testing he endured as it gives shape to the testing we will inevitably endure.
The value of the temptations of Jesus for us is in the knowledge that what we go through, he has gone through already. We have not only the example of Jesus to guide us but also his company and the help of his grace as we seek to return to God with all our hearts. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘[i]t was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. … Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’ (2.10,18).