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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question B: What are the sources of temptation?

1. Because of imperfection, one can be tempted even without having committed prior personal sin. Some of these temptations are from within oneself, while others arise from other people. In the case of one who has already sinned, prior sin gives rise to still other temptations. Some mainly concern the coherence of one’s life, while others concern one’s relationship with God.

As the Epistle of James suggests (1.14), passion is a general source of temptation. One could not choose wrongly unless there were some nonrational principle by which unreasonable proposals seem appealing, and emotion provides this principle (as was discussed in 7‑G, 13‑D, and 17‑B). The First Epistle of John offers another point of view, according to which all temptation is reduced to the sinful world: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn 2.16). It is plausible to think that here “lust of the flesh” refers to inordinate desires for sensual satisfactions (see Eph 2.3; 1 Pt 2.11; 2 Pt 2.10, 18), that “lust of the eyes” refers to inordinate desires for possessions, and that “the pride of life” refers to status seeking (see S.t., 1–2, q. 77, a. 5).4

2. The temptations which come from within oneself even without prior personal sin reflect the spontaneous demands which emotions make when they cannot be satisfied by fully reasonable choices. To some extent, such temptations arise from the imperfection of immaturity. Thus it can be supposed that Jesus’ hunger after fasting was a contributing factor in his temptation. In us, moreover, such temptations also arise because of the skewed emotional make up of fallen humanity (see S.t., 1–2, q. 91, a. 6). For instance, the ordinary child is more insecure and demanding than ought to be the case.

3. Temptations of this sort have a social dimension in that two or more people can be tempted together. Besides such temptations and apart from any personal sin of one’s own, though, evil in others presents a special challenge to the individual. The evil of the sins of friends tempts one to sin out of sympathy or solidarity, while the evil of the sins of enemies tempts one to sin for self-protection or in pursuit of legitimate objectives which they block.

When the New Testament authors speak of the “world,” they generally refer to human society conditioned by sin. Paul speaks of the distractions of the “world” (see 1 Cor 7.29–35), while the Gospels speak sharply of the opposition between the Christian and the “world” (see Mt 5.14–16; Jn 17.14–17). The “world” is a source of temptation, and the Christian in the world must take care not to belong to the world (see Jn 15.19; 17.11; 1 Jn 4.4–6). As experience teaches, even children are tempted to do what their own inclinations might not suggest, to please their friends and to cope with their enemies, to conform to their world rather than to transform it.

4. A person who has sinned is subject to temptations based on his or her sinful state. First, one is tempted to integrate one’s whole personality with one’s sinful self (see S.t., 1–2, q. 75, a. 4; q. 85, a. 1; q. 88, a. 3). But the self determined by sin is inherently unstable. While aspects of the self which have not been corrupted press for repentance, the self as determined by sin presses for its own consistent expansion. To be comfortable in sin, it is necessary to rationalize, to pretend that the good which is violated is not good or that the violation cannot be avoided. A person in sin must cultivate dishonesty in order to defend an indefensible position.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8.34)—this saying applies especially to this source of temptation. Slavery to sin, due to sin’s own inner dynamism, can be appropriated in a special way to the Devil (see 1 Jn 3.8–10). Even the child is tempted to lie in order to conceal disobedience, and in lying often commits a more serious offense than the original one. Similarly, false and self-deceptive claims that the good was impossible and the evil not really intentional abound in the excuses offered by children.

5. Finally, given prior personal sin, an individual is tempted to distort his or her relationship with God. The distortion can be in the direction of pharisaism: limiting the relationship to a safe, legal minimum. Or it can be in the direction of zealotry: seeking God’s favor by contending against evil—in others. Both responses reflect efforts to externalize sin and project it away from oneself, so that one can face God. A further temptation, even more radical, is to flee from the light, to refuse any longer to believe in the love one will not accept (see Jn 3.19).

Normally, when we say someone or something “tempts,” we think of the subject as an agent which inclines to sin. In this sense of tempting, we must not say that God is a source of any temptation: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas 1.13–14). Yet God permits those he loves to be tried, so that they might prove their love (see Dt 13.3; Tob 12.13). In such temptations God provides sufficient grace that one can endure and win the victory (see 1 Cor 10.13).

The petition of the Lord’s Prayer that we not be put to the trial (see Mt 6.13; Lk 11.4) perhaps refers to the extraordinary test of the last days. Still, it can appropriately be taken as asking that all temptations, which inevitably are painful and burdensome to those who love God, be mitigated.5 When temptations come despite this constant prayer, one can be confident that they are permitted for one’s own good: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (Jas 1.2–3; cf. 1.12). One who never fights never wins (see 2 Tm 2.5).

4. See H. Schönweiss, “epithymia,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:456–58.

5. See Heinrich Seesemann, “peira, etc.,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6:28–32.