In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.” It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.” The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it. Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction. Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.
What God Desires
In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us. God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us. He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him. No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more. He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him. He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it. Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.
Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers. When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity. Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity. As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it. It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.
Grace and Nature
It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said. Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.” This is more than just “saying the same thing.” If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace. It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace. In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace. Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on. This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.
What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life. It is grace that comes first. No amount of work on our part can change that. Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are. Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life. All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy. It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through. Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.
What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved. The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined. We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous. We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act. For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized. It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.
Temptation from its Proper Perspective
Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light. Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more. It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue. Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.” Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality. But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness. Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue. It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.
Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations. It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good. If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it. This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations. What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.” This is not only not true, but also counterproductive. God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts. But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us. Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow. No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.
Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said. It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on. Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth. Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue. The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.
We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly. As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1). “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.” We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it. Unfortunately, Jung was wrong. Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.