Lead Us Not Into Temptation

We are all experts when it comes to temptation, but sadly we are all failures at it as well.


March 13, 2024

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When it comes to temptation, we are all experts. It is a subject we’ve all mastered, a class we could all teach. It is also, quite paradoxically, an area of our lives where failure is all too frequent. The teacher is no better than the pupil; indeed, they are two sides of the same coin. 

I mean, who among us has not felt even the least fleeting guilt awakened by the gap between the virtues he professes and the vices he practices? Is there no one out there unmoved by the greatness to which in our best moments we aspire, followed by the misery in which we are so often mired? With the exception of the Blessed Mother—“our nature’s solitary boast,” the poet Wordsworth reminds us—we’ve all got blood on our hands. Why else would Christ be dying for the human race if every member of it had not already conspired to crucify Him? 

And so, whether we give in or succeed for a time in making it go away, there is no way out, no escaping the net of temptation. Not even cynicism is an option. When Oscar Wilde blithely announced, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” he was just being clever. “I can resist anything,” he would amusingly add, “but the temptation to make a clever witticism.”

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The experience of being tempted, therefore, is an event applicable to everyone; not even the youngest of children have been spared, who, if we are to believe St. Augustine, do not sin only for want of opportunity. Why even our Blessed Lord was tempted—not once, but repeatedly. What matters, of course, is what to do when it happens. And far too often, of course, we fail either to resist at all, thus turning our sins into habits that seriously threaten the soul, or when we do offer some resistance, however tepid, the result is often a kind of despairing moralism that knows its weakness too well to imagine that it will ever fully get over it. We fail either to resist at all, thus turning our sins into habits that seriously threaten the soul, or when we do offer some resistance…the result is often a kind of despairing moralism that knows its weakness too well.Tweet This

Why is that? Could it be that in asking God, “Give me grace this day to resist temptation in every way,” we’re not really asking the right question, entreating God for the right thing? The very thing, in other words, that would prove greater even than the most vaunted strength we manage to summon in resisting this or that temptation? 

Meeting the darkness head-on may not be the smartest move, is what I’m saying. Sure, it’s the heroic gesture, the defiant blow struck against the forces of evil that are so often and dangerously arrayed against us. But why exactly should we forever be feeling the need always to keep them at bay? Have they got some hold on us that requires us to be constantly swatting them away? Why not ask instead that God show Himself in such a way that whatever sin we’re being tempted to commit will find itself all at once stripped of its false glamour? That our eyes will be bathed in such heavenly light that we can no longer even see the sin, much less succumb to its spurious seductions?  

Might that not be a better strategy? It would certainly prove less exhausting. Besides, what good have the sins we’ve committed done us anyway? On the scale of being which measures the weight of all that is, they are nothing, love’s shadow, no more. Why, then, should we give sin a stage on which to perform its nothingness? It is, to analogize, no more than an empty plate on which no food will ever appear. Why should we be expected to pay for a meal we will never eat, a nothing burger no less? Never mind that the restaurant happens to be crowded and raucous, there is yet no there there. 

In a beautiful hymn composed back in the fourth century by St. Ambrose called “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” there is among its many stanzas one that petitions God for that very thing which, by its sheer intensity of light, will deprive sin of all its seeming sweetness and delectability:  

The Father too our prayers implore,
Father of glory evermore,
The Father of all grace and might,
To banish sin from our delight…

Think of it! A grace enabling the soul, as Ambrose exhorts us to ask of God, “To banish sin from our delight.” In other words, to become not just indifferent to the false glamour of sin but to be so riveted upon God, so engulfed by the divine glory shining upon the face of Christ, that sin has no more foothold than, say, the appeal of feces to a man intent on enjoying a filet.  

This is the lesson that Dante, the Pilgrim-Poet, imparts in the course of his long journey up the Mount of Purgatory in that great middle section of The Divine Comedy. It is no easy slog. But the outcome will set him free, blessedly and finally free—not just from the practice of sin, which is the whole point of the journey in the first place; to rid him altogether of sin is why he has come at all. But, more importantly, it will free him from any lingering memory of its once savored pleasures. That will prove the sweetest, the most satisfying liberation of all.

And so, on reaching the very summit, he falls into a swoon of such sorrow for his sins that he loses consciousness altogether. Upon awakening, however, he feels the presence of another, of one who has made the journey herself and who has come now to offer him comfort in his distress. But not only that. What she has really come to do is to draw him into the sacred stream where forgetfulness of sin awaits him. She is Matilda, of course, the first of the redeemed souls to ascend the Mount of Purgatory following Christ’s complete victory over sin and death. Thus, she is given the task of immersing all those who have made the journey into those same purgative waters that once cleansed her. “’Hold fast!’ she said, ‘Hold fast’!

She had drawn me into the stream up to my throat, and pulling me behind her, she sped on over the water, light as any boat.

Nearing the sacred bank, I heard her say in tones so sweet I cannot call them back, much less describe them here: “Asperges me.”

It is the prayer of absolution of which the psalmist speaks, asking God to purge him with hyssop that he may be whiter than snow. Do it now, he seems to be saying. He cannot wait. It is that holy impatience to be made pure, to ask the Lord to plunge us into the waters of new life, to open up vistas of delight that allow us always to begin again. The perfect Lenten prayer…


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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