“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.” —St. Matt. iv. 1.
Dearly beloved brethren, we must not be surprised that Jesus chose the desert as the place where He went to pray, for He loved solitude; nor ought we to be surprised that He was led there by the Holy Ghost, for the Son of God could have none but the Holy Ghost as His guide. But that He was tempted by the devil, and taken about on several occasions by the spirit of darkness, we would not dare to believe, if Jesus Himself had not told us so through the mouth of St. Matthew.
Yes, my brethren, instead of being surprised at these facts, we ought to rejoice over them, and be extremely grateful for them to our Saviour, who only wished to be subjected to these temptations so as to show us how to gain victory over them. How fortunate we are, my brethren! Since the Saviour, in His tender love for us, allowed Himself to be tempted, all we need do to gain victory is to desire to be victorious. That is the great advantage which we can gain from the temptations of the Son of God. What, then, is the subject of my discourse today? It is this: That temptation is necessary for us, because it teaches us to know ourselves.
I said that it is necessary for us to be subjected to temptation, for the reason that we must learn to know that in our own selves we are nothing. St. Augustine tells us that we ought to be thankful to God just as much for His protecting us in temptations as for His pardoning our various transgressions. If we have frequently the misfortune to be caught in the snares of the devil, we must look for the cause of this misfortune in the fact, that we rely too much on our own principles and ideas, and too little on our dear Lord. This is only too true. So long as nothing goes against us, so long as all our wishes are fulfilled, so long we are inclined to believe that nothing could cause us to fall; but we forget our own nothingness and our miserable weakness; we make the most fervent promises, and say that we would rather die than fall into temptation. An excellent example of this fact is furnished us by St. Peter, who said to our Lord: “Though all men shall be scandalized in Thee, I shall never be scandalized.” To show how insignificant a being man is when he relies upon himself alone, the Lord did not use as a medium a king or prince, but merely the voice of a servant-maid. One moment St. Peter was willing to give his life for the Lord, and the next he denied all knowledge of Him; yea, was even willing to swear to it.
O my Lord, what are we not capable of when left to ourselves! There are people who, according to what they say, seem to envy the saints, who took such heavy penances upon themselves. These same people think that it would be easy to do as much as these saints. When they read the life of a martyr, they say that they would be willing to suffer as much for the honour and glory of our dear Lord. What is the suffering of a moment, they say, in view of the eternal reward!
Now, what does God do to bring us to a knowledge of ourselves, to make us conscious of our unworthiness? He allows the devil to approach us. Look at that Christian, who envied those saints who were living on roots and herbs, and who made the heroic resolution to chastise his body with the same hardships; but, lo! a slight headache, the prick of a needle, causes him to break out in loud lamentations. Here he was ready to undergo all the penances the anchorites inflicted upon themselves, and there he is in despair over a little mishap. Look at that other one, who wishes to appear to be willing to devote his whole life to the service of God, no matter what torments he might have to encounter. And, behold, a calumny, a slander, yea, even only a cold reception or a slight wrong with which he meets, brings forth in his heart such a feeling of hatred of revenge and of dislike that he will not even look at his neighbour, and tries in every possible way to demonstrate what is uppermost in his heart. O my brethren, how little are we, and how wrong it is for us to rely upon our fine resolutions!
You see, then, my friends, that temptation is necessary to convince our mind of our unworthiness, and to prevent pride from becoming master over us. Now, you may think that the people who are the most tempted, are the drunkards, the slanderers, the unchaste, who wallow in the mire of their shame, or perhaps the misers. No, my brethren, these are not the people who are tempted the most. On the contrary, the devil may even try to restrain them, for fear that they may not live long enough to do evil and help cast souls into hell by their bad example. St. Augustine teaches us that the devil does not tempt such people particularly: he rather despises and neglects them.
But, you will say, who is it that is most tempted? I will tell you, and please give me your whole attention. It is those who are willing, with the grace of God, to. sacrifice everything for their poor soul, who are willing to renounce all those things which are generally striven for with great eagerness in this world. It is not only one devil who tempts them, but there are millions of them who try to ensnare them.
The first temptation, my brethren, which the devil prepares for those who have begun to be more zealous in the service of God, is the fear of man. They are afraid to show themselves. They shun those persons whose society they formerly frequented. If they are told that they have changed very much, they are ashamed! The question, “What will be said of me?” haunts them so, that they have no more courage to do good before the world. If the devil is unable to win them over through the fear of man, he excites in them extraordinary scruples. They are afraid that their confessions were not good; that their confessor does not understand them; that they are working in vain; that they will be lost anyhow; that they would gain just as much if they did not take any trouble.
Why, my brethren, is a person not tempted as long as he lives in sin and never thinks of his soul’s salvation, while, on the other hand, as soon as he changes his life, that is to say, as soon as he desires to give himself to God, hell is let loose upon him? Listen to St. Augustine: “This is the behaviour of the devil toward a sinner: He acts like a jailer who has several prisoners shut up in his prison. He leaves them quietly alone, because he has the key in his pocket, and he is convinced that they can not break out. This is his behaviour toward a sinner who does not think of leaving his sins: He does not trouble himself to tempt them. He would consider it as so much lost time; because he not only does not dream of letting them go, but he loads them with more chains. It would be so unnecessary to tempt them, he lets them live in peace, if one in mortal sin can have any peace. He hides their condition from them as much as possible until their death; but then presents to them the most frightful image of their life, so as to throw them into despair. But a person who has decided to change his way of living, and to give himself to God, that is quite another matter.” While St. Augustine lived in the state of sin, he hardly knew what it was to be tempted. He thought he was in peace, as he relates of himself; but, from the moment that he wanted to turn his back upon the devil, he had to struggle with the devil until he nearly lost his breath; and this continued for five years. He shed the bitterest tears, and performed the most severe penances. “I struggled with him,” he says, “in my imprisonment. At one moment I thought I was victorious; the next day I was defeated. This cruel and stubborn fight lasted five years. Then,” he says, “God gave me the grace to triumph over my enemy.”
These, my brethren, are the struggles which God permits His saints to undergo. Ah, my brethren, how much are we to be pitied when we are not violently tempted by the devil! According to all appearances, we are friends of the devil. He lets us live in a false peace. He lets us slumber under the pretence that we have accomplished so much good, that we have given alms, and that we have practised less wickedness than others. In fact, my brethren, ask any frequenter of the saloons if the devil tempts him. He will answer simply: “No; he does not bother me in the least.” Ask the vain girl what struggles she has? She will tell you smilingly that she has none; that she does not know what it is to be tempted. You see, then, my brethren, this is the worst of all temptations: Not to be tempted; that is the state of the soul which the devil has prepared for hell. If I might say so, he is careful not to tempt them for fear of recalling their past life and causing them to think of their sins.
I said just now, my brethren, that it is the greatest misfortune for a Christian not to be tempted, for we have good reasons for believing that the devil looks upon him as his own property, and that he awaits only the moment of his death to plunge him into hell. Nothing is easier of comprehension. Look at a Christian who works ever so little for the salvation of his soul. Everything that surrounds him incites him to evil. He can not even open his eyes sometimes without being tempted, in spite of all his prayers and works of penance. And an old sinner, who has perhaps been wallowing in sin for twenty years, will tell you that he is not tempted. Well, so much the worse for you, my friend, so much the worse! That fact alone ought to make you pause, that you do not know what it is to be tempted; for to say that you are not tempted is as good as to say there is no longer a devil, or he has lost his power over Christians. “If you have no temptations,” says St. Gregory, “then the devil is your friend, your guide, and your shepherd. If he now permits your life to flow on in peace, he will at the end of your life draw you down into the abyss.” St. Augustine says that the greatest of all temptations is not to be tempted; for such a one is abandoned by God, and delivered over to his passions, and will be lost.
I have said that temptation is necessary for us, to preserve us in humility and distrust of self, and to oblige us to take refuge with God. We read in history that a Superior said to a hermit who was violently tempted by the devil, “My friend, do you wish me to ask God to deliver you from these temptations?” “No, Father,” answered the hermit; “for they have the effect of keeping me continually in the presence of God, because it constantly necessitates my taking refuge with God, that He may stand by me in my struggles.” Meantime, my brethren, we can say that it is one of the surest signs that we are on the path to heaven, if we are tempted, no matter how humiliating the temptation may be. There remains only one thing for us to do, and that is to fight courageously, for temptation is the time of harvest, as the following example will prove. We read in the lives of the saints that a certain saint was so troubled by the devil during a long term of years that she looked upon herself as lost. God appeared to her for her consolation, and disclosed to her that she had gained more in these particular years than at any other time in her life. St. Augustine teaches that everything which we do without overcoming temptation is of very little value. Instead of being discouraged, therefore, we must, on the contrary, thank Almighty God, and fight courageously, because we are sure of the victory, and because we are certain that God will not give way to the devil, and that He will prepare for us the crown of glory which I wish you all. Amen.
Taken from The Sermons of the Cure of Ars