People often have a hard time making a distinction between having a temptation and committing a sin. Jesus was tempted, but never sinned. Temptation comes from the outside and is the work of the devil. But when we assent to it, then it becomes a sin.
We can get sloppy with our thinking about this and fail to see the careful planning that the Evil One puts into having us abandon virtue and commit vice.
Some of the greatest writings on virtue and vice have come from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church. They were men and women who fled the temptations and vice of the world to live solitary lives in the desert as monks, nuns and hermits in imitation of St. Anthony of Egypt. In Italian he is called San Antonio Abbate, St. Anthony the Abbot, whose feast we celebrate each June on Ditmars Blvd. This St. Anthony lived in the 4th century; and a Portuguese Franciscan named Fernando chose him his patron saint in the 13th century, becoming St. Anthony of Padua, named after the place of his death.
These heroic men and women developed a kind of desert spirituality that has influenced the Eastern and Western Church for centuries.
It was the Desert Fathers and Mothers that provided us with this understanding of how we fall into sin, written in the famous set of books called the ‘Philokalia’, or ‘Love of the Beautiful and Good’ in Greek. From their writings, we find the process of how we sin:
1. There is a Provocation or a temptation that hits us from the outside. This comes from the Devil and we are not responsible for it. Even Jesus, the sinless one, had these temptations.
2. However, if we are not careful through a continual watchfulness, this Provocation can cause a Disturbance because it goes against everything that we believe. This dissonance, if not dealt with quickly, begins to make us responsible for the process from here on.
3. We then Couple with the thought and we begin to ‘entertain’ it (and it us!). We are then growing in our control over assenting to this temptation and therefore in our moral responsibility; we are making it our own.
4. In the quiet of our minds, we then Assent to it and resolve to do the evil action if we have the opportunity and can get away with it. This means that we intend to do it and it has become a full-blown sin. It need not be an outward action, as the Lord Himself warned us of committing adultery in the heart (Mat 5:27-29).
5. If we have a habit of sin, then this Prepossesses us and injects passion so we can accomplish this sin. This brings us a lot of pleasure, even at the thought of it.
6. We then Commit the sin and of course all hell breaks loose! While it is relatively hard to do the sin the first time, it gets easier and easier as it becomes habitual. In fact, it gets so easy to do that we enter the land of addictions.
What is most important regarding the process that I just described is that it can take a long time or it can be done in the blink of an eye. Thus, time is of the essence!
We need to be able to fight this very intelligent and ferociously-committed being who is intent on destroying our relationship with God.
It is not enough to say a Hail Mary and then hope for the best. Satan is a former angel with immense powers of intellect and will. And, most importantly, he wants to destroy us! To counter his strategy with an equally strong and active strategy is the only way to fight him. Jesus Himself had to expose his lies and partial truths, not just in his 40 days in the desert, but throughout his earthly life. For He was tempted in every way that we are, but never sinned.
Thus, the Desert Fathers and Mothers tell us to be watchful, that one has to constantly scan the horizons of our lives to be able to deal with the demonic assaults against us.
Moreover, to truly engage in the strategy against the devil, we have to pray unceasingly as St. Paul recommends (1 Thess 5:17). Prayer is our defense, but the real prayer of conversation and communication with God; of being in His presence at all times in our lives. It is our helmet, our breastplate and armor, our sword and shield (Eph 6:11).
Works of mercy and fidelity to Church teaching are our counter assault. Carefully planned and executed, works of charity and love cuts into Satan’s kingdom and causes his forces to panic and run.
It may seem odd to use these military allusions except for the fact that they very accurately convey the tenor of the struggle with evil. We are in a battle for our eternal life, and so that hymn urges us: “Crown Him (Christ) in temptation’s hour, Let His will enfold you in its light and power!” (At the Name of Jesus, R. Vaughan Williams).