Temptations Are Just Bad Solutions
In the drama of fidelity and temptation, we find ourselves wanting in trust, obedience, and constancy. But we never find ourselves wanting in grace, because Jesus, who is perfectly united to the Father, is also within us through baptism, the Eucharist, and our prayer lives. He is with us in the desert to defeat sin with filial obedience.
The problem with temptations is that they do not appear as temptations. They appear as sane, rational responses to our needs or desires. Our disordered passions and appetites collude with our fallen intellect to find “solutions” to all kinds of problems: hunger, loneliness, pain, lack of control, annoying people, injustice, and even people who ignore the Gospel. And Satan is only happy to offer these solutions to our frail human nature. Jesus, after all, was done with his forty days fast. All Satan suggested was that he use his legitimate powers to make bread. It wasn’t as if he had to murder someone to get that bread. If Jesus would have worshiped Satan, perhaps he could have laid claim to the entire human race – the very thing he was trying to redeem – and turned them back to God. The greatest end certainly would justify the means, right? And ff he jumped off the temple, he would have shown his power of self-preservation to a nation which was in continual legitimate fear of its own demise.
The problem with these solutions is that they are detached from our trusting relationship with our Father, and they become ends in and of themselves. The man who is lonely and looks at pornography only satisfies his loneliness for a brief moment, but is ultimately left with a greater chasm between himself and authentic personal contact. The woman who manipulates another person in order to achieve an otherwise good end has really only distanced herself from her ultimate goal, which is relationships of truth and honesty with God and others. The married couple who act impervious to the problems that other, more “sinful” families experience will, in the end, live a pristine, isolated existence from God and other sinners.
If we go into the desert of this world alone, with nothing but our frail humanity, we won’t really be alone. Satan will always be there to subtly tempt us, and we will never actually see him. We will just see “solutions,” then experience disappointment when these solutions frustrate our ultimate desires. He will present new solutions to these problems – look at porn again, get angrier or more manipulative, grow more steadfast in your righteousness. Infidelity to God is cyclical both in world history and in our personal lives.
These “solutions” can also arise when we are frustrated with our own failures and become intimately familiar with our core weaknesses. You’re never going to be chaste, so you might as well give in. You’re never going to be able to love this person, so you might as well treat them poorly. You’re never going to actually be a saint, so you might as well play a cheap imitation of one so that you at least get the satisfaction of others’ praise in place of that elusive heavenly glory.
We can hear God’s voice resounding in our frail human hearts, calling us his “beloved in Christ.” This is just the beginning. This voice comes to us through the Spirit, who then leads us out into the desert to strengthen that love in and through Christ. There we will hear another voice, the voice of the tempter who offers all kinds of “solutions” that make perfect sense to our fallen humanity, but which would separate us from that loving voice of the Father. The Father’s voice may be silent for a time as love is tested, but our obedience, like Christ’s, will speak louder than words. Jesus didn’t need to say anything to argue against Satan in the desert, who “departed from him for a time.” His final argument with him was on the cross, where He persisted in his obedience despite rational objections: “Save yourself! Come down from the cross, that we may see and believe!” The final word is the Word, the core of whose “being” is “obedience,”according to Romano Guardini. In the end, self-preservation and all the other benefits of Satan’s rational solutions fall far short of the everlasting desire of our hearts: union with our loving Father. And this union turns everything back over to us: pleasure, intimacy, joy, and peace.
The lives of many saints could be described as one failure after another, each the result of an irrational decision to be humble, obedient, and dependent on God’s providence. St. Francis Xavier, for instance, was continually moved away from his successful endeavors to assignments that didn’t make sense, while his successors dismantled the good work he had done. His only desire was to save souls, and this seemed to be continually frustrated. He even died, abandoned by his countrymen, without having reached China. Despite being now known for all his great successes, he continually failed in his life. “No, St. Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the East, was not wholly a success; had he been that he would have failed to resemble his Master, the Failure of Calvary. And in that very failure, more than in all his triumphs, is the real greatness of the saint to be found. For through it all he never once flinched or surrendered” (Alban Goodier, Saints for Sinners). Francis rejected the rational solutions to give up, or at least disobey his superiors and take back the work that others messed up. Had he done this, he would never have saved so many souls, because he would have distanced himself from Christ, the poor and obedient one who abandoned himself to his Father’s will.
If we go looking for solutions – no matter how good or seemingly justified – outside of our Father’s will, we will never find them. But if we give up everything to hear and do his will, we will gain more than everything. We will be with him forever, and we will save souls.