Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, we read about the temptations of Jesus in the desert of Judea. This year, we read the very short version in the Gospel of Mark. Saint Mark tells us that “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and He remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” In the other Gospels, we read in more detail about the three temptations of Jesus by the devil.
Jesus withstood the temptations of the devil. He helps us to withstand the temptations to sin that can lead us away from God. We are comforted by the fact that Our Lord experienced temptation, that He entered into this domain of human life. We read in the letter to the Hebrews that “because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted” (2:18). We also read in that same letter: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15-16).
Our Lord allowed Himself to be tempted. He has set us an example of resisting temptation with the help of grace. Out of love for us, the Son of God was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin. He taught us to pray to the Father “lead us not into temptation.” This is the sixth petition of the Our Father.
Have you ever found this petition strange, to ask God not to lead us into temptation? Surely, God does not lead anyone into temptation. In the New Testament letter of Saint James, we read: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).
Temptation is the invitation to do evil, to sin. God abhors evil, so we cannot say that God leads us into temptation to do evil. God wants to set us free from evil. So what does the petition “lead us not into temptation” mean? It means “do not let us yield to temptation.”
God allows us to be tempted, but not beyond our strength. God allowed the devil to tempt Job as a test of his faith. But God did not abandon Job in this trial. And Job grew and made real spiritual progress through this process of purification. Job did not lose his faith in God even in the deep darkness of his suffering.
Saint Paul wrote the following in his first letter to the Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (10:13).
Scripture teaches us that there are three sources of temptation: the flesh, the world, and the devil. The flesh represents the craving of our appetites which can become disordered and, consequently, sinful. That is one of the reasons why fasting and other penances help us in controlling our appetites. The world is really our self-centered desire to use things or people without regard to salvation and the honor and glory of God.
The third source of temptation is the devil. Unfortunately, many do not believe in the existence of the devil or diabolical spiritual beings. The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that “the devil’s most cunning trick is to convince us that he does not exist.” In 1972, Blessed Pope Paul VI surprised many when he said that one of the greatest needs in the Church today is “the defense from that evil which is called the devil.” Paul VI said that “Evil is not merely a lack of something, but a positive agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting… It is a departure from the picture provided by biblical and Church teachings to refuse to acknowledge the devil’s existence. … Or to explain the devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown cause of our misfortunes.” Pope Francis, sharing Pope Paul’s concern, speaks often about the devil and his lies.
We are deceiving ourselves, or the devil is deceiving us, if we think Satan does not exist. Saint John’s Gospel calls him “the father of lies” (8:44). The Book of Revelation calls him “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).
Whatever the source of temptation in our lives (the flesh, the world, or the devil), we pray to God the Father: “lead us not into temptation,” that is, don’t allow us to take the way that leads to sin. Don’t let me yield to temptation. Help me, Lord, to say no to the devil’s lies, no to selfish desires, no to hurting myself and my neighbor. Help me to say yes to You, yes to life, and yes to love.
The following reflection from our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a practical interpretation of the sixth petition of the Our Father. Pope Benedict writes that when we pray “lead us not into temptation,” we are saying to God:
“I know that I need trials so that my nature can be purified. When you decide to send me these trials, when you give evil some room to maneuver, as you did with Job, then please remember that my strength goes only so far. Don’t overestimate my capacity. Don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.”
During Lent, we do battle with the temptations that have their sources in the flesh, the world, or the devil. Victory is only possible through prayer and with the help of God’s grace. May the Lord strengthen us in this battle. Let us with confidence approach the throne of grace, asking the Lord to “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. Amen.”