Saint Luke begins the story about Our Lord’s temptation in the desert saying,
How striking it is that Our Lord was “led” into the desert where he would be “baptized by the fire of temptation” as one exegete puts it. Moreover he was led by the Spirit!
But you might ask,
What spirit led him to be tempted?
Saint Gregory clears up any doubt about what spirit it was that led Him saying,
Some doubt what Spirit it was that led Jesus into the desert, for that it is said after, “The Devil took him into the holy city.” But true and without question agreeable to the context is the received opinion, that it was the Holy Spirit; that His own Spirit should lead Him thither where the evil spirit should find Him and try Him.
In other words it was not the devil that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted.
It is easy to imagine that an evil spirit, the devil, would lead us to be tempted, but seems a little strange to say this of the Holy Spirit! But it seems clear that it was indeed the Holy Spirit that was leading Our Lord into the wilderness. And it also seems clear that among the reasons for this excursion was precisely that Our Lord be confronted with these “temptations.”
Now why on earth would the Holy Spirit do this? And does this have any bearing on us? Does Our Lord set us an example even here?
Of course he does!
St. John Chrysostom gives five marvelous reasons why temptation is good for us!
Whoever thou art then that after thy baptism sufferest grievous trials, be not troubled thereat; for this thou receivedst arms, to fight, not to sit idle. God does not hold all trial from us;
first, that we may feel that we are become stronger;
secondly, that we may not be puffed up by the greatness of the gifts we have received;
thirdly, that the Devil may have experience that we have entirely renounced him;
fourthly, that by it we may be made stronger;
fifthly, that we may receive a sign of the treasure entrusted to us; for the Devil would not come upon us to tempt us, did he not see us advanced to greater honours.
Now, after reading this, who would not want to be tempted?
We are tempted so that we may feel the strength that we have obtained through God’s grace. We are tempted to remind us that we must continually rely on God’s grace and not on our own strength. When we overcome temptation (hopefully) God makes the devil know who is in charge. When we are tempted, and never beyond our strength, God provides us with an opportunity to exercise the strength that we have gained and thus become stronger. And finally, when we are tempted, we are reminded that the Devil still thinks that we are targets.
In other words, temptation is a sign to us that we are still in the fight! I find that consoling!
What St Gregory says makes sense especially when we remind ourselves of the root meaning of temptation. The word comes from the Latin, ‘tentatio, tentationis 3rd declension (f)’ as our second year Latin students would know. It means a “trial.”
A tentatio is the sort of thing that athletes prepare for. It is the contest. It is the race or marathon that explains why so many runners spend a frightful number of hours in training. The professional runner does not say, “Do not let me run the marathon!”
A tentatio is the big recital or performance on stage for which musicians practice. The rising virtuoso does not say, “Do not ever let me play in the National Piano Competition!”
A tentatio is the end of semester exam which serves as a culmination of studies for students everywhere. Even students do not say, “Please let me never take the final exam!” Well, actually, I guess I have heard this from one or two students. We will put this down to their youth. Thankfully, students have no choice in the matter.
Now when we look at it this way, “temptation” seems like a positive thing doesn’t it?
Why then does Our Lord teach us to say “Lead us not into temptation?”
Well, now we must be emphatically clear that there is a radical difference between the words “Lead us not into temptation” and “Do not let us be tempted.”
On the one hand, it now appears from Our Lord’s example to us that temptation is something that we all need to confront and even must willingly face, having been led by the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, we say, “Lead us not into temptation.”
St. Thomas Aquinas‘ tells us what these words (which are an excellent translation from the Greek) mean, when he says,
How can we interpret this otherwise if we are to imitate Our Lord in every thing?
Maybe it’s not such a good idea to search out temptations. But, rather, we might count it a sign of God’s continued blessings when he allows us to be tempted. And I suppose, we might have a significant reason to worry should we find ourselves no longer confronted by temptations.
Temptations are a sign that we’re still standing!