by Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
In his study of The Lord’s Prayer (The Three Greatest Prayers, 1990, Sophia Institute Press), St. Thomas Aquinas, opens up a discussion as to the words: “And lead us not into temptation”. This line of the prayer taught to us by Christ has been spoken countless times throughout history, but how many times have people stopped and thought as to who or what is leading us to be tempted.
St. Thomas teaches us that the human condition is one of passion and energy but simultaneously it is also one of inconstancy. Most of us are only all too aware of our sins, and when our consciences are pricked, we see ourselves asking God for forgiveness, and seek repentance. We do this in earnest, because we know that the sin we commit is invariably destructive to our nature. Yet the problem lies in the necessary discipline, by which we avoid these occasions to sin in the future. It is as if we have some ‘sentimental’ bond with the dark side of our nature. We know that sin is not good for our Spirits – but we are caught between the devil, whom we know, with all his talons, and the deep unknown, with all its Goodness. Christ extends to us His hand, but how much do we trust that He can indeed lead us across the water to safety? It is easier to stay in the boat, even though it will sink for all the holes that are in it, and for all the water that is seeping through, then to die to self, and trust and hope. But it is in this trust and hope, in this dying to self, where there is the new life – the highest existence possible; the realization of what we were first made to be: to be sons of God, having called upon His name for rescue. (Cf. John 1: 12).
Temptation in itself, as St. Thomas argues, is a means by which the individual can prove or disprove their virtue. A man, in effect, can do good when God sometimes tempts him to test the love he has for Him. In this way, Abraham was tested to the point of sacrificing his son Issac; in this way, God allowed Job to be tested to prove his virtue. The Old Testatment speaks of this form of temptation in Deuteronomy, when it is written: “for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul”. (Deut. 13: 3, NRSV) In this first case of temptation, God is testing the individual as to whether they can do good deeds, as to whether they can prove their love for Him.
The second type of temptation as St. Thomas explains is that which is most often alluded to – when the devil, the flesh or the world seeks to turn a man away from virtue, to evil deeds. Similar to the science of immunization against disease, such a temptation can lead to a strengthening of virtue, if the individual can resist what is being offered. Yielding to this evil, weakens the individual, for now he has discovered that he has within himself, a chink in the wall, that if not soldered, can undo him. God cannot tempt an individual to do evil – the human person must choose for themself between goodness and evil, life and death. (cf. Deuteronomy 30: 19).
The sources of temptation St. Thomas lists, are: the flesh, the devil and the world. According to Aquinas the flesh always seeks to be gratified and therefore pulls a man away from spiritual things; and second, the flesh being finite, lacks courage and is fearful – drawing a man from spiritual goals. With regard the devil tempting man, The Tempter can thwart man, by deceiving him, teasing him that something evil, has the appearance of something good. Many centuries after Aquinas, the 16th century humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, would explain the way by which evil can sometimes mask itself behind goodness in the following manner: “For religion, while it is the best of all things, is also, the famous historian tells us, ‘the most convenient cloak for any vice you like to name, because if anyone tries to draw attention to the vices themselves he appears to many people to be attacking religion by which they are masked; and so it often happens that “evil oft lurks, masked by its neighbour, good’”. (Rummel, ed., 1990, p. 58) In such a way the angel of darkness disguises himself in the reflected light of the Angels of God. A good man can thus be brought down, thinking that something that appears to be good, is in fact far from it. Furthermore the converse is also possible, that a man begins to believe that by doing something that is initially evil – some good may come of it. St. Thomas Aquinas warns his audience, to be aware of the devil’s snares, for he is cunning. The second way in which the devil tempts a man, is by seducing him in the taste of his sin. Having fallen once, the devil makes him enjoy the bitter tang of his sin, turning him away from goodness, by making him think that goodness is in fact repugnant. The devil gives the man confidence in sin, thus preventing the individual from experiencing shame for his actions. Finally St. Thomas speaks about the world being a source of temptation. This the world can be by two means. First, by making the individual lust for earthly goods. That is not to say, people cannot desire the purchasing or acquisition of possessions, but that one can be driven in their desire for the earthly, to the point where they lose all sense of aspiration for the heavenly goal. St. Thomas Aquinas echoes here the words from the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, that the love of money, is in fact at the core of all temporal ills. (cf. 1 Tim. 6: 10). How often do we see people seduced by riches, losing their way morally and ethically? It is such a regular occurrence, that it is as if a person is bought heart and soul by the currency they desire. St. Thomas then proposes that the second means by which the world tempts a man, is by threatening him with oppression and persecution. The individual can thus fall a slave to sin by turning away from God because of a fear of earthly punishment. God becomes a secondary thought, to those who are fearful of pain and suffering being meted out on them. The level of fear these people have, determines how base they are prepared to be in order to escape harm. They may not believe in a particular manifesto that a dictator preaches – but they will carry out a thousand atrocities, up to that point, when they fear the dictator no more; or when the sin has engulfed them to that point where they begin to drown in their depravity, and in order to breathe – they must re-discover virtue.
St. Thomas concludes his chapter by saying that when we pray not to be led into temptation we are asking God for: His grace; for a heart filled with greater love; and for intelligence. By grace, we are given the strength to refuse consent when tempted; by love, we can refuse the devil – for he is the absence of love; and by intelligence, we can perceive the emptiness of what we are being tempted by – for as Aristotle has taught, all those who have fallen into sin, have done so by ignorance, for no man would ever acquiesce to evil, if in fact he were fully aware of the perdition of the choice thereof.