Temptation is the common plight of mankind. No one is immune. We might describe temptation as a strong attraction to something that is good, true, or beautiful or to things that merely seem to be good, true, or beautiful but truly aren’t. As the saying goes, not everything that glitters is gold. In fact we may know with great certitude that the thing that is tempting us only appears to be good but truly is not. We can know that something merely seems good but is actually deleterious yet ignore that certain knowledge and let temptation hold sway over us. But why do we let our senses be fooled by the mere appearance of goodness, truth, and beauty, why do we let that illusion of goodness whet our appetite, and why do we let our appetite overcome our certain knowledge that the thing we desire is not what it appears to be and is not worth craving let alone possessing? Simple weakness.
We are weak physically and spiritually, both consequences of Original Sin, that sin of Adam and Eve that deprives us of the original innocence and righteousness with which man was originally created. None of us was born innocent in the eyes of God because none of us has a claim on a relationship with God by nature. Adam and Eve, however, were created without our fleshly and spiritual weakness and they had a unique relationship with God. So, how did they succumb to temptation? How could they be tempted when God gave them all they needed and then some?
The simple answer is doubt. Possessing the truth, even with a high degree of certitude, still leaves room for doubt. Satan plants the seed of doubt in Eve when he asks “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) From the testimony of Genesis, God only told Adam the commandment regarding the forbidden fruit and did so before the creation of Eve. Thus, the doubt sown by Satan leads Eve to distrust of Adam. How does Eve know that God told this to Adam? How does she know whether or not Adam is telling the truth? When Satan assures them that they will not die and Eve eats the forbidden fruit and lives, Adam begins to doubt what God said and he begins to distrust his Creator. So he too falls to temptation.
But doubt does not lead only to distrust. Once distrust begins to blossom, pride rears its ugly head. Satan makes a false promise that plays on that distrust of God: “God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods” (Gen 3:5) It is as if Satan is saying that not only has God deceived you, He is cheating you of what is rightfully yours.
Satan uses this same gambit on Jesus. By saying “If You are the Son of God,” (Mt 4:3) he is trying to cause Jesus to doubt. Notice that Satan does not say ‘Since You are the Son of God,’ but uses ‘if’ instead. Only later when Satan offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” (Mt 4:8) does Satan appeal to pride. He is implying that God the Father has cheated Jesus by not giving Him dominion of the whole world. Jesus, being fully human while remaining fully divine, does not fall for Satan’s gambit. He is genuinely tempted because He is genuinely human. Being fully human, it is possible for Jesus to doubt, to distrust, and to embrace pride. Jesus does not fall for Satan’s temptation because He can infallibly discern all that is genuinely good, true, and beautiful.
Appearances of goodness, truth, and beauty do not deceive Jesus. But appearances can deceive us. So how do we protect ourselves from falling into temptation over something that merely appears to be good, true, and beautiful? We can do so only by referring to the ultimate source of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. We have to turn to God Himself. This was the fatal error of Adam and Eve. Under temptation from Satan, did they turn to their Creator? Wouldn’t God have answered had they cried out to Him? Won’t God answer if we cry out to Him through prayer? Won’t He answer us through the Scriptures and the teaching authority Jesus entrusted to His Church?
Even when we know God’s truth and are tempted to violate it, we also need to turn to Jesus’ example of self-mastery. He does not turn stones into bread because He has mastery of Himself. His human weakness doesn’t control Him. Self-mastery comes through practicing the virtues. That is one reason we have the disciple of Lent, to gain self-mastery. Self-denial fosters self-mastery.