The Spiritual Life

A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology

Very Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey DD

Desclée & Co. Publishers, Tournai, Belgium

(Imprimatur, 1930)

Chapter V

The Struggle against Temptation

900. Notwithstanding the efforts we put forth to eradicate vice, we must expect temptations. We have spiritual foes, the world, the flesh, and the devil (n. 193-227), which cease not to lay snares for us. It is necessary, therefore, to treat here of temptation in general and of the chief temptations of beginners.


901. Temptation is a solicitation to evil on the part of our spiritual foes. We shall explain: 1° The providential purposes of temptation. 2° The psychology of temptation. 3° The attitude we must take towards temptation.

I. The Providential Purposes of Temptation

902. God Himself does not tempt us directly: “Let no man, when he is tempted, say that he is tempted by God. For God is not a tempter of evils: and he tempteth no man.” But He allows us to be tempted by our spiritual enemies, at the same time giving us the graces necessary to resist: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it.” And this for excellent reasons of His own.

1° He wants to make us merit heaven. Undoubtedly He could have bestowed upon us eternal life as a pure gift, but in His wisdom He has willed that we merit it as a reward. He even wills that the recompense be in proportion to the merit and hence in proportion to the obstacle overcome. Temptation, which imperils our frail virtue, is certainly one of the most trying hardships; to struggle courageously against it is one of the meritorious acts we can perform; and once we have triumphed with God’s grace, we can repeat with St. Paul, that we have fought the good fight, and that it only remains for us to receive the crown of justice which God has prepared for us. The more we have done in order to merit the crown, the greater shall be our honor and our joy.

903. 2° Temptation is likewise a means of purification. 1) It reminds us that through lack of vigilance and of effort in the past we have fallen, and it becomes thus an occasion for new acts of contrition, shame, and humiliation, which make for the purification of the soul. 2) It obliges us at the same time to put forth earnest and sustained efforts lest we fall; it makes us atone for our negligences and for our surrenders by the performance of contrary acts which further purify the soul. This is why when God wants to purify a soul more perfectly in order to raise it to contemplation, He allows it to undergo horrible temptations, as we shall see when treating of the unitive way.

904. 3° Lastly, temptation is an instrument of spiritual progress. a) It is like a stripe of the lash that awakens us at the moment we would lull ourselves to sleep and relax. It makes us realize the necessity of forging ahead, of not halting midway, but of ever aiming higher, the more surely to remove the danger.

b) It is a school of humility, of distrust of self. When tempted we realize more fully our weakness, our powerlessness; we feel more keenly the need of grace, and we pray with greater earnestness. We see all the better the necessity of mortifying in us the love of pleasure, the source of our temptations, and we embrace more eagerly the little crosses of every day in order to weaken the power of concupiscence.

c) It is the school of love of God; for to insure our power of resistance, we throw ourselves into God’s arms there to seek for strength and shelter; we are more grateful to Him for His unfailing grace; we act towards Him as children of a most loving Father to Whom we have recourse in all our trials.

Hence, temptation possesses manifold advantages and it is on this account that God allows His friends to be tempted: “Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove you.”

II. The Psychology of Temptation

We shall describe: 1° The frequency of temptation. 2° The divers phases of temptation. 3° The signs and degrees of consent.

905. 1° The Frequency of Temptation. The frequency as well as the violence of temptations vary greatly. Some persons are often and violently tempted; others are tempted but rarely and without being deeply stirred. There are many causes that account for such diversity:

a) First of all, there are temperament and character. Some persons are extremely passionate and at the same time weak of will; often tempted, they are upset by temptation. Others are well-balanced and energetic; seldom tempted, they keep their peace in the midst of temptation.

b) Education accounts for other differences: there are souls who have been reared in the fear and love of God, in the habitual fulfillment of stern duty, and who have almost invariably received none but good example. Others have been brought up in the love of pleasure, in the dread of any kind of suffering, and have seen too many examples of worldliness and sensuality. It is evident that the latter will be more violently tempted than the former.

c) God’s providential designs must also be taken into account. There are souls whom He destines for a holy calling and whose purity He shelters with a jealous care. There are others whom he likewise destines to sanctity, but whom He would have pass through severe tests in order to ground them in virtue. Lastly, others there are whom He does not destine to such a high vocation, and who will be more or less frequently tempted, but never beyond their strength.

906. 2° The Three Phases of Temptation. According to the traditional doctrine, as expounded by St. Augustine, there are three different phases in temptation: suggestion, pleasure and consent.

a) Suggestion consists in the proposal of some evil. Our imagination or our mind represent to us in a more or less vivid manner the attraction of the forbidden fruit; at times this representation is most alluring, holds its ground tenaciously and becomes a sort of obsession. No matter how dangerous such a suggestion may be, it does not constitute a sin, provided that we have not provoked it ourselves, and do no consent to it. There is sin only when the will yields consent.

b) Pleasure follows the suggestion. Instinctively our lower tendencies are drawn towards the suggested evil and a certain pleasure is experienced. “many a time it happens,” says St. Francis de Sales, “that the inferior part of the soul takes pleasure in the temptation, without there having been consent, nay against the soul’s superior part. This is the warfare which the Apostle St. Paul describes when he says his flesh wars against his spirit.” This pleasure does not, as long as the will refuses to consent to it, constitute a sin; yet it is a danger, since the will finds itself thus solicited to yield consent. The question then is: will it yield or not?

c) If the will withholds acquiescence, combats the temptation, and repels it, it has scored a success and performed a highly meritorious act. If, on the contrary, the will delights in the pleasure, willingly enjoys it and consents to it, the sin is committed.

907. 3° Signs of Consent. The better to explain this important point, let us see what are the signs of lack of consent, imperfect consent, and perfect consent.

a) We may judge that there has been no consent, if in spite of the suggestion and the instinctive pleasure accompanying it, we experience disgust, chagrin at seeing ourselves thus tempted; if we struggle so as not to be overcome; if we hold the proposed evil in horror; especially if we turn to God in prayer.

b) We may be culpably accountable for the temptation in its cause, when we perform an action which we could avoid, foreseeing that it will be to us a source of temptation: “If I know,” says St. Francis de Sales, “that some certain conversation leads me to temptation and to a fall, and I do voluntarily indulge therein, I am, doubtless, culpable of all the temptations that shall arise.” Yet, one is guilty only to the extent of one’s prevision, and if this is but vague and indistinct, the guilt is lessened in proportion.

908. c) One may consider consent to be imperfect:

1) When one does not repulse the temptation as soon as its dangerous character is perceived. There is then a fault against prudence, which without being grave puts us in the danger of consenting to the temptation.

2) When one momentarily hesitates. One would fain relish somewhat the forbidden pleasure, but one is loath to offend God, that is after a moment’s hesitation, one repels the temptation. Here again there is a venial fault of imprudence.

3) If temptation is resisted in a half-hearted way. One does resist, but in a feeble, indolent manner, a half-resistance which implies a half-consent, hence a venial fault.

909. d) Consent is full and entire, when the will, weakened by first concessions, lets itself be drawn to taste willingly the sinful pleasure, despite the protests of conscience, which recognizes the evil. In such case, if the matter be grievous, the sin is mortal; it is a sin of thought or “morose delectation,” as theologians call it. If to the thought is added desire, the fault is graver still. Lastly, if from desire one passes on to the act, or at least to the quest and pursuit of means adapted to the execution of one’s designs, then there is a sin of action.

910. In the different cases we have explained, doubts arise at times regarding the consent or half-consent given. Then we must make a distinction between the delicate and the lax conscience; when it is question of the former, one may rule out consent, for the person is not in the habit of yielding consent, and if he had consented in this particular case he would know it. When it is question of the latter, the presumption is that the person has given full consent, for if he had not, his soul would not be troubled.

III. Our Attitude Towards Temptation

There are three main things to be done, if we are to overcome temptations and make them redound to our profit: 1° we must forestall temptation; 2° fight it strenuously; 3° thank God after victory or rise up after a fall.

911. 1° Forestall temptation. We know the proverb that says: One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; this is but what Christian wisdom teaches. When Our Lord took the three Apostles into Gethsemane, He said to them: “Watch ye: and pray that ye enter not into temptation.” Watchfulness and prayer are the two great means of forestalling temptation.

912. A) To watch means to put a sentry, as it were, about the soul, lest it be taken by surprise. It is so easy to fall in an unguarded moment! This watchfulness implies two main dispositions: distrust of self and trust in God.

a) We must avoid that proud presumption that thrusts us into the midst of dangers, under pretense that we are possessed of sufficient strength to triumph over them. This was the sin of St. Peter, who at the moment Christ was prophesying the desertion of the Apostles exclaimed: “Although all shall be scandalized in thee, yet not I.” Let us, on the contrary, be mindful of the words of St. Paul: “Wherefore, he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall,” for if the spirit be willing, the flesh is weak, and safety lies only in the humble mistrust of self.

b) But, we must likewise avoid those vain terrors which only increase the danger. It is indeed true that of ourselves we are weak, but we are invincible to Him Who strengthens us: “And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it.”

c) This proper mistrust of self makes us shun all dangerous occasions, this or that association, such or such amusement, et cetera, which we know by experience expose us to fall. It declares war against idleness, one of the most dangerous of occasions (n. 885), as well as against that habitual indolence which relaxes all the springs of the will, and prepares it for every kind of surrender. This mistrust hold in horror those empty day dreams, which people the soul with a host of living phantoms that become threatening ere long. In a word, such mistrust leads to the practice of mortification, under the forms pointed out in nos. 767-817 [in the preceding sections], the compliance with our duties of state, the leading of an interior life, and the exercise of zeal. In such an intense spiritual life there is but little room left for temptation.

d) Vigilance should center round the soul’s weak point, since the onslaughts generally proceed from that side. In order to fortify this weak spot, we make use of the particular examination, which concentrates our attention during an appreciable length of time upon this defect, or rather upon the contrary virtue. (n. 468.)

913. B) To watchfulness we must join prayer, which, placing God on our side, renders us invincible. God is concerned in our success, for it is He Whom the devil assails in us, it is His work which he would wreck in us. We may, therefore, call upon the Almighty with a holy assurance, certain that He wants to help us. Any kind of prayer vocal or mental, private or public, prayer of adoration or prayer of petition, is good against temptation. One may, especially in times of calm, pray for help in the moment of temptation. When this moment does arrive, one has but to raise the heart to God in order to resist more successfully.

914. 2° Resisting Temptation. This resistance will vary according to the nature of the temptations. Some of these recur frequently, but are less serious; these must be treated with scorn, as St. Francis de Sales so well explains:

“As to these smaller temptations of vanity, suspicion, impatience, jealousy, envy, fond love, and such like trash, which like flies and gnats continually hover about us, and sometimes sting us on the legs, the hands or the face; as it is impossible to be altogether freed from them, the best defence that we can make is not to give ourselves much trouble about them; for although they may tease us, yet they can never hurt us, so long as we continue firmly resolved to serve God earnestly. Despise then these petty attacks, without so much as thinking of what they suggest. Let them buzz and hover here and there around you; pay no more attention to them than you would to flies.”

Here we concern ourselves chiefly with serious temptations. These must be fought promptly, energetically, perseveringly, and humbly.

A) Promptly, without parleying with the enemy, without any hesitation. At the outset the temptation is repelled easily enough, for it has not yet gained a foothold in the soul; if we wait until it has gained entry, the repulse will prove far more difficult. Hence, let there be no debate. Let us associate the idea of illicit pleasure with all that is repelling, with the serpent, with a traitor that wishes to ensnare us, and let us remember the word of Holy Writ: “Flee from sins as from the face of a serpent: for if thou comest near them they will take hold of thee.” We effect this flight by prayer and by turning our minds to something else.

915. B) Energetically, not indolently and with regret, for this would be like inviting the temptation to return, but with determination and vigor, showing the horror in which such a proposal is held: “Go behind me, Satan.” There are, however, different tactics to be employed, according to the kind of temptations that assail us: if it is question of those temptations to alluring pleasures, we must turn away from them and take to flight by concentrating our attention on any other matter calculated to engage our faculties. Direct resistance in such instances generally increases the danger. If it be question of temptations of aversion towards duty, of antipathy, hatred, human respect, the better course often lies in facing the difficulty squarely and honestly, and in having recourse to the principles of Christian faith in order to overcome it.

916. C) Perseveringly, for at times after having been routed temptation returns with renewed obstinacy, and the devil brings with him from the desert seven other spirits worse than himself. Equal tenacity, and not less, must be matched against this persistence of the enemies of our soul; he that fights unto the end, overcomes. To be all the more assured of victory we should make the temptation known to our spiritual director.

This is the advice given by the Saints, especially St. Ignatius and St. Francis de Sales: “For you must observe,” says the latter, “that the first condition that the enemy of salvation makes with a soul which he desires to seduce, is to keep silence; as those who intend to seduce maids or married women, at the very first forbid then to communicate their proposals to their parents or husbands; whereas God requires, when he sends inspirations, that we should make them known to our superiors and directors.” In truth, it seems as if a special grace were attached to this openness of heart. A temptation disclosed is a temptation half-vanquished.

917. D) Humbly. Humility attracts grace, and grace gives us the victory. The devil who sinned by pride, flees before a sincere act of humility; and the threefold concupiscence, that holds its power from pride, is easily overcome when by humility we have, so to speak, laid its head low.

918. 3° After temptation we must be on our guard against examining too closely whether we consented or not; such an imprudent course might bring about a recurrence of the temptation and create a new danger. Besides, it is easy to see from the testimony of our conscience, without any probing search, whether we came out victorious.

A) If we have had the good fortune of overcoming, let us thank God with our whole heart, God Who gave us the victory. This is a duty of gratitude, and the best means of obtaining new graces at the opportune moment. Woe to the ungrateful who, attributing to themselves the victorious issue, do not think of returning thanks to God! They will ere long be made to know from experience their own weakness.

919. B) If, on the contrary, we have had the misfortune of succumbing, let us not lose heart. Let us remember the welcome accorded the Prodigal Son, and let us, even as he did, cast ourselves at the feet of God’s representative, with the same heartfelt plea: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son.” And God, still richer in His mercies than the father in the parable, will give us the kiss of peace and restore us to His friendship.

In order, however, to prevent new falls, the repentant sinner will take the occasion of his fault to humble himself sincerely before God, to acknowledge his incapacity to do any good, to place his trust in God, to be all the more cautious, and return to the practice of penance. A fault thus repaired will not constitute a serious obstacle to perfection. Those who act thus, “rise,” as St. Augustine rightly remarks, “from a fall to be more humble, more prudent, more earnest.”

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