St. Ephrem, a deacon and theologian who lived in the 4th century, was pondering the question of why God allows good people to be tempted; after all, he thought, it would seem reasonable that He would want to spare His children this difficulty, thereby making it less likely they would sin and turn away from Him. That night Ephrem had a dream which answered his question. He dreamt he was walking down the streets of a large and very sinful city. As he passed through the gate he saw a devil on the wall, half asleep; instead of actively tempting the inhabitants of the city, only now and then did the evil spirit look around briefly before resuming its slumber. Ephrem next walked out into the desert, where he found a hermit—a very holy man—molested by a swarm of devils. This astonished the saint, and he protested, “Are you not ashamed of yourselves, you filthy creatures? Here you are so many against one, while in that wicked city there is only one of you, and he is half asleep all the time.” The demons answered him, “It’s true we don’t have to try very hard in that evil city; one of us there is more than enough to maintain our control. But here there aren’t nearly enough of us, for this holy man, through his prayers and penance, is doing us an immense amount of harm” (Fr. Francis Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples for the Catechism, p. 126). In this way St. Ephrem learned an important spiritual truth that many saints have emphasized down through the centuries: being tempted is a good sign, for it shows that we’re on the right path and that the devil regards us as a threat. Moreover, temptations are a wonderful opportunity to grow in holiness and to fulfill our mission from God.
Under God’s original plan, all human beings would have known Him intimately while living a life of perfect balance and happiness; fulfilling our mission on earth was to have been very easy and natural. Sin changed all this, introducing struggle and suffering into the world. As a result, it’s now difficult and painful to achieve our ultimate purpose in life; there’s always a price to be paid if our mission is to be completed. This was true for Jesus Himself, even though He was free of all sin; the Gospel of Mark (1:12-15) states that He began His public ministry by proclaiming God’s good news of salvation, calling upon people to repent and believe. Before He could do this, however, He had to go off into the desert for forty days of prayer and fasting, during which He was tempted by the devil; moreover, at about the same time John the Baptist was arrested, foreshadowing the suffering and rejection Jesus Himself would endure. There’s always a price to be paid for doing God’s will, for Satan does everything possible to thwart the unfolding of God’s plan. He couldn’t prevent this in the case of Jesus, and he will also be powerless against us if we remain rooted in God’s grace. The Lord protects those who trust in Him, as happened with Noah and his family (Genesis 9:8-15); their mission was to repopulate the earth after the great flood, and St. Peter (1 Peter 3:18-22) describes the flood as a symbol of the waters of baptism, which wash away sin and enable us to have a clear conscience as we answer God’s call.
As many of the saints learned, it’s very natural to be tempted once we’ve decided to center our lives around God’s will. St. Francis de Sales was called by the Lord to the priesthood, but just before his ordination, he was afflicted with severe doubts and tormented by thoughts of his own unworthiness. Recognizing this as Satan’s attempt to interfere with his vocation, Francis decided to persevere and trust in God’s mercy and strength, and went on to become a great bishop and spiritual leader. In the 4th century a wealthy young woman named Euphrasia, upon inheriting her family estate, released her slaves, gave her fortune to the poor, and entered a convent. Even though she was answering the Lord’s call, she was severely tempted to undo this decision and return to the world; her abbess helped her persevere by assigning her difficult and humbling tasks, such as moving a large pile of stones from one place to another—thirty times. St. Euphrasia’s obedience helped her conquer the devil’s temptations. Another saint—Peter of Verona, a 13th century Dominican, had to learn this lesson. He developed a great love for severe penances, so the devil subtly suggested he was becoming holy in this manner, and urged him to undertake even more of them—but without telling his spiritual director. Peter acted upon this apparently holy suggestion, only to cause his health to fail—so from then on he was careful to practice only those forms of penance allowed by his superiors.
Perseverance, humility, and obedience not only help us recognize, avoid, and overcome the devil’s snares and deceptions, but actually assist us growing in grace because of them. Therefore, we don’t need to be afraid; as St. Mechtildis said, “Temptations cannot harm you any more than gnats can destroy a mountain,” and as Padre Pio noted, “If the devil makes a din, he is still outside [your soul] and not inside at all.” In fact, as the holy French priest St. John Vianney stated, “The greatest of all evils is not to be tempted, because there are then grounds for believing the devil looks upon us as his property.” Temptations are proof that Satan doesn’t control us, and opportunities to give our lives even more completely to God. St. John Vianney offers this analogy: “During the harvest season the harvesters rise early and work hard, but they do not complain, since it is a question of making money. Temptation is the season of spiritual harvest.” Just as athletes become stronger and better-conditioned through constant exercise, so we can become spiritually stronger by struggling against our faults and resisting temptation; our progress won’t always be visible, but—as long as we don’t give up—it will exist, and will be pleasing to God. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow after Him, and this involves resisting temptations with His help, immediately seeking His forgiveness when we fail, and using His grace to learn from our mistakes and to do better the next time. Those who make this effort can become a powerful sign of God’s love and truth in the world. Our ongoing growth in holiness, one small step at a time, gives the Lord more opportunities to use us for His glory and for the well-being of others, while at the same time giving us a greater experience of inner peace and a deeper sense of meaning in life. Right now, major league baseball players are beginning spring training in preparation for opening day. These coming weeks of Lent can be a kind of “spiritual spring training” for our souls—and by making good use of them, we can be certain that, no matter what temptations we’re enduring, we are on the path that leads to eternal life.