Early in the 20th century, there was a man in Scotland—we’ll call him Owen—who, as a boy of fifteen, had fallen and broken his back. As a result, he was confined to his bed for the next forty years, all the while in terrible pain. Nevertheless, his faith in God was very strong, and he endured all his sufferings without complaint, offering them as a sacrifice to the Lord. People from the entire area visited him regularly—not only to express their support, but also to be encouraged by his heroic example of Christian patience and acceptance. One day a visitor asked Owen, “Doesn’t Satan ever tempt you to doubt God?” “Oh, yes,” Owen answered; “he does try to tempt me. I lie here and remember the fun things I used to do as a boy, and he whispers, ‘If God really cares for you, why did He take all those things away?’ Then I look out my window here and see some of my old classmates driving along in their carriages, and the devil says, ‘If God is so good, why does He keep you here all these years?’ Then, when I see an old friend walking by in perfect health, Satan practically screams at me, ‘If God truly loves you, why did He permit your back to be broken?’” The visitor asked, “Well then, what do you do when Satan tempts you like that?” Owen smiled and said, “I take the devil to Calvary, show him Christ on the Cross, point to His wounds, and ask, “There—isn’t that enough proof of His love for me?’ And because Satan was defeated there at Calvary in such a complete and humiliating way, he can’t stand to be reminded of it; he flees from me every time I go to the Cross” (Knight’s Master Book of 4,000 Illustrations, p. 674).
This is the best way to handle any temptation: keeping our focus on Christ, while remembering that He has already won the victory, and now invites us to share in it. As long as we remember what really matters, and cling to this truth with God’s help, sin and temptation will have no lasting power over us.
The devil is vastly more powerful and intelligent than we are, but God does not allow him to overwhelm us or trample on our free will. Therefore, Satan has to use all his devilish cunning to allure us, trick us, and trap us—and because he is truly an expert in doing so, we have absolutely no hope of ever successfully resisting him on our own. That’s why Jesus allowed Himself to be tempted: to give us an example of how we’re supposed to respond. The Gospel of Luke (4:1-13) shows us that Satan tempted Jesus in three different ways. In each case, Jesus didn’t give even the slightest consideration to his suggestions; He immediately rejected them. Our Lord didn’t bother arguing with the devil; He would have won that argument, but He knew we wouldn’t be able to do so. Instead, Jesus responded by using the Word of God to express the Will of His heavenly Father. Throughout His encounter with evil, Jesus kept the focus on God—and this is what Jesus wants us to do, for as long as we ignore all evil distractions, we cannot be led astray. This is the same idea behind the instructions Moses gave to the people (Dt 26:4-10)as they were about to enter the Promised Land: by continually recalling all the wonders the Lord had worked on their behalf, they would find it easier to avoid the temptations surrounding them. As St. Paul reminds us (Romans 10:8-13), “everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved”—but for this to happen, we must constantly ask for and use God’s grace. The Lord is eager to give us His wisdom, courage, and strength so that we might be victorious in our personal fight against evil—but we must have the presence of mind, the humility, and the desire to ask for these gifts.
One winter a first-grade teacher wanted to teach her class about the importance of bundling up properly before going out into the cold, so she told a dramatic story about a naughty boy who disobeyed his mother and went out sledding without wearing his mittens, cap, or snow suit. As a result, she said, the boy caught pneumonia and soon died from it. All the students seemed suitably horrified, and the teacher was sure the lesson had sunk in—but one boy raised his hand and said, “Mrs. Johnson, may I ask two questions?” “All right, Tommy, go ahead,” she replied, and the boy said, “Who has his sled now, and can I have it?” (Steve May, The Story File, p. 253). Many times we, in our human weakness and willfulness, are like Tommy: through Scripture and the teaching of the Church, Jesus is trying to warn us of something truly dangerous to our spiritual well-being, but we often miss the point; instead of focusing on the loving will of our heavenly Father, we let ourselves become distracted by temptations.
These forty days of Lent represent an opportunity to have our spiritual vision checked, or to undergo an “eye exam” for our souls; we have the chance to reflect on the things that really matter, and to make sure our priorities truly are consistent with these realities. It’s undeniable that each one of us is going to die, and then be judged, and then experience either everlasting joy and peace, or unending misery and horror—a destiny that we’re shaping for ourselves each and every day. We need to keep these truths in mind, and act accordingly—and throughout Lent, the Church offers us extra opportunities and resources for this purpose. We can use the booklets with daily reflections, set aside some extra time for prayer and Scripture reading, come to Mass during the week or to Eucharistic Adoration on Tuesday evening, attend Friday evening Stations of the Cross, or make a point of receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation—especially if it’s been several months or more since we last did so. We can express our genuine sorrow for sin through the Lenten acts of penance and charity we perform. Above all, we can ask the Lord to enlighten us about our personal weaknesses, and seek His grace to recognize the temptations we face, and learn how to overcome them with His help. Few of us will have to carry a terribly heavy cross for as long as Owen did, but all of us can learn from his example when it comes to resisting temptation. Our first impulse in every moral and spiritual difficulty must be to look toward the Crucified Christ, for the testimony of love given by the wounds He bears can help us keep in mind what truly matters. The only limits on Jesus’ love are those we place upon it—and this Lenten season is a chance for us to give Him all our love and all our trust.