Although we should do what we can to avoid the temptations we are able to foresee, temptations will nevertheless arise that we are unable to avoid. These we are called to resist.
The first measure in resisting temptation is to seek the help of God. If we think that we must resist all temptation by the sheer force of our will, we will fail. St. Francis de Sales compares the soul facing temptation to a child who encounters a bear in the woods. The first thing the child does is to call for the help of his parents. Likewise, we should not hesitate to call on God. “Turn your heart towards Jesus Christ crucified,” St. Francis advises, “and making an act of love to Him, kiss His sacred feet. This is the best way of overcoming the enemy, whether in little or great temptations.” It is good that we should accustom ourselves to doing this whenever temptation arises. Remember, the devil wants to draw us away from God. If “he perceives that his temptations only provoke us the more to that divine love,” St. Francis explains, “he will cease to attack us” (4, 9).
If the big temptations we face can be compared to bears, St. Francis says the small ones might be compared to flies or gnats. “Doubtless bears and wolves are more dangerous than flies, but they do not cause us so much annoyance and irritation” (4, 8). I’ve lived close to the Smoky Mountain National Park for my entire adult life and have only rarely seen bears. But I encounter flies nearly every time I step outside (and not infrequently inside).
These smaller temptations are still dangerous because they are more common. Yielding to any one may not be a great matter, but they can weaken us over time by their sheer number. St. Francis writes:
It is an easy thing to abstain from murder, but it is very difficult to avoid those angry outbursts which are incessantly aroused within us. It is an easy thing to abstain from adultery, but it is not so easy to be wholly and ceaselessly pure in word, look, thought, and deed; an easy matter not to steal what belongs to another, but harder never to long after and covet it; easy not to bear legal false witness, but hard never to tell lies in our ordinary conversation. (4, 8)
Keeping the commandments is no great burden. The rich young man boasted to Jesus that he has kept the commandments all his life (Matt. 19:20; Luke 18:21). He had not committed idolatry, dishonored his parents, committed murder or adultery, or lied to or stolen from his neighbor. So he was not a complete jerk. Jesus calls us to greater things than merely not being sociopaths. He calls us to holiness. This is why He is concerned with matters of the heart. It is not enough simply not to murder or commit adultery. We should not hate or lust. Our Lord calls us to eradicate the seeds of sin in our heart before they take root and grow (see Matt. 5:21–30). Thus, we should diligently resist small temptations as well as large ones. And if we habitually resist the small ones, the large ones won’t be as tempting. St. Francis says the most effective way to combat these small daily temptations is by
“not allowing them to torment us; for although they annoy us, they cannot do us any real harm so long as we are firm in our resolution to serve God. . . . Let them hum and buzz about your ears as they will, and attend to them no more than you would to flies” (4, 9).
Don’t waste time arguing with the devil, St. Francis advises. Just give him the same answer Jesus offered during His temptation. “Get away, Satan! . . . The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10) (4,9). Let this answer be sufficient.
Meanwhile, “divert your mind by some useful, praiseworthy work, for as this enters and occupies your heart, it will banish temptations and evil thoughts” (4, 7). Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. An idle mind is his playground.
A more long-term strategy in learning to resist temptation involves seeking spiritual direction: The chief remedy against all temptations, great and small is to unfold the heart, and lay all its suggestions, inclinations, and feelings before our director; for. you may observe that the first pledge which Satan seeks to gain from the soul he seduces, is that of silence. (4, 7)
The devil does not want us to talk about the evil desires in our hearts. If we never admit them to others, it becomes easy not to admit them to ourselves. Thus, we never deal with them, and they are allowed to grow.
Spiritual direction is different from Confession. In sacramental Confession, what is important is to name your sins, repent of them, and receive absolution. Spiritual direction allows you to go deeper; not just “these are my sins” but “these are my sinful inclinations.” What temptations vex me in particular? From where do they arise? What aspects of my heart lead certain things to tempt me more than others? Why am I attracted to certain sins in this way? These are all questions that a spiritual director can help you to discern, but you must first be willing to unveil your heart dispassionately to him. If you are unable to find a good spiritual director, similar guidance can be found from a good confessor if you take care to confess not only sins committed in act but the sinful inclinations of your heart that make certain temptations difficult for you.
In either case, it is important for you to examine your heart to discern your particular weaknesses. As I mentioned in the last chapter, we each have our particular vices. No one is equally vicious in all areas. One person is more inclined to pride, another to sloth or envy. Growing in holiness requires self-knowledge. You should therefore, St. Francis writes,
“from time to time examine what passions predominate in your soul, and having ascertained them, let your way of life be altogether opposed to them in thought, word, and deed” (4, 10).
Take these disordered passions to prayer and consider how they are affecting you. Consider, especially, what value they will hold upon your death:
If you know that you have a tendency to vanity, often reflect on the misery of our present life, how these vanities will weigh upon your conscience on your deathbed, how unworthy they are of a noble heart, that they are a childish thing, and so forth…. If you are disposed to avarice, often reflect on the folly of this sin, which makes us the slave of that which is destined only to be our servant: remember that when death comes you must forsake all, and leave your riches in the hands of those who will squander them. (4, 10)
After reminding yourself of how foolish your vices are, you must “carefully practice the opposite virtue: and if occasions do not present themselves, go out of your way to seek them.” If you are predisposed to pride, perform frequent acts of humility; if you are predisposed to greed, find ways to be generous; and so forth. “Thus you will strengthen your heart against future temptation” (4, 10).
Art for this post on a reflection from “The Devout Life” by Deacon Matthew Newsome: Cover image used with permission; Featured image Detail of Peinture Eveque 03184 saint François de Sales en extase (Painting Eveque 03184 Saint Francis de Sales in ecstasy), Louis François Félix Musnier, 1700s, photographed by G. Garitan.