Why do the Gospels tell us that Jesus was tempted when we also know that He was without sin? The Letter to the Hebrews asserts that Jesus was “… one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
St. Thomas Aquinas offers one reason that Jesus was tempted, which is in order to strengthen us in our temptations (3a. 41, 1). Our temptations discourage us because we suspect they are indications of what we really want, our real self. While the temptation may be coming from part of ourselves, Jesus is showing us that we can say “no” to our impulses and desires, no matter how strongly we feel them.
One reason, we make little sacrifices during Lent, is to build up the habit of saying “no” to our impulses.
Every good thing we do, brings with it a temptation to give up when it seems to challenge us. I used to run in 10k races. It often happened that, about half way through the race, I began to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t remember why but I was too proud to give up. After the race, I usually filled in an application for another race.
Luke tells us that the temptation comes after Jesus has been filled with the Holy Spirit: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, where He was tempted by the devil” (Lk 4:1-2).
St. Thomas explains that this was “to warn us so that no one, however holy might think himself safe or free from temptation” (3a. 41, 1).
In fact, the book of Sirach says, “When you come into the Lord’s service, prepare to be tempted” (Sir 2:1). Athletes get strong as they compete. Thomas says “the devil assails with temptations even those who fast, and also those who are given to other good works” (3a. 41, 3).
Thomas Aquinas instructs us that those who seek to imitate Christ can expect to be temped: “Not only Christ was led into the desert by the Spirit, but all God’s children that have the Holy Ghost. For it is not enough for them to sit idle; the Holy Ghost urges them to endeavor to do something great: which is for them to be in the desert from the devil’s standpoint, for no unrighteousness, in which the devil delights, is there. Again, every good work, compared to the flesh and the world, is the desert; because it is not according to the will of the flesh and of the world” (3a. 41, 2, ad 2).
St Ambrose says that the devil envies those who strive for better things. Yet St. Thomas assures us that “the help of the Holy Spirit, who is the author of good deeds is more powerful than the assault of the envious devil (3a. 41, 2, ad. 2).
St. Augustine said that while Christ went through temptation to help us as our mediator in overcoming temptation but also to give us an example of overcoming temptation. The fact that the temptations may arise from ourselves should not undermine our resistance.
St. Thomas reminds us that Christ underwent temptation to give us confidence in His mercy (3a. 41, 1). He recalls that the Letter to the Hebrews said: “We do not have a high priest who cannot have compassion on our weakness but one who was like us in all things, except sin” (Heb 4:15).
Luke tells us: “When the devil had finished all this tempting he left Him, to await another opportunity,” which is usually seen as Jesus’ Passion. Thomas observes that, as Jesus was enduring His crucifixion, He may have been tempted against love for us: “He seemed in the later assault to tempt Christ to dejection and hatred of His neighbor” (3a. 41, 3, ad 3).
In the desert, Jesus’ temptations were to use His power to bring about nourishment for Himself and freedom from sin for us. Although these were very good things, they were temptations, as Thomas explains: “Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, not by powerful deeds, but rather by suffering from Him and His members, so as to conquer the devil by righteousness, not by power ((3a. 41, 1, ad 2).
St. Thomas acknowledges that a temptation comes in the form of a suggestion and suggestions are not made to everybody in the same way but towards things to which each person has a personal inclination.
The devil cleverly doesn’t immediately tempt spiritual persons to grave sins: “He begins with lighter sins, so as gradually to lead him to greater sins” (3a. 41, 4).
We bring on some of our temptations by ourselves, “…when a man causes himself to be near to sin by not avoiding the occasion of sinning. And such occasions of temptation should be avoided” (3a. 41, 2, ad 2)
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. References to Thomas have been taken from various questions and articles of the “second part of the second part” of the Summa. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.