Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Set before you this day...Sin, Choice, and the Lesser of Two Goods

"Why is it that any time we speak of temptation we always speak of temptation as something that inclines us to wrong. We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad."

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

There are some things no one wants to talk about, death, taxes...our recent political cycle, but there's one thing that must be addressed by us all, temptation. We often feel powerless against it, and we can easily dismiss it as just a natural part of life that we can't be expected to overcome, but that sense of hopelessness in the face of sinful enticements is not of God. Rather, from God comes our power to overcome whatever temptation may sneak into our lives...and it does.

We know what we mean by temptation, even without great philosophical and theological discussion because we've experienced it. We know that we've all been there, sometimes conquered, other times failed, but always certain that it is unavoidable and about as miserable as sitting in your car during a hail storm, knowing there is nothing you can do to avoid it. St. Paul, who has something to say about almost everything, tells us that, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man" (1 Cor 10:13a). We've all been hit with this, and the Lord of all Creation is not exempt, for even Jesus was tempted in the desert by the Evil One. Now, there are some other typological things going on in that situation, but let's keep it simple; it was necessary for Him to be tempted, both to be faithful to the Father, whose son, Israel had been unfaithful, but also to show the rest of us how to overcome temptation, and that it was actually possible. The author of Hebrews himself tells us what we already know, "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (Heb 2:18). Even though Jesus is fully God, because of His human nature, being also fully man, it was necessary for Him to experience the full range of human weakness in order have the credibility we need to trust in His ability to help and model holiness for us.

As I said, we may not have the words to describe temptation at a logical level because nothing quite captures what we experience, for we, like St. Paul, know what we want on a spiritual level, but also what we want on the level of the flesh. We use the word "want" to describe both, and yet, we know that those two senses are fundamentally not the same, and they can't be because the matter (temporal and spiritual) and nature (finite and eternal) of the subjects of our desire are so very different and frequently contradictory. That said, there are some things we can know about the nature of temptation.

Many of us believe that the Evil One hates everything about us, everything created by God, every wonderful bit of His Image that we are, but it's just not that simple. The thing Satan most enjoys is the greatest gift from God at our conception, our free will. It is only by our free will that he can turn God's creation on its head and dehumanize us. How ironic it is that the very thing that most makes us human over every other living creature is the very thing that has the greatest power to diminish our own humanity. And so, our dignity is a choice, and the choice is about temptation, but as Archbishop Sheen said above, we have a choice between two temptations, the obvious one to evil, but also its counter and remedy, the good.


"The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods."

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island


It's a gift that we have free will, even if it gets us into trouble from time to time. If I were to ask the average person if they had dodged a bullet by opting to not murder someone today, hyperbole aside, I think I can trust probability to keep most people innocent. The vast majority of us don't spend our days wringing our hands over whether or not to steal our neighbor's car, wife, or...donkey (let's keep it family-friendly here, folks). We feel pretty confident that we know the difference between right and wrong, and we find most of those "big sins" pretty detestable. 

But if we're honest with ourselves, we know those big ones aren't the problem.

Anyone who has read C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters can almost instantly identify with the subversive nature of our most repetitive failures. We don't immediately acknowledge these behaviors as inherently evil, so we aren't quickly guarded against them. How do we not see these pitfalls until we're standing knee-deep in immoral quicksand? The fact is simply that, we are only doing what we were created to do, which is to desire the good. The God who created us for Himself designed us to desire perfect goodness, love, and beauty, and so we chase these...and their alter egos because they appear so good. Unfortunately, it's this slight of hand by the Evil One, barely twisting a legitimate good into a lesser good that is still very desirable, that characterizes the danger of sin (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 87, a. 4). These are sins that are not a glaringly obvious break with the Natural Law, but which are often easily justified away and ignored, only to dull the conscience into acceptance of more and greater sins; these can not be ignored...unless you really do like the idea of a dry heat for all of eternity.

What are we to do in the face of sin, when it seems we are powerless to resist? First, realize that we are in fact, not powerless. We have received great power, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, which we know as sanctifying grace, made available as a free gift paid for by the Blood of Christ through our baptism. This is maybe the shortest explanation I've ever given for a theology that is so unbelievably inscrutable. Consider yourselves lucky because I could've used a lot more words. You're welcome. Now, what do we do with this? Remember when I said that Jesus was tempted, and that He overcame that temptation to give us a firm basis on which to trust Him? Our next step is to take Him at His word and follow Him, "Since, therefore, Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh, no longer by human passions, but by the will of God" (1 Pet 4:1-2). How loved are we to be given power and a model to conquer sin! Equally sobering is how close we must follow our model to be firmly established against sin. Paul tells us to, "[P]ut on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom 13:14). What sounds rather plain in English becomes a much richer imagery in the Greek. To "put on" is the word ἐνδύω, which can mean to put on or clothe, but it can also mean "to sink into," as with clothing. If you imagine your favorite warm pajamas on a cold winter night, the amount of anything you want to come between you and warm snuggliness is none, none things. What you want more is to be wrapped so tightly in them, that they are like a second skin...and so it is with Jesus. We need to be so tightly bound to Him that it is unclear where we are joined. Furthermore, Paul tells us to, "make no provision for the flesh," which again leaves zero room between us and Christ, simply no space for temptation to enter and bring about sin because we are so close to Him, or rather, we have invited Him to be that close to us.

How do we do that? I won't lie to you; the moral life is difficult, and we will all fail, so be honest with yourself, rather than let pride be your downfall. We're fighting an enemy who knows he has ultimately lost, and to say he's displeased is well beyond an understatement (Rev 12:10). His desire to dehumanize us and convince us to toss out our dignity is ferocious (like Cujo a million times over, for anyone else who had the daylights scared out of them by that dog). To become that close means knowing, intimately, everything that is Christ...and allowing Him to know us just as deeply. That means intimacy, and intimacy is scary, precisely because of the closeness required, which leaves no room for partial honesty or reluctant emotional involvement. This full gift of self leaves us open to exploitation and injustice, which we find even more damaging when it comes from someone with whom we share our deepest self.

The good news? The Good News (see what I did there?)

Yes, intimacy is scary, but opening ourselves up to a deep and personal relationship with Christ is the only safe bet because of the message of the Gospel, which is that, "God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16...yes, the "football verse"). God the Father fully gave over his Son, and in His reciprocal love, the Son emptied Himself and gave His life over for us. There is no more perfect love than that, so we have no need to fear revealing our whole selves because He reserved none of Himself but gave all for us. We can trust Him. Our alternative is the Liar and Accuser of the brethren...who has given nothing, but takes everything.

Where does that leave us, day-to-day? First, we need to develop a deeper relationship with Jesus by coming to know Him better through the careful study of Scripture, sharing our lives with Him in regular prayer (CCC 2612), and meeting Him intimately in the Sacraments, Reconciliation and the Eucharist, in particular. I have a friend who truly seems to understand this level of humility. He is honest, almost to a fault, if that could ever be considered a true fault. He acknowledges the good and bad in whatever situation, offers the good as glory to God, but is also willing to accept consequences and damage to the ego when he's made a mistake. I admire that sort of honesty and willingness to go to the Cross for truth. As Catholics, we have this opportunity in the Sacrament of Confession. Sin is devastating, and the idea of even uttering the words to another person is sobering, but isn't that what we need? Jesus did not suffer and die on a cross for us to live in the shame of our sin. His life, death, and Resurrection were to free us from sin to live a new life of profound closeness with Him. St. Catherine of Siena, mystic and Doctor of the Church characterized this relationship beautifully, "God is closer to us than water to a fish." We have only to let Him into our weakness and sinfulness, so that He can heal our hearts, freeing us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).

Second, this isn't so easy to remember in that moment of temptation, so it's important to have a plan. I realize that sounds a little silly, but we have plans in case of fire, medical problems, and lost children, so why is it unreasonable to have a plan for when we're faced with temptation? It's best to keep it simple- call on the name of the Lord (Ps 18:6). Who is the Lord? Jesus is Lord, and His name is power, so call on Him when faced with temptation, and He will come to you and be your strength when you have none (2 Cor 12:10). I can attest that this is real, and it may be that you repeatedly call on Him, as a litany, not because He's not listening, like when I'm asked 500 questions by the kids while I'm trying to talk on the phone, but because He wants you to earnestly trust in Him and desire deliverance. Have confidence in the power we've been given over the Evil One, for as the great ascetic, St. Antony, who was tempted and attacked for much of his life, says, "If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us" (Life of St. Antony, Athanasius). Don't doubt the power of the Spirit of God to save us, not just from Original Sin, but from daily temptation to sin.

Finally, pursue a life of love and virtue. Archbishop Sheen is absolutely right, in that, we are tempted, always, but there are at least as many temptations to the good as to evil (Mar 10:27). How often during the day do we have the opportunity to choose something good for another person, and make no mistake, the nature of love is a choice? Whether it's reading a book with a child or helping a friend move, you're choosing to give up some good for yourself (quietly reading a book without hearing "Why?" at every page, or relaxing to watch the game) in order to choose the good of someone else. That is the essence of love and the beginning of the virtuous life. All other virtues come from love, and without love, no act is virtuous (1 Cor 13). Similarly, don't overly concern yourself with the smaller needs, which become a distraction, drawing you away from God, who will always provide. While you're busy thinking of which clothes to wear for the day, you may miss an opportunity to hug someone near you who truly needs it. Of course, still put on clothes before you go out, always clothes, but don't make the lesser good your focus, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mat 6:33-34). There will always be temptation, but do not fear it. Remain in Christ, for He is love, and perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18). In Christ, you can trust that you have the power to resist temptation and choose the greater good.

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