Sometime ago a well–known evangelist in America excused his immoral behaviour on the basis that the “devil made me do it”. He appeared to be in the hands of the devil from that point on, or in a better know idiom, we might say that he was tempted or that he had “fallen” into temptation. Let’s examine these two words and some that are related to them.
When someone is tempted, it is by someone or something. If successful, there is a deliberate action, a movement away from some recognized standard. It brings into play immediately the elements of ethics or morality. For example, if you were tempted to take money or goods which were not your own, and you followed through on the temptation, you would be stealing. There is a standard that your actions can be measured against, and there is also something within your head, heart, or person that tells you that to steal or to cheat is wrong.
People who are tempted – and all of us are – are also tested. All of us who have gone to school know what a test is. Some teachers will say that tests are different from examinations, but regardless of the name we know that the teacher wants to find out how much we know and if we have done our homework.
It is the same when we are tempted: we are tested to see if we act in accord with the morals and standards which we have learned and which we have accepted. There is a choice, however, and we can say yes we will steal or cheat, or we can say “no, we will not”. For most people it is not quite that simple. They do not cheat, they merely “happen to look” at someone else’s test papers, or some other excuse perhaps, like the evangelist, that they “couldn’t help it”. Instead of “stealing” a person may simply “keep safe” something that obviously belongs to someone else. At this point there is still some rationalization, some attempt to make an excuse for an action known to be wrong.
There does come a time when the committed crook or the common cheater no longer worries about his own conscience or what other people may think about what he or she does. At this point, when the possibility of stealing or cheating come up, the person no longer gives a second thought to it, and from then on he is a “habitual” robber.
Most of us know that when we are tempted we are, in a real sense, also on trial. In English we say that we are “put to the test,” to see how we will respond. We are on trial to see if we will be true or false to our convictions, to what we know to be correct or right. Other people, as well, can judge our genuineness or our fitness in different situations.
The young person who wants to become a pilot will have to undergo a series of tests: medical, emotional, academic, there will be questions and circumstances which will try the person’s abilities, to see if he or she is fit to fly and airplane. If the situations are severe enough the person will feel as if he or she is on trial and consequently may suffer from physical or emotional trauma. Some new pilots literally get sick and vomit in certain contrived situations. However, we can say that the person has “passed the test” if all goes well.
Another word that is related to the words “test” or “trial” is experiment. An experiment is a particular procedure which is tried. Suppose that a researcher wishes to test a hypothesis or theory. The person then outlines a series of tests and as each one takes place there is evidence that the theory is true or false at that point. Notice that the researcher has to have some idea of what he wishes to accomplish. If you wished to test the theory that you could indeed fly like a bird it would be a good idea to begin jumping from a few feet off the ground and flapping your arms before trying to fly from the top of a tree. Your first effort would be evidence that you cannot fly like a bird and you would need no further tests or experiments.
In the book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible, there is an encounter between God and Satan in which God allows Satan to put Job on trial. In a very real sense this was an experiment: Satan wanted to test his hypothesis that Job only obeyed God because of what God had given to him: family, animals, possessions, good health, and all the rest. So Satan “tried out” a series of procedures: Job lost his material possessions, his family, and finally his own health as well. In each case, we are told, Job did not sin, although he severely questioned the experiment and the methods used in the test.
We can say that Job was tempted, that he was tried, or even that he was on trial. But this was not the case with the American evangelist that I first mentioned. There was no reason for him to blame Satan when he had a deliberate choice for his thoughts and immoral actions.
There are two other words which may help us to better understand what the evangelist meant. These are the verbs desire and allure. Let us suppose that I want to tempt you. It is best if I know something about you and I know what you might be attracted to or what might compromise your standards of behaviour. Perhaps I know that one thing which you really desire is security or protection. Now we all want security and it is a legitimate and compelling need. But what will you do to gain that security? If security to you means having money and things, then someone can tempt you with money and things. You may begin to desire them so strongly than you will do all kinds of things to have them. You long to have it so badly that you will resort to questionable means to obtain them. We can say that you are “drawn” toward security, or that you desire them. From then on, it will not be difficult to tempt you with money.
Let us go a step further and say that for you security is money and it has become so desirable that you cannot leave it alone. In this case you are enticed or allured by it. You are not only tempted by it, you are teased, bewitched, or bedeviled by it. It is no longer a choice of whether you can or cannot have it, or if you should or should not have it, you must have it. From that point on you are “open” to temptations about money.
We have all heard of “compulsive” gamblers or drinkers. Such people are not simply tempted. That state has long ago passed and now progressed to a matter of appeal which is as strong and certain as the pull of gravity. That is why they “cannot help it”. Now in some societies such people are said to have “diseases” of drinking or gambling and are therefore put in hospitals or special places to treat their sicknesses.
It is, however, an open question if gambling or drunkenness are “diseases”. What about rape, child molestation, or wife–beating? What if the person “can’t help doing it” when he is tempted to beat his wife or rape an innocent woman?
We are told by St. Paul that if we are Christians we should resist temptation and, in his words, to “fight against it”. He suggested that the Spirit of God, as a gift to Christians, was their necessary help to overcome temptation and evil.
We have come the full circle: having suggested that there is a real, not imagined, evil in the world, we see that we can be tempted to pursue it. Evil can be enticing, that is there are things about it that we will find exciting and personally satisfying for a time. But the alarming thing about evil and being attracted to it is that we always seem to want more, or other varieties. There is rarely enough substance, pleasure, money, sex or security to satisfy anyone.
God, as creator, has given us a desire to know what is true and to know Him in a way that will give us peace. Satan, as spoiler, and not living in harmony with God, is aware of how to tempt us away from knowing God well. We can be, in St. Paul’s words, “more than conquerors” through Christ. We can live in his love and learn to serve others, not exploit them – or our own desires.