A recent magazine article called attention to a web site devoted to connecting people who wish to commit adultery. This is an excellent reminder that, perhaps especially in our culture, it is impossible to hide from sexual temptation. It will never be sufficient to attempt to eliminate temptation from our lives, or from the lives of our children. Rather, we must devote ourselves to the cultivation of the virtue of purity. But this must be something more than the cultivation of a natural virtue. To resist temptation successfully, our desire for virtue must be spiritually rooted. It must grow out of our own personal relationship with God.
Of course the cultivation of a specific virtue is necessary to overcome every vice. But the case of sexual temptation is particularly vexing. In the first place, sexual desire is normal. Not every normal person will experience (for example) the desire to maim or murder. But every normal person will experience sexual desire. And in the second place, contemporary Western culture is now deliberately constructed around the fulfillment of sexual desire. Our culture no longer acts as a hedge against sexual dangers and weaknesses; rather we live in a society which is designed to be sex-saturated, a society which impels each and every person to satisfy his or her sexual impulses. The ubiquity of private, anonymous sexual gratification through the Internet, television and movies has been generally sufficient to break down the instinctive human sense of shame. Immodest dress and the near complete deregulation of sexual activity has led to enormous opportunities for those whose sense of shame has been blunted to take the obvious next social step.
It goes without saying that parents should make a serious effort to shield their children from the worst of our culture’s sexual blandishments. All adults should also make reasonable efforts to shield themselves from these temptations throughout their lives. But it is very important to understand that the battle to eliminate temptation cannot be won. No parent can shield his children sufficiently; no adult can shield himself sufficiently. Sexual allure will still become present in a hundred different ways, often arising almost inadvertently from normal interactions which are otherwise completely good. One way or another—and usually in many ways—the temptation to impurity will be felt, especially by men.
The key, then, is to develop the ability to resist temptation when it does come. This requires a growing relationship with God, a genuine desire to please Him based on the knowledge and experience of His love. In other words, we must pay attention to our spiritual nature, the goodness of God, our dependence on Him, and our need to spend time with Him in prayer. We must also cultivate that same attentiveness in our children. Spiritual growth is not only the ultimate solution to the problem of temptation, it is the only solution.
A Multitude of Sins
Spiritual growth also covers a multitude of sins. What I mean by this can best be conveyed by an example. Suppose parents in a particular family try hard to keep their kids from encountering Internet pornography and stalkers. They set up the necessary controls. They supervise access. But at the same time their kids see Mom dressed immodestly at the beach, and they notice Dad has a cache of questionable magazines. Movies which excite a mild prurient interest are routine. The kids go to the local public school, which does nothing to inculcate purity, and their parents have never talked with them about purity. The family does not pray together, and the parents don’t direct their children to spiritual reading suitable for their age group. In fact, the parents don’t even remember to pray for their kids. One day the Internet controls fail (this will always happen), and the kids get into all kinds of things they shouldn’t see.
Now imagine a different scenario. Mom is modest, Dad clearly values purity, and modesty of dress is enforced for the children. If Dad is watching TV, which he seldom does, he switches channels when inappropriate commercials come on, and he won’t watch movies that objectify women, make light of sex, or seem to encourage promiscuity. The parents pray both with and for their children and encourage them to read the lives of the saints. They talk with their kids about the spiritual life and about purity. Unfortunately, though, these parents are fairly clueless technologically, and they aren’t sufficiently aware of the danger of cell phones with Internet connections. Their kids soon realize what they can find with their phones, and one day they decide to go find it.
What messages are implicit in these two scenarios? In the first, the message is that the children have gotten their chance to enter the adult world. Their understanding of Internet pornography is that it is not for children, and now they can jump-start their transition to adulthood. But in the second, the children understand that they have found a way to go down a path that is profoundly different from the one their parents have chosen, and which departs from a loving relationship with God. They also know very clearly that their parents regard pornography as wrong for everyone. They have already developed some spiritual sense of why this is so. They have the benefit of their parents’ prayers, too. Taking everything together, they know they have sinned, and they at least dimly perceive how they ought to deal with this sin now that they have fallen into it.
In the first case, the kids have almost no chance to deal positively with the situation in the long run. But in the second case, the seeds of ultimate success will begin to grow even in the midst of the sin itself. In this way, the preliminary spiritual development of the child will initiate an immediate struggle toward virtue. Spiritual growth covers a multitude of sins.
Same for Adults
The general situation for adults is similar, except the drama is enacted without the continued presence of their parents. If an adult takes a lackadaisical attitude toward spiritual growth, figuring he is basically a good person, organizing his life in a fairly conventional way, and assuming that he will always avoid the worst sins, then when a temptation does strike, he is doomed to fall without engaging in the kind of serious struggle that leads to virtue. But if he is aware of his own weakness, cultivates a desire for grace, spends time in prayer and spiritual reading, frequents the sacraments, seeks spiritual direction as needed, and makes a point of practicing small acts of self-denial when it comes to minor pleasures (especially those he suspects are only semi-innocent)—well, then he will seek to resist temptation when it comes. He may not always resist successfully but, if he falls, the seeds of his ultimate spiritual success will also begin to grow in the midst of his shame.
Anyone who works consistently at spiritual growth will also know that his spiritual battle has an essentially positive trajectory, and so he will generally be shrewd enough to avoid discouragement. While the problem of discouragement can arise in relation to any habitual sin, it is often a bigger problem with impurity, because this sin touches us so personally. We feel not just regretful or weak, but soiled to the core. For this reason, we tend to dwell on it. If we get discouraged, we can lose our sense of God’s love, on which also depends our own sense of worth. Such discouragement will stop our spiritual life in its tracks. Even if we don’t succumb to discouragement, we might be excessively hard on ourselves, joining the battle too aggressively, worrying too much about the next temptation and how to prevent it. Unfortunately, with sins of impurity in particular, dwelling on the problem will always cause the level of temptation to increase, leading almost infallibly to another fall.
The solution to both problems is a positive concentration on God’s love, and a steady desire to draw closer to Him. The primary prescription is frequent reception of the sacrament of Penance, spiritual direction as required, and regular time for personal prayer. It is important to note here that the sacraments are powerful and certain gifts of grace, but they are gifts which will sit unopened if we fail to develop a personal prayer life through which we can unpack their riches. In addition, spiritual direction may be necessary if we need a change of focus or a deeper understanding of things to get on the right track.
Now, with our spiritual life firmly intact, we grow to understand that for each moment of failure there have been a thousand moments of prayer, spiritual effort, and resistance to temptation. We further understand that every moment of prayer, spiritual effort and resistance has been a sacrificial offering of love. In this context, even our very falls become occasions for recognizing more deeply our dependence on our heavenly Father. God, who loves us far more than we love ourselves, sees all of these moments and wants us to recognize every one of them. Satan sees all of them as well, but he wants us to recognize only the moment of failure.
The Whole Armor of God
If this column were a religion class, I would caution the students not to rush out and tell their friends that “the teacher” says you don’t have to try to avoid temptation. To the contrary, we do have to try to avoid temptation, but we cannot avoid it entirely, and we must be prudent. Surely we should try to avoid bad company or refuse to engage in unnecessary activities which incite us to sin. But we cannot refuse to interact with others, and we cannot wall off all temptation by confining ourselves to a dark room with no external stimulation of any kind. In fact, if we were monks, we would know that even this would accomplish nothing. We are at war not only with the world, but with the flesh and the devil. When the hermits of old had to rush out of their rude caves to roll in the snow, it was because the devil himself incited their flesh to rebellion, in memory of the world.
No. The only path of success lies in drawing closer to God, cooperating with Him in our own spiritual development. Then, as we mature spiritually, we will find many things less tempting than they were, or even no longer tempting at all, and we will also fall less often even in the face of temptations which remain strong. The battle against some vices may take years or even decades, or indeed the battle may be lifelong. But it is a battle not to prevent temptation but to cure it through union with Christ; it is not a matter of cutting ourselves off from life in the vain hope of never falling, but of embracing Life more fully in the assurance of ultimate victory over sin and death.
St. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (6:11-13)This is what I’m talking about. It is not enough simply to avoid temptation. Victory consists in reaching out to “take the whole armor” so that we may be able to face evil when it comes. For it will come, and we must face it. There is no other way. So we must put spiritual growth first. We must above all seek an ever-deeper union with Jesus Christ. This, and this alone, is what it means to put on the whole armor of God.
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