Sin Is Not Inevitable: The battle against temptation

Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

12th Sunday Through the Year

21 June 2015

The sea of Galilee, upon which the scene from this Sunday’s Gospel takes place, is really a lake, much smaller even than the Great Lakes of the Midwestern United States. However, it is prone to quickly developing storms that would have caught the Apostles by surprise and would have gravely endangered the primitive fishing boat they were likely using to cross the lake. It is a visually powerful scene: the Apostles are bailing water over the sides and fighting with the sails to bring the boat under control, all the while Our Lord, who has just cured the man with the withered hand, cast out demons, and healed leprosy and other incurable diseases, now sleeps in the stern of the boat.

Of course, all of us get frustrated at someone who isn’t pulling his weight. When faced with a difficult task, we resent members of a team, group, or family who shirk their duties and do not contribute to the common good. How much more frustrating, then, must it have been for the Apostles when the man asleep in the stern could not only have bailed water or helped fight with the sails, but had clearly demonstrated his power over nature.

That the Apostles go to our Lord and wake him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” is not at all surprising, then. They have not been following him long at this point, perhaps only a few weeks or months, but they have come to recognize the immense power that He possesses. Yet, as the closing line of this Gospel passage makes clear, “Who is this whom even wind and sea obey?” they have not yet come to know Him as God and Lord.

The reality is that the Apostles, at this point, are at the beginning of their friendship and journey with Christ. They have not seen His greatest miracles that will lead to St. Peter’s confession of the One he now calls Teacher as Lord and God, nor have they witnessed his Passion and glorious Resurrection, and they have not yet been filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And if we are honest, I think that all of us can admit that we are at the beginning too. Whether we have just received first Holy Communion or have spent a long lifetime in service to God and Holy Mother Church (or a newly ordained priest!) all most of us need is an honest examination of conscience to know that we are still in the beginnings of a loving friendship with Christ. Most of us (myself included!) struggle day in and day out to do the basic things we know that we need to do to maintain this friendship: to say our daily prayers, to be aware of God’s presence throughout the day, and to avoid those habits of sin that we know afflict us, especially deliberately committed sins. We know God is out there, we know He has the power to intervene in our lives, but it is difficult for us to see him asleep in the boat and not call out, “Lord, don’t you care that I’m perishing!” St. John Chrysostom says about the Apostles: “His power to rebuke [the storm] when awakened they knew, but that He could do so even sleeping, they knew not as yet.” It can be difficult for us to see how the Lord is working in our lives when we find ourselves struggling so much.

Why, then, did the Lord permit this storm to overtake the Apostles, and why does He permit the many storms that afflict our own lives? St. John again tells us that Christ permits the storm so that the Apostles might be afraid, which seems strange that our Lord should want his closest friends to be afraid, but this increase in their fear is sought so that it might equally increase their faith in Him when He delivers them from the storm. Our Lord could have, in an equally miraculous manner, preserved the Apostles wholly and entirely from the storm without letting it affect them at all. Had he done so, though, they would not have had this sign of His love, protection, and goodness when he calmed the storm. And so likewise, should the Lord preserve us from all the storms of our lives, we would not have the signs of His love for us in the ways that He does calm the storms of our lives when we call out to Him.

In a similar way, Christ’s sleeping in the boat during the storm gives the Apostles the opportunity to call out to Him, teaching them an important lesson about the need to rely on Him. Imagine again the scene: They have been fighting with buckets, oars, and sails, attempting to get the boat under control against the storm. But it is only when they realize that their own strength is insufficient that they become frustrated with His apparent lack of concern. So too in our lives, it is often not until it becomes painfully obviously that we are woefully incapable of dealing with the struggles of life on our own that we cry out to the Lord for His help (and I mean ‘painfully’ not just in the colloquial sense, but in a literal sense as well, because many of us experience real spiritual, psychological, and emotional pain because of these difficulties) . How much different, though, would the Apostle’s experience of the storm have been if they had turned to the Lord for His help and guidance when first faced with the difficulties of the storm, and how different would our own lives be if we learned the same lesson?

St. John Chrysostom gives us another important reason for our Lord permitting the Apostles to struggle with navigating through the storm: the winds, rains, and waves represent the reality of temptation. Temptations to sin can be another source of distraction and frustration in our lives, causing us to wonder why God would allow us to endure temptations that so frequently lead us into sin. Temptations are the result of concupiscence, the wounding of our human nature by original sin. Though our original sin was wiped away by the sacrament of Baptism, giving us the state of grace and God’s abiding presence in us, this tendency to sin we call ‘concupiscence’ remains. Worse yet, as a lasting effect of original sin, our intellect is darkened so that it is harder to know the Good, and our will is weakened, so it is harder for us to do it. Thus, we are ripe victims for temptations to sin.

So what do we do in response to experiencing temptations to sin? In this regard, I would like to propose three remedies to temptations to sin: prayer, wholesome occupations, and replacing our vices with virtues.

When faced with temptations, as with any struggle, we have two basic options: fight or flight. Prayer falls into the first category. Prayer is, of course, always a good thing, but in the battle against temptation it is particularly appropriate when you have good reason to believe that with God’s assistance you will be able to resist the temptation, or when the temptation, because of a situation that you cannot avoid because of your state in life or the particular circumstances in which you temporarily find yourself, is simply unavoidable. The prayer is simple: acknowledge the temptation that you are experiencing and ask God to remove it from you. Do not spend time trying to diagnose why you are experiencing this temptation, but simply trust in God’s grace to remove it or help to persevere in the fight against it. It is particularly helpful to ask for the intercession of Our Lady, your patron saint, and your guardian angel, along with any saint to whom you are particularly devoted, in obtaining for you the grace to resist.

Sometimes, though, we are faced with temptations against which we are unlikely to have any success. This can happen because we are still in the beginning stages of growth in virtue (and like I said earlier, we are almost all beginners!), or because our particular constitution inclines us to a sin in a particularly strong way, or if the temptation happens to be exceedingly overwhelming. This is often the case with bodily passions or with sins that have become widely socially acceptable. In this case, flight is a much better option than fight. We can exercise this “flight” option by physically removing ourselves from a situation or by occupying our minds with better thoughts. Many sins happen simply out of boredom. For example, when we are not intentional in our conversations, seeing them as opportunities to spread the Gospel or to affirm the faith of our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy for us to fall into the sins of gossip or uncharitable speech. For young people, the summer months can present a particular challenge in this regard, so I encourage parents to help keep your children occupied with good activities that will encourage their growth as sons and daughters of God, and likewise to all young men and women to fill these summer weeks and months with good things so as not to expose yourselves to the dangers that can come from sitting idly at home or from too much undirected and unpurposeful time with others that can too easily devolve into sources of temptations.

Finally, we can resist temptations by using them as reminders to grow in the virtues. To return to the example of gossip, a sin to which I believe nearly everyone is tempted, when you are tempted to speak uncharitably or imprudently about another person, you can combat that temptation by forcing yourself to say something kind about him or her instead. This is a very effective form of asceticism that disciplines our wills and trains us to do what is right even in difficult circumstances.

I want to return to something that St. John Chrysostom said about the Apostles during that storm on the Sea of Galilee: “His power to rebuke [the storm] when awakened they knew, but that He could do so even sleeping, they knew not as yet.” We too know, at least in our heads, that God has the power to calm all the temptations we experience. Our struggle, though, is that so often the Lord seems to be asleep in the boat. But the truth is that we do not yet know God’s power to help us resist temptation. For the soul in a state of grace, the power of God within is immense. The sanctifying grace that fills and enlivens the souls of the redeemed is a tremendous source of strength that we can rely on in the battle against temptation to sin.

So often we allow the Devil to convince us that sin is inevitable, that we don’t have the strength to resist, that we’re too weak. He is the Prince of Lies, and this is one of his most vicious ones. And like all lies, it’s built on a truth. Of ourselves, we are too weak, just like without the Lord, the Apostles would have been unable to save themselves from the storm. But the reality is, again, we do not yet know Christ’s power to save us from sin. Even in allowing us to experience temptations, God is also allowing us the opportunity to cry out to him and to grow in reliance on the grace that He has given us, a grace which, if we ask for it, will be sufficient to endure every obstacle and every temptation. If we employ the means at our disposal: prayer, wholesome occupations, and developing the virtues opposed to the vices to which we are tempted, through the strength of that grace we will be able to resist temptations to sin and remain in the Lord’s saving grace. We do not yet know how much the Lord can, and will, do in us.