“Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he hath been proved, he shall receive the crown of life.”
“The Lord your God trieth you, that it may appear whether you love Him with all your heart, and with all your soul, or no.” (Deut. 13:3). Upon these words of Sacred Scripture, St. Austin asks how they can be reconciled with the words of St. James, who says that “God tempts no man”? (James 1:13).
Answering his own objection, he says that there are two ways of tempting, one of which tends to deceive souls and make them fall into sin. Now God does not make use of this, but the devil, whose business it is to tempt after this manner, according to those words of the Apostle, “Lest he that tempteth should have tempted you.” (1 Thess. 3:3).
The other way of tempting goes no further than to try our hearts, and in this sense it is that Scripture says here that God tempts, and in another place that “God tempted Abraham.” (Gen. 22:1). God is pleased to try us, to make us sensible of our own strength and to show us how we should love and fear Him. And therefore, as soon as Abraham had lifted up his hand to sacrifice his son, “Now I know,” said Our Lord to him, “that thou fearest God” (Gen. 22:12), that is, as St. Austin expresses it, “I have made thee know” that thou lovest Him. Thus, there are two sorts of temptations: the one which God Himself sends us, and the other which happens to us by His permission.
St. Gregory says that God, by a secret and adorable providence, is pleased that the elect should be tempted and afflicted here on earth, because this world is only a place of pilgrimage, or rather of banishment, where we must be continually traveling till we arrive at our heavenly country.
And whereas travelers, on meeting with some agreeable meadow or grove, turn sometimes off the high road, God, who would not have anything put us off our path nor have us fix our minds upon earth or mistake the place of our exile for that of our True Country, permits this life to be full of labor and affliction, that the consideration of what we suffer here may make us more ardently sigh after the life to come.
St. Austin similarly says that temptations and afflictions serve to show us the misery of this life and “to make us desire with greater ardor and seek more carefully the other,” where we are to enjoy true happiness for all eternity. In another place he says that “afflictions hinder the traveler who is going to his own country from looking upon his inn as the place of his abode and from staying there too long.” And St. Gregory says that the “afflictions which oppress us here below force us to have recourse to God and make us have no inclination for anything but Him.”
St. Bernard, explaining the words of St. James, already quoted above, says, “It is necessary that temptations should happen, for who shall be crowned but him that shall lawfully have fought, and how shall a man fight if there be none to attack him?” Scripture and holy writers show us that many advantages are attached to sufferings and adversities, and the same are also attached to temptations, among which advantages one of the chief is that proposed to us in the words of St. James.
God sends us temptations, that our merits may be the greater and our reward the more eminent. “For through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:21). Here we must hew and polish the stones that are to build the temple of the heavenly Jerusalem, for not one stroke of the hammer shall be given in that holy city. Now, the more considerable the place is where the stones are to be put, the more strokes of the hammer and chisel are requisite to polish them. Those, for example, that are to make up the front of the gate of a building must be more polished than the others, that so they may make the entrance of the building more beautiful.
Nor is it for this only that Jesus Christ, having made Himself for us the Gate of Heaven, was pleased to be afflicted with so many sufferings and reproaches, but it is also, that being to pass through a door where sufferings and reproaches, if we may say so, had given so many strokes of the hammer and chisel to Him, we ought to be ashamed at not having received some ourselves, to make us more fit for this heavenly building.
The necessity of being proved by temptations is also shown to us by these words of the Angel to Tobias: “Because thou wert acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee.” (Tob. 12:13). And the Wise Man says of Abraham, “that in temptation he was found faithful.” (Ecclus. 44:21). And because he was found steadfast in temptation, God lays before him the reward of his virtue and swears to him, “that He would multiply his seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand by the seashore.” (Gen. 22:17).
This article is taken from a chapter in The Soul Sanctified: Catholic Wisdom on the Way of Salvation which is available from TAN Books.