Are we tempted beyond our strength?
We have all heard from the time we were knee-high to a tadpole that God never permits us to be tempted beyond our strength. If we’ve done any spiritual reading, this axiom has been drummed into us by more than one author. Sometimes its very repetition can make us feel guilty or spiritually stupid. That is why I intend to question that assumption here. Or, to speak more carefully, I intend to question one common understanding of this assumption, the understanding that suggests our spiritual struggles are either unreal or unnecessary.
Readers who trace things to their sources will, I hope, be immediately on guard. After all, the idea I am questioning is not a platitude simply because it has been often repeated. It is actually often repeated because it is part of Revelation. Sometimes I think it is not very well understood by those who repeat it most frequently. Nonetheless, it was the great St. Paul who got this theological ball rolling in his first letter to the Corinthians:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. [1 Cor 10:13]
If this is revealed, then what possible excuse could I have to question it? The excuse is this: For many and perhaps most of us, this statement does not seem to correspond to our own experience. I am not a Modernist who thinks that the content of Revelation is defined by human experience, but I do want to understand, in light of my own experience, what this statement really means.
Many and perhaps most of us have, at one time or another, been “overwhelmed” by a sudden temptation. Many and perhaps most of us have resisted particular temptations over a period of time while the pressure to give in has grown and grown and grown until we were exhausted. Once a particular temptation has passed, we may look back and wonder why it was so hard to resist; we may think, “Of course I could have said ‘no’!” But in the moment, as truly serious Christians, we can often find ourselves at our wit’s end. Our experience can be—and certainly sometimes is—that we are being crushed by temptation.
The Question of Guilt
Now, there are some psychological “outs” which apply in these cases. Even an objectively grave evil is not a mortal sin for us unless we give it the full consent of our will. This means that where a certain measure of compulsion enters in, freedom—and therefore consent—is diminished. Where a serious disorder is operative, there may be little or no personal guilt at all. Since temptation is deadly for us only insofar as we fully assent to it in our will, this is one way in which a crushing experience of temptation (really, a compulsion) can fit in with the idea that God “will also provide the way of escape”.
But in the passage cited, St. Paul seems not to have this particular aspect of sin in mind, because he states that the “way of escape” which God provides is such that it enables us to “endure” the temptation. It is too great an exegetical stretch, I think, to regard escaping full responsibility for a sin (i.e., because of mitigating circumstances) as the successful endurance of a temptation.
Nonetheless, I believe the clue we need is still contained in this assertion that, with each temptation, God “will also provide the way of escape.” And I think we get a clearer sense of how God does this from St. Paul’s very pointed lament about his own temptations. We find this lament in his second letter to the Corinthians:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Cor 12:7-9]
St. Paul apparently found this particular temptation extremely hard to endure; it was something that very distressingly exposed his personal weakness. He was by no means a fair weather disciple. Yet from this experience, he learned that the struggle, the pain and the embarrassment of temptation are permitted for our own good. The reason is that the chief manner in which Our Lord helps us in times of temptation is not by subtraction but by addition, by offering an increased share of His Divine life—an infusion of His own power. This is grace. But if that is true, two questions arise: First, how is it that we still sometimes feel overwhelmed by temptation; second, if the solution to temptation is to rely on the power of God, how can St. Paul also teach that God will not let us be tempted beyond our own strength.
Responding to Grace
All of this and more is bound up in the mystery of grace. It is an enormous exception to God’s normal methods to overpower us by grace. Instead, he almost always condescends to allow us to cooperate with it, in fact to demand that we cooperate with it. This marvellous condescension, of which God well knows all the consequences, is precious for one primary reason. It is the best way to increase love. Because this is so, his victories in us also become our own victories. Prizing the freedom of our love, He ordinarily gives us the final word. At each moment, we will accept and use the grace He offers, or we will break down and resist it, though not necessarily always wilfully or deliberately. Either way, we learn something more about love. Moreover, we are likely to find, on reflection, that we have cooperated with Him through a hundred victories over temptation for each one that brings us down. Notice that in a prolonged temptation, every delay of sin is a triumph.
In any case, our cooperation with grace is always a shared victory. This is God’s grace, to be sure, but it is also our cooperation. Our strength becomes sufficient because Our Lord puts us on that brink, that knife-edge—that position from which, through our ultimate cooperation with Him, we can succeed.
But because this “brink” is often a situation in which we are just a hair short of being entirely overwhelmed, we experience such temptations as a serious and even exhausting struggle. The difference between success and failure really is razor thin. It is useful to recall St. Catherine of Siena’s account of some severe and prolonged temptations that she once experienced. St. Catherine was accustomed to an awareness of the close presence of God in her life. This awareness frequently made temptations easy to overcome. Therefore, she was deeply distressed at being “left out to dry” (as we might say) in one extremely troubling instance.
I am repeating this from memory; the words may not be exactly right. But Catherine suffered acutely, in both body and soul, for what seemed like a very long time. She experienced her own weakness in a frightening way. At every moment, she was terrified of consenting to the sin. She was exhausted. Naturally, then, once she felt God’s presence again, she complained bitterly: “Where were you, Lord, when I was suffering so intensely? Why did you abandon me to the Devil?”
But Our Lord replied: “I did not abandon you, Catherine. If I had, you would have fallen.”
Now I offer this anecdote not to suggest that we fall because Our Lord abandons us, but to explain that even the most holy souls have to learn step by painful steps how to cooperate effectively with the grace of God. What we learn from our falls (that is, what we learn when we take these falls seriously) is not that God has abandoned us, but that we need more practice in developing an awareness of God’s presence and in taking advantage of the strength He offers us in times of temptation.
Both the Knife-Edge and God’s Help Are Real
Once we conquer a particular vice (after long effort) or develop (after long effort) a virtue which enables us to resist even sudden and strong temptations more easily, we can look back with a slightly different perspective. We will not minimize the drama of the battle; nor will we use the principle that “God never permits us to be tempted beyond our strength” as an easy slogan that makes light of the struggles of others. This is the unfailing mark of a shallow soul which has not yet discovered most of its own weaknesses.
In fact, we should not deny our own experience in the time of trial; we should not deny that the battle can very legitimately be extraordinarily difficult and exhausting. But we should begin to understand that, in our weakness, we “had to learn the hard way”—to get better only slowly at practicing the Presence of God and making His power effectively our own. In this we can also begin to see how God is able to bring good even out of the evils to which we have sometimes consented.
So, are we tempted beyond our strength? If we are talking about our strength alone, then yes, we are. It is not our grace that is sufficient; it is God’s. But if we are talking about our own ability to cooperate with—or to rely effectively upon—God’s grace, then we are not tempted beyond our strength, and God does provide us the way of escape, that we may be able to learn to endure the temptation. It is actually an important part of God’s plan for us that we should sometimes experience temptation as an exhausting battle, because it permits us, along with St. Paul, to recognize our own weakness.
Our problem is that we are not often quick studies. It takes us time to learn to live in grace in such a way that God’s power can become perfect in our weakness. But God’s power does become perfect as we become more proficient at cooperating with grace across the whole spectrum of our lives. Just think for a moment: Often learning to do this in one area lays a path for unexpected success in another, for all of our triumphs and struggles are connected. What we view as a huge problem is not infrequently also a symptom of something else. We triumph slowly, and by degrees.
It can take time to get it right; in fact it takes a lifetime. We eventually realize that we could indeed have learned more quickly, but for whatever combination of reasons, we did not. All of this is part of God’s Providence. Meanwhile, our ongoing spiritual progress will sometimes place us on that knife-edge, feeling exhausted and even overwhelmed by the struggle. These perceptions are a real and valuable part of our experience. They are not to be denied, but they are not the whole story. The whole story unfolds only through perseverance over time. Whether we fall or not, we can feel as if God has abandoned us to absolutely crushing temptations. St. Catherine of Siena, a doctor of the Church, felt the same. She was wrong.
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Posted by: garedawg -
Mar. 08, 2014 2:42 PM ET USA
I remember reading somewhere that Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who headed an Eastern Orthodox seminary, called lust "a very useful sin", since it kept the seminarians from getting too full of themselves.
Posted by: abc -
Mar. 07, 2014 7:12 PM ET USA
Thanks for this. I found that the best exposition (for me) of this issue was that of Fr. Caussade in his "Abandonment to Divine Providence". Many parts of the book are devoted to what should be our attitude regarding temptation, and to how God uses temptations (and failures) to teach us to acknowledge our weakness and rely in His Grace and His Providence only.