By Fr. Mark Perkins
Friday’s second lesson for Evening Prayer includes this famous passage: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Similarly, the second lesson from Evening Prayer this past Monday concluded thusly: “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" (Heb. 2:18 — Hebrews 2 was also an optional reading for last Sunday’s Morning Prayer).
This is critical data for moral theology: temptation is not sin.
Of course, temptation involves our desires — there can be no real temptation without desire. I, for instance, could never be tempted to steal avocados, because avocados are disgusting.
Consider Christ's temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4). Turning stones into bread would not be a temptation if Jesus were not famished. In fact, all three temptations — food when hungry; angelic protection and public witness; kingly authority of the whole earth — presented our Lord with goods that he merited. Satan craftily offered our Lord that which Christ already rightly desired — but he tempted Jesus to seek that good thing apart from and in defiance of his Father’s will. In each case, the problem is not what is offered but rather how.
Likewise, the primal temptation in Genesis 3, "ye shall be as gods,” was what God actually intended for humanity — that we be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). But instead of receiving deification as a divine gift, our first parents sought it apart from God's own plan. (Note, too, that Adam and Eve were without sin and yet were subject to temptation, as was our Lord, whose recapitulation of Adam’s temptation is part of the process of restoration, as Romans 5 indicates.)
So our temptations involve disordered desires. As I have noted here before, sin by definition distorts a good. Temptation presents a disordered instantiation of that which is good. We sin, of course, when we indulge temptation — when we pursue, in thought or in deed, our disordered desires.
Part of the cure for temptation, then, means taking seriously our desires. When, under the care and guidance of a good confessor and a good spiritual director, we attend to our desires — intelligently, reasonably, responsibly — we will discover that the root of what ails us is the misplaced pursuit of a desire that must ultimately be brought into right relation with Jesus Christ.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.