The first reading at Mass today has one of my favorite passages from the Letter to the Hebrews. It's from the last verse of chapter 2 and goes like this: "Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." Another translation uses the word "tempted" instead of "tested." It's consoling to know that Jesus was tempted by the devil. Though we know that from the Gospel stories of His temptations in the desert, we tend to think that Jesus could not have been tempted the way we are. Yet, a couple chapters later in Hebrews we read: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (4:15). In other words, Jesus was tempted "in every way" that we are but did not sin.
The temptations we experience are certainly related to "concupiscence" (a tendency toward sin), one of the effects of Original Sin that remains after Baptism. But the fact that Jesus, the Sinless One and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was tempted shows us that temptation involves more than our inherent tendency toward sin. What else is involved?
First, we, like Jesus, have enemies who tempt us to get off track, to follow our self-will rather than the will of God. Today's Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) shows Jesus doing battle with these enemies, driving demons away from people. In our daily lives we face temptations that come from demons and we must engage them in battle, praying and fasting them away from us.
Secondly, temptations enabled Jesus to be in a position to "sympathize with our weaknesses." Because He suffered temptation, He was able to be compassionate, to "suffer with" those who are being similarly tempted.
Thirdly, this battle with temptations makes us stronger. Another verse from Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered" (5:8). In other words, He grew in the virtue of obedience by exercising it during those times when He was tempted to do His own will rather than the will of the Father. The climax of that painful testing was in a Garden called Gethsemane where He prayed for the cup of His Passion to pass Him by but in the end chose to fulfill the will of the Father perfectly by drinking that bitter cup on the cross.
More and more I've come to see temptations in this light--as opportunities to grow in particular virtues. Virtues are like spiritual muscles and just as physical muscles need to be exercised lest they atrophy so too the virtues. These spiritual muscles will only grow through the exercise that goes with fighting temptations.
It's a good idea at the end of the day to review the temptations of the day. What were the opposite virtues in which God was calling you to grow by allowing you to experience those temptations? Were you impatient? Then clearly you were given the opportunity to exercise and grow in the virtue of patience. Were you anxious or worried? God was giving you the opportunity to exercise faith and trust. Were you despairing? You were called to practice hope. Were you tempted by lustful thoughts, desiring sexual pleasure for yourself and seeing others as objects for that pleasure rather than as persons made in the image of God? You were being called to grow in a pure heart and the virtue of chastity. Did resentful thoughts come you way? God wanted you to grow in forgiveness so that you might have a merciful heart like His.
Looking back on the temptations of the day and seeing them as opportunities to grow in virtues is a good thing to include in the daily examination of conscience or examen or evening review. It's also a way to exercise your eyes. Eyes? Yes, the eyes of faith. During this Year of Faith it would be a good idea to see all reality--the situation of the wider world and the events of your own day--in light of faith. That means seeing the enemy who is active in our world and in our lives and seeing the opportunities that are being given to grow in a virtuous life.