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What is the true nature of temptation? EightBitTony, CC BY-NC

Is temptation such a bad thing?

The Washington Post recently published a profile on Karen Pence, the “prayer-warrior wife” of Vice President Mike Pence. The piece cited information on the Pences’ marriage: specifically that Mike Pence will not dine with a woman, or be present where alcohol is served, without Karen Pence beside him.

Since the publication of the Washington Post piece, the Pence family rule has become the subject of much discussion. For the socially liberal, this practice appears “misogynistic” or even “bizarre.” But, for many conservatives, it is “wise.”

The intent behind the rule is to avoid not only tempting situations but also anything that might be interpreted as sinful behavior. In the run-up to Lent many Christians strengthen themselves against temptation as they prepare to celebrate Easter, the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Is temptation such a bad thing?

Temptation is an invitation to sin

Chilean Catholic priest Segundo Galilea, in his book, “Temptation and Discernment,” describes temptation as an “invitation” to violate God’s will or law: in other words, an invitation to sin.

But the idea of temptation as an “invitation” is a little more complicated: Who or what is sending the invitation and, even more basically, what is the nature of temptation itself?

The classic Christian story about temptation involves Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, a period that the 40 days of Lent commemorates. As recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, Satan tempts Jesus as he is fasting – he invites him.

The temptation of Christ, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, United Kingdom. Walwyn, CC BY-NC

The devil specifically asks him to turn stones into bread. He also dares Jesus to throw himself down from a temple while calling angels to the rescue. The most tempting offer Satan makes to Jesus is a gift of all world’s kingdoms if only the son of God will bow down to him.

Jesus rejects Satan’s temptations and shows that the power of God is not to be confused with human understandings of power. Jesus did not come to set up a worldly kingdom, but a heavenly one. From this perspective, temptation is an invitation from the devil not just to turn away from God, but to deny who and what God is.

Christians understand Jesus to be both divine and human. But the rest of us are only human. And so, along with the belief that temptation is an invitation from the devil is the understanding that temptation is an invitation that can also come from within ourselves.

Temptation comes from within

As human beings we are limited, and never feel completely whole. The rite of baptism, so central to Christianity, removes the “original sin” that all humans have. But nonetheless we experience suffering and death, along with constant daily challenges that show us that we are limited in our physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities.

As human beings, we exist in a constant state of need.

But Christians believe that God offers us eternal life. St. Maximus the Confessor, an early Christian theologian, argued that human destiny ultimately leads to becoming “like” God and an eternal life understood as unity with God.

Sin can be anything that distracts us on our journey to the final wholeness found in and with God.

But temptation is not just an invitation or a call to walk away from the path that leads toward God; temptation is also an incitement or an “invitatio” – a Latin word that can mean “invitation” as well.

What this means is that our own neediness “incites” or “invites” us to seek wholeness in ways different from what God intends: For example, the greed of individuals incites or invites them to cheat on their taxes. Similarly, feelings of inadequacy could incite or invite people to lie on their resume. And likewise, feelings of being unloved can often incite or invite people to sleep around.

In this sense, temptation comes from the inside, not the outside.

It then follows that God’s law isn’t simply a list of do’s and don’t’s for avoiding hell and getting into heaven. Instead, God’s law is a treasure map that leads to real riches: a wholeness that only God can provide.

Why be afraid of temptation?

Mike Pence and his wife Karen, listen to a singing of ‘(Back Home Again in) Indiana’ during the opening ceremonies for the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis, on Aug. 5, 2016. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

To return to Mike and Karen Pence, I have to say there is something both sweet and remarkable about two partners who are unapologetic about being a couple: It’s a message that we can never be completely whole if we go it alone.

The vice president is following what is known as the “Billy Graham rule,” a code of conduct about money, power and sex for ministers of the Christian Gospel, developed by the well-known Christian evangelist Billy Graham and other preachers during a conference in Modesto, California in 1948.

For some of us, following the Billy Graham rule might be wise: not because we fear that someone else might be dangerous, but because all too often we are a danger to ourselves.

Nonetheless, I would offer a cautionary note about the Billy Graham rule and exercising relentless rigor in making sure that sin can’t deliver an invitation in the first place: Temptation is strongest when it comes disguised as “good.” This is a point made often by Pope Francis. While some humans actually intentionally choose evil, we are more likely to give into temptation if it comes under the appearance of doing something good. And doing good can certainly bring more temptation: the temptation to overly enjoy praise, esteem and fame.

This can become a slippery slope that leads to pride: believing that we are good because people perceive us as good. The Bible tells us that such pride comes before “fall,” meaning that we can easily let down our guard if think that we have become immune to temptation in its hidden forms.

The problem comes when we become so afraid of being tempted, or receiving an invitation to violate God’s law, that we lose opportunities to experience a taste of wholeness in our everyday lives.

And while temptation can be an invitation to sin, experiencing temptation can be an invitation of a different kind: a “challenge” to consider more deeply our need to be made whole.

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