Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:12-15)
St James is clear that God does not tempt anyone to sin. So if we fear some temptation to sin is actually a test from God, James would tell us, “not so.” For him, temptations arise from within each of us – our own desires entice us to sin. There is no one else to blame but ourselves. James does not blame Satan either. Our own desires can lead us astray. Which means the spiritual warfare takes place in our own hearts and minds and we are battling against ourselves. No wonder the Lord Jesus said to all of us, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Amma Theodora, one of the great desert mothers of the Church, reminds us of this same truth in one of her sayings:
‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.”’ (THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS, p 84)
Her point being that you cannot escape yourself. Wherever you go, your spiritual battles will be with you. The things that tempt you are in your heart and mind and will be wherever you are, until you expel them. As Christ tells us, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19).
On the other hand, St John Cassian believed temptations are the means by which we show whether or not we really are faithful to God. He didn’t see temptations as evil, but rather opportunities to show us where we are in our spiritual journey. God wants us to choose to love Him, serve Him and obey Him. Spiritual tests of various sorts give us opportunity to show God we desire to be His children and are willing to struggle in the spiritual warfare to overcome our own temptations and sins. So, we don’t want to ask God to remove all ‘tests’ from us, but rather we seek God’s aid in the time of temptation so that we will not be overcome by them, and to show God that we really do love Him more than we love our own desires.
“John Cassian … differentiated between being tempted and being overcome by temptation.
[From] ‘Lead us not into temptation‘ . . . comes a problem that is not a minor one. If we pray that we be not permitted to be tempted, where will that constancy come from for which we are to be tested? There is the scriptural statement that everyone who has not been tempted has not been approved of. There is ‘Blessed is the man who endures temptation.’ So this cannot be the sense of ‘Lead us not into temptation.‘ It is not ‘Do not allow us ever to be tempted’ but rather ‘Do not allow us to be overcome when we are tempted.’ (Conferences 9. 23…)
. . . Perhaps in this connection we can cite, from Matthew itself, the story of Jesus’ own temptation (4:1-11). For here the Spirit leads him to the wilderness, but it is the devil who assaults him with temptations. . . . For Matthew, evil comes not from God but from sinful humans and the devil (see also 13:1-30, 36-43…).” (Dale Allison, THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, p 130-131)