The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

What to do when temptation seems overwhelming?


Spiritual wisdom for Lent and throughout the year from a 16th-century classic beloved by, among others, St. Francis de Sales.

ManDesertPhoto by Moon on Unsplash.

Lent is almost here. The Church asks us to make this season one of particular effort to learn holiness's two aspects: living fully the new life in Christ that began in our baptism and putting away those things preventing us from experiencing that new life. We fast from good things to remember that all good things come from God and can only be enjoyed when used according to God's will. We also give them up to strengthen our will so that, when tempted toward things we know are truly wrong, we will be able to resist.

In Colossians 3:10, St. Paul describes the new life that we have in Christ and makes clear what we have to do to keep that life alive in us: "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry."

But no matter how long we have been working at it, following Christ and not our own will can be difficult. Seemingly free from one temptation, we discover another in its place. We thought fornication and impurity were dead earlier in our life; now we discover our covetousness of others' goods or perhaps situation. Maybe the same temptation appears differently. We thought anger was dead in us because we stopped shouting; now a cold rage and desire for revenge is discovered while awake at 3 AM.

That we are not yet perfect—at least as perfect as we think we ought to be—frustrates us. Even more, it reveals that the sin of pride isn't dead either. We are offended that we aren't better. Maybe even angry at God that he hasn't delivered us from evil after all those Our Fathers. Why is temptation still so apparently overwhelming?

What do we do? A good answer is found in the book Spiritual Combat by the Theatine priest Lorenzo Scupoli. First published in 1589, it is a classic spiritual work beloved by, among others, St. Francis de Sales, who most likely met Scupoli, and the seventeenth-century Eastern Orthodox monk Nicholas the Hagiorite, who translated it into Greek.

Its broad appeal comes from its heavy focus on the interior search for God's knowledge and love by training the will to respond to God in all circumstances—even when we feel defeated spiritually. Chapter 14 details what to do when we feel overwhelmed by temptation, when our will to do what God wants, what he calls the "superior will," seems "powerless against the inferior will and its enemies because you do not feel an effective interior inclination against them."

Though we might feel like a lost cause when we experience this, Scupoli says, "You must consider yourself victorious as long as it does not seem that you have openly surrendered." It may seem as though we are defeated because part of us responds to temptation, but so long as we still know what is right and have some desire to do right, we should "not lose heart."

In fact, Scupoli says, in such situations, you can be like the soldier who makes a fake thrust with his sword one way only to strike another: "[Y]ou can withdraw into self-knowledge, specifically of your weakness and nothingness. Then, with all the faith in God that you can muster, give a blow to the enemy passion, saying, 'Help me, Lord, save me, my God; Jesus, Mary, help me to avoid surrender to them.'" Often, this quick prayer will bring Christ's deliverance swiftly. But what if it doesn't work immediately?

Scupoli recommends that if you are calm enough to think through the matter with God, you ought to consider five points. First, you may have brought this temptation and its suffering on yourself by past sins. If so, "justice demands that you patiently endure the wound you have given yourself with your own hand."

Second, you may not have brought this particular temptation on yourself. But what if it's true that you courted evil in some other way and were never faced with any punishments for it? Perhaps this temptation is a punishment that God has given for something else. Remember, God's punishments are disciplines, designed to bend those whom he loves back into the correct shape and to restore what our sins have made crooked. If this is the case, "you ought to receive it not only willingly but with thanksgiving."

Third, if you think your conscience is truly clean, that "you have done much penance but little offense to the divine Majesty," a thought Scupoli generally warns against, "you need to remember that no one enters into the kingdom of heaven except through the narrow door of tribulation."

We might add that Jesus, though sinless, was "made perfect through suffering" (Heb 2:10). And that is Scupoli's next point: "Fourthly, even if you were able to enter heaven by another means, then by the law of love you should not, and should not even think of such a thing, since the Son of God with all His saints and friends entered there by means of thorns and crosses."

Fifth, always remember that when you are most tempted, God's love for you is faithful, and He "is indescribably pleased by every act of virtue and mortification that He sees you make, like His faithful and generous warrior, in order to correspond to Him in love." The tougher things are, "the more irrational and more shameful the source of the trouble, and therefore the more bothersome and serious for you to tolerate, the more will you give pleasure to the Lord by assenting to and loving His divine will and dispositions even in the midst of these disordered events because you love His will and dispositions more."

Temptation and the suffering it causes may seem overwhelming and even senseless. They are neither. "I can do all things in him who strengthens me," St. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:13. We may be weak, but God's power "is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 2:9).

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



DavidDeavelDavid Paul Deavel. "What to do when temptation seems overwhelming?" Catholic World Report (February 11, 2024).

Reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report.

The Author

Copyright © 2024 Catholic World Report

Subscribe to our Weekly Update

* indicates required