We have not much difficulty in seeing that temptation is no evil and that consent alone makes the sin. That which troubles and disquiets those whom God subjects to this painful trial is the fear of offending God and their ignorance of the principles by which they may reassure themselves, not being able to distinguish between temptation and consenting to temptation.
This uncertainty as to their consent fills them with an anxiety, which causes them great suffering, destroys their interior peace, and so weakens their confidence as to prevent them from approaching God freely and with confidence, and, in fine, throws them into extreme despondency, utterly prostrating their strength. A few reflections would suffice to clear their doubts and enable them to come to a right decision.
We have not a complete command over our mind and our heart. We cannot wholly prevent the intrusions of certain thoughts and feelings. Sometimes indeed they take such forcible possession of us that without perceiving it, we are led to pursue in spirit the thought or design that thus presents itself. Our preoccupation is so great that we hear and see nothing of what is passing around; we do not even remember how or when these thoughts or feelings commenced. Thus, we often suddenly find ourselves, to our surprise, engaged in thoughts and feelings that are opposed to charity or to other virtues, or in projects of vanity, pride, or self-love.
This state continues a longer or a shorter time according to the strength of the imagination or the sensible impression that occasioned it, or until some circumstance arises to awaken our soul from this apparent enchantment. We then perceive, by reflection, the nature of our thoughts.
If in this moment of self-consciousness, we condemn the thought or feeling, if we disavow it and strive to reject it, we may safely say that in all that went before we were not to blame. The satisfaction that we experience in being freed from it is a fresh proof that our will had no part in our reverie. In this preoccupation there was no deliberation, no choice on the part of the will.
In order to offend God it is necessary that the will should deliberately consent to something sinful that it is free to reject. In the case we have supposed, there was neither freedom nor deliberation; hence there could be no sin.
Moreover, the promptness of their rejection, when consciousness returned, showed the good dispositions of the soul and that it would not have admitted these thoughts and feelings, still less have dwelt on them, had reflection furnished the opportunity of accepting or rejecting them at will.
We must then consider these temptations as beginning only when we became conscious of their presence. It is to this moment, therefore, that our examination must be directed, and if we rejected them at that time, we may be at peace.
This abstraction may continue for a long time, as often happens at prayer, where we are carried away by distractions that entirely absorb the soul. This circumstance does not make it voluntary or deliberate. It no more depends on our will to shorten the distraction then, than it does to prevent it from coming at all; there is no more choice in the one than in the other. There will be no more sin either, for as the preoccupation that comes unforeseen is blameless, so the length of time in which it remains unperceived cannot make it culpable. There should be no difficulty, therefore, in deciding these cases.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Michel’s Temptations: Where they Come From, What They Mean, and How to Defeat Them, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.