Why We Pray, Fast, and Give Alms

Lent is coming soon, and Catholics all around the world are about to hear a lot of preaching about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three spiritual practices that our Church especially recommends during this penitential season. We’re going to be encouraged to spend more time in intimate conversation with God, to do without some pleasurable things like certain foods or forms of entertainment, and to give a bit more of our money and resources to those in need.

But why does the Church recommend these practices? Why are we urged to focus on these three in particular? There are many reasons, so we cannot hope to cover all of them in one short article. However, let’s take a look at just one of those reasons, one that comes straight from the pages of Scripture and that spans the entirety of salvation history.

The Three Temptations

In a nutshell, these three spiritual practices help strengthen us against the various temptations we face every day. To see how, let’s begin by looking at the way the New Testament describes those temptations:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)

When John says “the world” in this passage, he is not talking about the entirety of creation. Rather, he is using it in a very specific sense: he is talking about everything that is opposed to God. Specifically, he points out three things, three sources of temptation that pretty much sum up everything in the world that is opposed to God.

First, we have “the lust of the flesh.” While that may make us think of sexual sins, John’s meaning is broader than just that. He’s talking about any bodily pleasure that tempts us to sin, whether sexual or not. For example, we may be tempted to steal so we can afford to feast on the best food money can buy, and that would fall under this category.

Secondly, we have “the lust of the eyes.” This refers to things that look nice. Any time we are tempted to sin in order to have nice things (for example, stealing money to buy a nicer car), we are experiencing “the lust of the eyes.” Finally, there is “the pride of life,” which is exactly what it sounds like: it’s pride. If, for example, we act like we’re better than everyone else, then we have given in to this kind of temptation.

Adam and Eve

And it’s not just that one passage that presents temptation this way. If we turn to the story of the Fall of mankind, we see that the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate is described in a way that matches the New Testament’s description of temptation perfectly:

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6)

The three ways that this verse describes the fruit correspond to the three sources of temptation that John lays out for us in his letter. First, it “was good for food,” which is the lust of the flesh; secondly, “it was a delight to the eyes,” which is the lust of the eyes; and thirdly, it “was to be desired to make one wise” (and as the snake says in the previous verse, this means that it will make them like God), which is the pride of life. In other words, Adam and Eve were tempted to disobey God for three reasons, and these three reasons correspond exactly to the three sources of temptation John lays out for us in the New Testament.

Jesus in the Desert

Similarly, when we turn to the Gospels, we see that when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, he faced these same three temptations as well. First, Satan tempted him to break his fast and turn rocks into bread (Matthew 4:3), which is the lust of the flesh. Next, Satan tempted him to jump off the roof of the temple in Jerusalem. He said that because Jesus was the Son of God, the angels would save him (Matthew 4:5-6). In other words, Satan wanted Jesus to exercise his divine prerogatives just because he could; he wanted Jesus to flaunt his status as God’s Son, which is the pride of life. Thirdly, Satan tempted Jesus to worship him in return for rule over all the kingdoms in the world (Matthew 4:8-9), which is a combination of the pride of life and the lust of the eyes. Being the king of the world obviously appeals to pride, but it also entails having a lot of nice things as well.

Consequently, when we look throughout the Bible, we can see that these really are the main temptations we face in life. They were present at both the Fall of mankind and Jesus’ testing in the desert, two of Scripture’s archetypal stories about temptation. Moreover, if we look at our own lives and the world around us, we find confirmation of this. Whenever we or anybody else is tempted to sin, it’s usually because of one (or more) of these three things. We want some sort of bodily pleasure, something that looks nice, or something that makes us better than other people (at least in our own minds).

Fighting These Temptations

And what does this have to do with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Each of these practices directly fights one of these three sources of temptation. For example, when we pray, we call to mind the greatness of God and our total dependence on him. It helps us to realize how powerless we are in the face of both the needs that we pray for and the God that we call upon to help us. Similarly, when we fast, we deprive ourselves of a bodily pleasure (usually food, but we can fast from other things as well). The more we do this, the more we become accustomed to not having these pleasures, so we’ll be tempted by them less. Finally, when we give alms, we give away our money, so we are depriving ourselves of the ability to buy the nicest things we can afford.

When we look at prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this way, we can see that prayer fights against the pride of life, fasting fights against the lust of the flesh, and almsgiving fights against the lust of the eyes. And that’s part of the reason why these three pious practices are especially recommended during Lent (and, in truth, they are essential parts of our spiritual lives all year round). Yes, there are multiple reasons why we should engage in all three of them, but one of those reasons is that they help strengthen us against the three principle forms of temptation we all face in this world.

image: SkandaRamana / Shutterstock.com


JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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