The nature and discernment of temptations

July 18, 2021 • 10 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 224
By St. Francis de Sales


The nature of Temptations, and the difference between the feeling of temptation and the consenting to it.

Imagine to yourself, Philothea, a young princess extremely beloved by her spouse, and that some wicked man, in order to corrupt her fidelity, sends an infamous messenger to treat with her concerning his design:

  1. First, the messenger proposes the intention of his master;
  2. secondly, the princess is pleased or displeased with the proposition;
  3. thirdly, she either consents or refuses.

It is in the same manner that Satan, the world, and the flesh, seeing a soul espoused to the Son of God, send her temptations and suggestions by which,

  1. sin is proposed to her;
  2. she is either pleased or displeased with the proposal;
  3. she either consents or refuses.

These are the three steps which lead to iniquity—temptation, delectation, and consent. But though these three things are not so manifestly discerned in all other kinds of sins, they are nevertheless palpably seen in great sins.

Though the temptation to any sin whatsoever should last during life, it could never render us displeasing to the Divine Majesty, provided we were not pleased with it, and did not yield our consent to it; the reason is, because we do not act, but suffer in temptation, and as in this we take no pleasure, so we cannot incur any guilt.

St. Paul suffered for a long time the temptations of the flesh, and yet so far from being displeasing to God on that account, that, on the contrary, God was glorified on account of them. The blessed Angela de Foligny felt such cruel temptations of the flesh, that she moves us to compassion when she relates them. St. Francis and St. Benedict also suffered such violent temptations as obliged the one to cast himself naked into thorns and the other into snow, in order to combat them, and yet they lost nothing of God’s favour, but increased very much in grace.

You must then be courageous, Philothea, amidst temptations, and never think yourself overcome as long as they displease you, observing well this difference between feeling and consenting, viz., we may feel temptations, though they displease us, but we can never consent to them, unless they please us, since being pleased with them ordinarily serves as a step towards our consent.

Let then the enemies of our salvation lay as many baits and allurements in our way as they please; let them remain always at the door of our heart, in order to try to gain admittance; let them make us as many proposals as they can—still, as long as we remain steadfast in our resolution to take no pleasure in the temptation, it is utterly impossible for us to offend God, any more than that the prince whom I have mentioned could be displeased with his spouse, on account of the infamous message sent to her, if she took no kind of pleasure whatever in it.

Yet, in this case, there is this difference between her and the soul, that the princess having heard the wicked proposition, may, if she please, drive away the messenger, and never again suffer him to appear in her presence; but it is not always in the power of the soul not to feel the temptation, though it is in her power not to consent to it; for which reason, although the temptation may last ever so long a time, yet it cannot hurt us as long as it is disagreeable to us.

But with respect to the pleasure which may follow the temptation, it may be observed that, as there are two parts in the soul, the inferior and the superior, and that the inferior does not always follow the superior, but acts for itself apart, it frequently happens that the inferior part takes delight in the temptation without the consent, nay, against the will of the superior. This is that warfare which the Apostle describes, when he says: “That the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another” (Gal. v. 17).

Have you never seen, Philothea, a great wood-fire covered with ashes? Should one come to that place ten or twelve hours after in search of fire, he finds but little in the midst of the hearth, and that scarcely to be noticed; yet there it is, and with it he may kindle again the remainder of the cinders which were dead.

So it is with charity, which is our spiritual life, in the midst of violent temptations; for the temptation, casting the pleasure which accompanies it into the inferior part, covers the whole soul, as it were with ashes, and reduces the love of God into a narrow compass; for it appears nowhere but in the midst of the heart, in the centre of the spirit, and even there is scarcely perceptible, and it is only with much difficulty that we find it; yet there it is in reality, since, notwithstanding all the trouble and the disorder we feel in our soul and our body, we still retain a resolution never to consent to the temptation; and the pleasure which the outward man feels displeases the inward, so that although it surrounds the will, yet it is not within it; by which we see that such pleasure, being involuntary, can be no sin.


Two remarkable examples on this subject.

As it so nearly concerns you to understand this matter perfectly, I will explain it more fully.

1. A young man, as St. Jerome relates, being fastened down with bands of silk, on a delicate soft bed, was provoked by the most violent temptations, employed by his persecutors, in order to stagger his constancy.

Ah! must not his chaste soul have felt strange disorders? Nevertheless, amongst so many conflicts, in the midst of such a terrible storm of temptations, he testified that his heart was not vanquished, and that his will gave no consent.

Having no part of his body at command but his tongue, he bit it off, and spat it in the face of the wretched woman, who tortured him more cruelly than the executioners could have done by the greatest torments; for the tyrant, despairing to conquer him by pain, thought to overcome him by pleasure.

2. This history of the conflict of St. Catherine of Sienna, on the like occasion, is very admirable;—the substance of it is as follows: The wicked spirit had permission from God to assault the purity of this holy virgin with the greatest fury, yet so as not to be allowed to touch her.

He presented then all kinds of impure suggestions to her mind; and to move her the more, coming with his companions in the form of men and women, he committed a thousand kinds of immodesties in her sight, adding most filthy language; and although these things were exterior, nevertheless, by means of the senses, they penetrated deep into the heart of the virgin, which as she herself confessed, was filled to the brim with them; so that nothing remained in her, except the pure superior will, which was not shaken.

This temptation continued for a long time, till one day our Saviour appearing to her, she said to Him: Where wert thou, my dear Saviour, when my heart was full of so great uncleanness? To which He answered: I was within thy heart, my daughter.

But how, she replied, couldst Thou dwell in my heart, where there was so much impurity? is it possible Thou couldst dwell in such an unclean place? To which our Lord replied: Tell me, did these filthy thoughts of thy heart give thee pleasure or sadness, bitterness or delight? The most extreme bitterness and sadness, said she.

Who was it then, replied our Saviour, that put this great bitterness and sadness into thy heart but I, who remained concealed in thy soul? Believe me, daughter, had it not been for my presence, these thoughts which surrounded thy will would have doubtless entered in, and with pleasure would have brought death to thy soul; but being present I infused this displeasure into thy heart which enabled thee to reject the temptations as much as it could; but, not being able to do it as much as it would, conceived a greater displeasure and hatred both against the temptation and thyself; and thus, these troubles have proved occasions of great merit to thee, and to a greater increase of thy strength and virtue.

Behold, Philothea, how this fire was covered with ashes, and how the temptation had even entered the heart, and surrounded the will, which, assisted by our Saviour held out to the last, resisting, by her aversion, displeasure, and detestation of the evil suggested, and constantly refusing her consent to the sin which besieged her on every side.

Good God! what distress must not a soul that loves God feel, at not knowing whether He is in her or not, and whether the Divine love, for which she fights, is altogether extinguished in her or not! But it is the great perfection of heavenly love to make those who love God suffer and fight for his Jove, not knowing whether they possess the love for which and by which they fight.

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