Orodruin ("Fiery Mountain")

Image by Richard Sugden Photography via Flickr

Is it possible to experience such a powerful temptation to evil that it is practically impossible to resist? St. Paul does not think so; in in I Corinthians 10:13 (KJV) he writes: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

Normally I would accept such a statement as is–after all, St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture, and I am not. So what he says must be taken seriously. Some distinctions are necessary, however, before proceeding. First, what would it mean for a temptation to be “impossible to resist.” Possibilities include the following:

1. Temptations logically impossible to resist–This does not make sense, since whether a person resists or does not resist temptation is not a matter of logical necessity or logical impossibility–there is no logical contradiction to say, “No temptation is impossible to resist.” Nor is it a logical contradiction to say that “Some temptations are impossible to resist.” Logically these are contingent statements that may be either true or false.

2. Temptations naturally impossible to resist: This is not a likely interpretation either. Natural law may be involved if certain temptations are impossible to resist, but it is not the only or deciding factor.

3. Temptations practically impossible to resist: This is the most likely meaning of there being some temptations that a person cannot resist. Some have such power that no human being, short of Christ Himself, could resist them. Theoretically a person could, but de facto this is not practically possible. The issue arises of whether there are such temptations.

J. R. R. Tolkien believed that some temptations are practically impossible to resist. He says explicitly in his letters that Frodo Baggins could not have resisted the temptation of the Ring, and that some radically contingent act such as Gollum‘s cutting Frodo’s finger off and falling into Mt. Doom was the only way the Ring could be destroyed. Tolkien had no problem extending this reasoning to actually existing human beings as well. Thus, he did not agree with St. Paul on this issue. With deference to the authority of the Catholic Church if I am wrong, I must agree with Tolkien. There are some temptations which a person cannot practically bear. I will give some examples.

1. A person who has, but is unaware of, a strong genetic propensity to alcoholism takes a drink. He craves more, and figures another drink is okay. He continues to drink until he is thoroughly plastered. Now if he knew he had such a propensity, perhaps he would not have begun to drink in the first place. But it is, I would argue, practically impossible for him to stop drinking once he starts due to the strong craving his body has for the drink.

2. A married man meets a married woman. She is charming and manipulative, and he trusts her. She has an almost intuitive grasp of what he wants in a woman, and plays that particular role to perfection. He feels safe, figuring that they are both married. She, however, leads the man along slowly, flirting very little at first, but raising up the seduction level so slowly that the man does not notice the web being spun. How he should know better–but perhaps he has mild autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and does not read people well. He is drawn in and starts to have feelings for the woman, and she encourages those feelings, backing away when he gets scared. When she finally offers him her body, he finds he cannot resist the temptation.

Now there is no logical or physical impossibility to resisting these temptations. But I would argue that at a practical level, some people simply cannot resist them. Everyone has a particular issue concerning which they are tempted the most. With some people it is money; with others, power. Others may be tempted by sex; still others by envy or malice. Apart from a near supererogatory effort, the person cannot resist a strong temptation in his most vulnerable area of temptation. Now I am not tempted by money or power, but I have other areas in which I would be vulnerable, and in the right (or “wrong”!) combination of circumstances, it would be practically impossible for me to resist temptation–mea maxima culpa. The sin would still be my fault if I committed it, and I would blame myself and pray for forgiveness–even if a temptation were too hard to bear, I would still be responsible for the sin–there is no logical of physical necessity in my yielding. At a practical level, though, the difficulty in fighting off some temptations may be so high that it is practically impossible to resist such temptations. If someone yields to temptation in those situations, he should take responsibility, repent, and find strategies to avoid such temptations in the future. Human beings are “miserable sinners,” fallen creatures. The fact that with their damaged (but not destroyed) nature they are unable to resist every temptation to sin should be no  surprise.