Battling the temptations of the flesh


Allegory of the Virtues and Vices by Pietro Mauro (Wikimedia Commons).

We’ve been delving into temptations coming from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Last week we discussed demonic temptations in detail. Today, we’ll examine temptations of the flesh and how to combat them.

We saw that people with melancholic or choleric temperaments tend to be more prone to the temptations that come directly from the Devil: pride, envy, and anger. Temptations of the flesh particularly plague the other two temperaments. More specifically, sanguines often struggle with gluttony and sins against chastity. Phlegmatics  struggle with sloth. (I will be writing more about the four classic temperaments throughout this year. I am creating a spiritual growth plan for you to use with your children of each temperament.)

As I have said before, the flesh can be the most relentless of the three sources of temptation. While the Devil may leave us alone for a time, and we can shut out the world to a certain extent, we can never get away from our own flesh. It remains with us every moment until the end of our life, but we can learn to resist it.

Gluttony, lust, and sloth

The Catechism defines concupiscence as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason… Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man’s moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins” (2515).

Sanguines are easily moved by what they experience through their exterior senses. Thus, immodest entertainment might lead them into sexual sin. An all-you-can-eat buffet might tempt them towards gluttony. They might start using vulgar and blasphemous language if they listen to the wrong kind of music.

While phlegmatics may be prone to some of the same sins, their particular sin is sloth. In Catholic theology, sloth is more than mere physical laziness. Fr. John Hardon defined sloth as

“sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. The good work may be a corporal task, such as walking; or a mental exercise, such as writing; or a spiritual duty, such as prayer” (Pocket Catholic Dictionary).

Phlegmatics find it difficult to mature spiritually, because of their lack of motivation. Unlike the very easily moved sanguines, phlegmatics are hardly moved by anything. Although they often mean to work on their spiritual life, they find it difficult to spend the necessary effort.

All of us can fall prey to these temptations, given the right circumstances. How can we combat them?

Flee from temptation

The first defense is avoiding the near occasion of sin. Those sensitive to temptations of the flesh should be careful about what they watch, listen to, eat, drink, and even touch. Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P.  notes in Spiritual Theology  that pleasures that come through the senses don’t just affect one part of the body. The whole body enjoys the sensation. This explains why saints for centuries have connected gluttony with lust. A man who sinfully overeats is more likely to commit sexual sin than one who only consumes what he needs.

Keeping custody of the senses–that is, keeping them under strict control–keeps temptation at bay. In the concrete, this may mean avoiding looking at magazine covers near the grocery store checkout line. Avoiding surfing the internet and TV channels also helps.

Another way to prevent temptation is to practice asceticism. If you are prone to sins of the flesh, start fasting once a week if possible. If you are in charge of making or choosing your meals, eat plain foods when you can. Weed out luxuries. Exercise regularly if you have a problem with sloth.

Mental activity combats temptations of the flesh. Instead of raiding the refrigerator, complete a crossword puzzle or sudoku. Instead of sitting in front of the TV all evening, join a book club.

It may also help to follow a strict schedule with your free time. This can keep you from both wasting precious time and drifting aimlessly from one activity to another. Spiritual directors often recommend lay people create their own rule of life, similar to the daily schedule of religious.

Make prayer the top priority, praying at the same time and place each day. Then schedule in the duties of your vocation. Leisure time should be spent primarily in serving God or our neighbor, or (especially for introverts) getting the rest we need to be able to serve them better. We should avoid spending too much time pleasing ourselves.

Fighting through prayer and the sacraments

Meditating on the shortness of life, the Final Judgment, the effects of sin, and the Passion of Christ can strengthen a soul against temptations of the flesh. As we grow closer to God in prayer, He will provide supernatural help to overcome concupiscence and attachments.

Frequent confession gives us the grace to fight. People who resist confessing venial sins deprive themselves of the sacramental grace that may keep them from falling into mortal sin.

The Eucharist, our spiritual Food, also strengthens us against the flesh.

The temptations of the flesh are difficult to overcome, but God’s grace is stronger. We can conquer these sins if we are willing to work hard along with Christ.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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6 Responses

    • Connie Rossini

      You’re welcome, Mike. I think this is a message particularly appropriate for Christians in our time. God bless your battles.

  1. Susan

    This is such an interesting idea, studying which temptation a certain temperament is most likely to fall into. God didn’t use cookie cutters when He made us – we’re all a little different. =) I look forward to reading more!

    • Connie Rossini

      Susan, I certainly agree that we aren’t cookie cutouts. I have a natural dislike of the idea of putting people in categories. We’re so complex! We have to remember that temperament is only one part of a person’s personality. Talents, family makeup and history, education, and experiences all come into play. Some people’s temperaments are hard to figure out and I am one of those people. I am close to half phlegmatic and half melancholic. I started reading about temperaments a few years ago and couldn’t find one that totally “got” me. I finally just figured myself out a few weeks ago. Now I understand my trust and anger issues for the first time (after nearly completing a book about trust!). I think I am slightly more phlegmatic. My kids think I’m primarily melancholic. I wish when I was trying to overcome my anger issues a few years back that the books written by experts in the field had talked about temperaments. Cholerics and melancholics both struggle with anger, but their anger is different. Now I understand it in a deeper way and can work on it from a different angle. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, this has been invaluable for me and my family, and I think it can be for others too. I hope you can identify yourself in some of the areas I talk about.

  2. Lydia

    I’m definitely phlegmatic and suffer from sloth. Evidence of this is that I have had your article up on a browser tab since you published this, but only today, 10 weeks later, have I really taken the time to face the article and actually read it. Sloth is a real spiritual problem and I appreciate any articles you can write about it. (Though it may take me awhile to read them 🙂

    • Connie Rossini

      Lydia, too funny. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of phlegmatic in me too. But I have enough melancholic to be motivated in the areas I enjoy working–like writing. Housework is another matter! I hope to post some pointers specifically for phlegmatics in the future. God bless.

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