LENTEN REFLECTION – Wednesday of the First Week of Lent – 8 MARCH
Subtle temptations and subtle sins
Blessed John Henry Newman
Now, I have used the word “subtle” already and it needs some explanation. By a subtle temptation or a subtle sin, I mean one which it is very difficult to find out. Everyone knows what it is to break the ten commandments, the first, the second, the third and so on. When a thing is directly commanded and the devil tempts us directly to break it, this is not a subtle temptation but a broad and gross temptation. But there are a great many things wrong which are not so obviously wrong. They are wrong as leading to what is wrong or the consequence of what is wrong, or they are wrong because they are the very same thing as what is forbidden but dressed up and looking differently.
The human mind is very deceitful; when a thing is forbidden, a man does not like directly to do it but he goes to work if he can to get at the forbidden end in some way. It is like a man who has to make for some place. First he attempts to go straight to it but finds the way blocked up; then he goes round about it. At first you would not think he is going in the right direction; he sets off perhaps at a right angle but he just makes one little bend, then another, till at length he gets to his point. Or still more it is like a sailing vessel at sea with the wind contrary but tacking first this way and then that, the mariners contrive at length to get to their destination. This then is a subtle sin, when it at first seems not to be a sin but comes round to the same point as an open direct sin.
To take some examples. If the devil tempted one to go out into the highway and rob, this would be an open, bold temptation. But if he tempted one to do something unfair in the course of business, which was to one’s neighbour’s hurt and to one’s own advantage, it would be a more subtle temptation. The man would still take what was his neighbour’s, but his conscience would not be so much shocked. So equivocation is a more subtle sin than direct lying. In like manner a person who does not intoxicate himself, may eat too much. Gluttony is a more subtle sin than drunkenness because it does not show so much. And again, sins of the soul are more subtle sins than sins of the body. Infidelity is a more subtle sin than licentiousness.
Even in our Blessed Lord’s case the Tempter began by addressing himself to His bodily wants. He had fasted forty days and afterwards was hungered. So the devil tempted Him to eat. But when He did not consent, then he went on to more subtle temptations. He tempted him to spiritual pride and he tempted Him by ambition for power. Many a man would shrink from intemperance, of being proud of his spiritual attainments; that is, he would confess such things were wrong but he would not see that he was guilty of them.
Blessed John Henry Newman (Excerpt from a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent )