If there’s anyone who knows about temptation, it has to be Jesus. At the very beginning of his ministry, he spent forty days in the wilderness dealing with the devil’s lies, half-truths, and accusations.
That experience in and of itself should be enough to make him an expert on the subject. But surely the devil was always hovering around Jesus, whispering just enough thoughts to try to turn him from God’s will for him. You can imagine him urging Jesus to lose his temper during an argument with some Pharisees. You can hear him suggesting that maybe God wouldn’t work when Jesus tried to heal a blind man or restore someone’s hearing. Once he even used Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple, to try to keep him from the cross (Matthew 16:21-23)!
Satan’s goal was simple: “If I can cause Jesus to commit a sin, then truth will be lost and perfection will be stained.” Of course Satan failed. Jesus never fell prey to his tactics. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the devil tried to get him to renounce his path to the cross, Jesus held fast: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
A Military Analogy. Now, we may be like Jesus in many ways, but we are not like him in our ability to resist sin. Temptation never caught Jesus off guard. But apart from the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary, not a single human has ever been able to resist every temptation the devil sends their way.
That’s why St. Paul urged the Ephesians, and us, “Draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). Because he knew firsthand how strong temptation can be, Paul told the Ephesians, “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil” (6:11). And because he knew how sneaky the devil can be, he reminded them that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the . . . evil spirits in the heavens” (6:12).
Paul’s use of military imagery comes from his experience. Both as a Roman citizen and later as a prisoner under Roman guard, Paul had numerous up close encounters with the soldiers of Rome. He regularly saw them in their military outfits: helmets, breastplates, belts, shin guards, and shields. He knew that the relatively smaller and lighter swords they used gave them a competitive advantage over other soldiers with their long, heavy swords. He knew also that Rome had conquered vast areas the world, in large part, because they had trained their soldiers well.
The Armor of God. Paul took this military imagery and applied it to the Christian life. He wanted believers to learn how to hold their ground spiritually so that they could stay close to God and let his Spirit continue to work in them. For Paul, this meant that they needed to protect their eyes, their ears, their minds, and their hearts.
If Paul were here right now, he’d probably tell us to defend our minds, our home turf, at all costs. He would tell us to never allow evil thoughts to find a home in us. Even as we go about our everyday lives, he would urge us to keep our guard up, to protect ourselves at all times.
Using this analogy of the armor of God and drawing on images from the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul linked six key spiritual tools to six pieces of armor (Ephesians 6:14, 15, 16, 17): a “belt of truth” (see Isaiah 11:5), “righteousness as a breastplate” (see Isaiah 59:17), foot gear of “readiness” to preach the “gospel of peace” (see Isaiah 52:7), “faith as a shield” (see Psalm 28:7), a “helmet of salvation” (see Isaiah 59:17), and, finally, a “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (see Isaiah 49:2). This list can be boiled down to three distinct lines of defense: Christian character, God’s grace and peace, and the word of God. Let’s look at each of these more closely.
Character. One line of defense involves developing a godly character. By allowing thoughts like anger, envy, pride, mistrust, and resentment to linger in our minds, we are also allowing the devil to make inroads. We are opening ourselves up to his attempts to darken our relationship with the Lord. We will be much more successful in this battle if we resolve to live a virtuous life and stay faithful to that resolve.
Scripture tells us that “the honesty of the upright guides them” (Proverbs 11:3). Similarly, the prophet Daniel “resolved” at a young age “not to defile himself” (Daniel 1:8). His decision played a key role in his ability to hear the Lord and interpret dreams and visions for the king.
Why is this so important? Listen to St. Peter. He urged his readers to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance” (2 Peter 1:5-6). He then promised, “If these are yours . . . they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful. . . . You will never stumble” (1:8, 10). In short, holding onto these virtues keeps us strong in the fight against the devil’s tactics. If we try to be virtuous, we will develop the character of a son or daughter of God.
Grace and Peace. We build another line of defense as we learn to rely on special gifts from the Lord. Whereas virtuous living focuses on our role, this line of defense focuses on God’s role. Paul talked about having our feet shod to bring the “gospel of peace” as well as our need to take up the “faith as a shield,” and the “helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:15, 16, 17). These images relate to the Holy Spirit’s desire to fill us with grace and peace so that we don’t have to feel as if we are fighting temptation on our own.
Look again at Roman armor. A soldier’s sandal included small nails attached to the outside of the sole. These nails helped the soldier grip the ground firmly, even in the most slippery of conditions. The soldier’s shield was large—close to the size of a door. If soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder, their shields could act as an almost impenetrable wall that no arrows could pierce. And of course, the helmet—which was made of thick, strong leather—was more than capable of protecting a soldier’s head.
When you feel tempted to slide into anger, rivalry, envy, or the like, ask the Spirit to fill you with the peace of Christ. That way, you can plant your feet on holy ground. When you feel like a failure, take refuge behind the gift of faith that you received at your baptism. Let that faith remind you that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And when you find yourself doubting God’s goodness or his love for you, remember the helmet of salvation, which can help you “test the spirits” to discern the truth from lies (1 John 4:1).
The Word of God. Ironically, the final line of defense is actually a line of offense. All of the armor we have looked at so far is defensive in nature. Shields, breastplates, helmets, and the others—they all protect a soldier from enemy attacks. It’s only the word of God that Paul connects to an actual weapon: a sword. And not just any old sword, but the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17).
Defensive weaponry is useful only when you are under attack. You don’t go rushing at an enemy with your breastplate! But with an offensive weapon, like a sword, you can take action before the devil strikes. And you can neutralize him once he launches his assault.
The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is “God-breathed,” which means that it carries the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). During his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus used the word of God to drive back his enemy over and over again: “One does not live by bread alone. . . . You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve. . . . You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Luke 4:4, 8, 12). And it worked! Not only did Jesus win the battle against the devil, but he emerged from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit” (4:14).
If you spend just ten minutes reading and pondering Scripture each day, you’ll find yourself growing stronger and more confident when temptation comes. You’ll be able to draw on the Scriptures, just as a soldier draws his sword, and cut through the devil’s lies and deceit. And you’ll be doing it with the power of the Spirit, not just the power of your own memory or intellect!
Take Your Stand. Scripture promises: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). With the armor of God, you can protect yourself against the devil’s tactics. As you do, you’ll also grow closer to the Lord. It really is possible to win the battle for your mind. So put on your armor, and take a stand!