Drawing toward the end of the Our Father, as you well know, we petition God to “lead us not into temptation.” We make this request because we know that temptation is not, as geographers like to say, ubiquitous. Its properties and potencies vary from place to place. In one place temptation is as faint and tenuous as wood smoke from a distant chimney, in another as overpowering and lethal as a cloud of mustard gas.
In asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we also acknowledge our weakness, our inability to withstand temptation that is sufficiently strong and specially tuned to our own peculiar hungers and hankerings. We can hold up to a whiff of wood smoke, but will go down before a cloud of mustard gas.
Any man who would remain righteous must remember these two things: temptation is not ubiquitous and he himself is weak. And with these things in mind, he directs his steps accordingly.
Except, of course, when he doesn’t. For even when God obliges, and leads a man not into temptation, but directs him to the path of righteous, he will take himself to temptation with all the whistling alacrity of a lecher loping to an assignation. He drools when he gets a whiff of mustard gas!
But, as I said, the better part of virtue is to know the limits of one’s strength and to stay within those limits. The man with a weakness for gluttony should not test his power of restraint by packing his refrigerator with cakes and ice cream. The man with a weakness for wrath should not seek out the company of men who get on his nerves. The man with a weakness for another man’s wife should not contrive to find her in a solitary spot.
Except, of course, when they don’t. For each man is weak before blandishments that test his own peculiar weakness. He is not only easily tempted, but also easily tempted into temptation. If we liken the occasions of his special weakness to a lantern, we may liken him to a careening moth.
If there is such a thing as a prudent father moth, and if such moths impart to their children precious pearls of lepidopeteratic wisdom, it seems that to give the widest possible berth to flame of every sort would be among those pearls. “If you see one flickering far off in the distance, fly away my little ones, fly away.” Every prudent father moth must say something of this sort.
We needn’t concern ourselves with imprudent father moths, who impart nothing but lepidopeteratic folly. My Coleman lantern is speckled with the crisp remains of their offspring.
But to push this fable just a bit farther, I ask you to imagine a strutting moth, a sort of dusty daredevil, who is able to plunge toward a flame, but then veer away at the last instant. Being a vain and self-satisfied creature, this daredevil moth tells his eager children that, although he has no desire to see them reduced to crisp remains, there is something low and cowardly in a moth that seeks safety in the gloomy recesses of the forest. “The trick, little ones, is to circle the flame,” he will say. “Best of all, singe your wings.”
Now it seems to me that there is a sort of daredevil moralist among men, whose counsel resembles that of the strutting moth. Sin, he agrees, is very bad; but only somewhat better is fastidious avoidance of the occasions of sin. For in daredevil morality, moral excellence is demonstrated by direct and unmediated combat between temptation and the naked will. Moral merit is not earned in the shadows of the woods, but in the searing corona of a flame.
A prudent man with a weakness for drink will avoid occasions of insobriety. He will keep no liquor in his cupboard and will decline invitations to revels. But this is not enough for daredevil morality because he has not put his will to the test. He has leaned on the crutch of physical isolation. Daredevil morality demands that his cupboards groan under the weight of liquor bottles (for the benefit of thirsty guests), and that he roister until midnight (although on nothing but lemonade). For perfection, it might ask him to hold a tumbler of whiskey, occasionally raising it to his nose, sniffing its aroma, and then shaking his head with a rueful smile. Only then would his naked will have passed the ultimate test of daredevil morality.
We Christians are under an injunction to “love our neighbors.” It is an important duty, most especially in the eyes of non-Christians, who cry out with the vehemence of a tent-revival preacher when they detect this delinquency in one of us. “Oh you wicked child of perdition,” they roar, defining neighbor and love in surprising ways.
It seems to me that a prudent man who aims to keep this commandment will choose his neighbors with care, for he knows that he is weak, and there are many people whom it is exceedingly hard to love. He will not take up residence amidst the human counterparts of skunks and snakes and weasels and swine. He will avoid the sin of misanthropy by avoiding occasions of misanthropy. “Show me a philanthropist,” he says to himself, “and I will show you a man who has led a sheltered life.”
“Fie on that,” cries the daredevil moralist. “Love has no merit unless it blossoms on the threshold of hate.” Well, to tell the truth, that is not quite how he would say it, but the way he would say it comes to the same thing. A man is not truly “loving his neighbor,” daredevil morality maintains, unless the neighbor he loves is the most grating, vexatious and unpleasant neighbor he can find. Or, as the world is presently constituted, can find him.
This is folly. Hatred is a sin, and the prudent man treats it as such. This means that he knows that the temptation to hatred is not ubiquitous and that he himself is weak. He directs his steps accordingly.