Our pattern for Lent is the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. Jesus fasted, prayed and fought the battle against the temptations of world, flesh and devil. He kicked some ass, sending the devil away as a conquered foe. Would that our spiritual battles always went so smoothly!
If we fight a real battle, losing is real possibility. In fact, we are going to lose some episodes of the spiritual battle. Since our process of change into the image of the Son of God is not yet complete, our behavior will not always mirror his. This is why our liturgies contain confessions and this is why Confession is a sacrament.
The word temptation can also mean test. The meaning depends upon the perspective. The devil tempts us. He wants us to sin. But God tests us our faith. His purpose in allowing it to happen is to see how strong our faith is. When we fail a test, it reveals that we were not as spiritually strong as we thought we were—or maybe we knew we were weak and were not appropriately watchful. The answer is to learn and grow. When we fail a test in school, we study harder try to do better on the next one. When we fail in the spiritual battle, we should assess the reasons for the failure and make changes. Was it is a neglect of prayer or accountability? Did we foolishly enter into circumstances of great temptation? Or, did we just want to sin?
Failure can be a means of growth. When we fail, we experience again the consequences of sin—guilt, shame, fear and alienation from God and others. The momentary taste of spiritual death can strengthen our resolve in the future. We can realize, “I don’t want this.” This can renew our commitment to the preventative disciplines of grace that will guard against future failures. Much of our failure is at the level of the will. We say we don’t want to sin, but we are often in the position of “wanting to not want to sin.” Jesus will always ask us the question he posed to the man at the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6).
The devil’s goal is not merely that we sin. Sin is a means to the end of getting us to give up our faith. He wants the cumulative effect of failure to be despair. He is tempter and accuser. Having succeeded in the first task, he takes up the second. He wants us to say, “You are right. There is no hope for me.” This is the faithless attitude—and also a lie: “for Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
This is why perseverance is the mark of genuine faith. Genuine faith falls, but it gets up; it continues to return, confess, receive forgiveness and resume the battle; it continues to believe the promises of God and grows through failure. Thus, the long term impact of failure in the spiritual battle depends upon what we do next.