Many people have a hard time distinguishing between temptation and sin. They erroneously believe that any time disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring are present in our interior life, that we are guilty of some form of sin. Such a response is natural enough. When we come to appreciate the chaos and havoc that sin causes within, we can feel like we have somehow offended God.
However, just because we are experiencing turmoil and temptation does not mean that we have in fact sinned. Growing in the spiritual life is learning to observe and process this confusion so as to come to a place of stillness and interior freedom. To help facilitate this sensitivity to the dynamics that lead to sin, I would list the following 4 steps:
1) Physical Sensation
Before our imagination kicks in, our sense faculties are engaged by some form of stimulus. Maybe it is too fine of a distinction to place the physical before the psychological, but the reality is that for every temptation, there is a corresponding physical reaction. Learning to recognize biological triggers and developing ways of processing them can help rob temptations of their vitality at an early stage.
2) Thoughts, Images, and Memories
As our bodies are stimulated and responding to our external environments, associations and other forms of psychological activity begin to take place. Keep in mind, such workings of our interior life do not mean that we have sinned. Rather, the extent in which we give our will over to temptation and allow it to become concrete action is what constitutes sin.
3) Active Pondering
Now that we have been stimulated and our imagination has been engaged, our initial response gives rise to our conscious awareness and active pondering. In this step, we have moved beyond the realm of a kind of instinctual reaction and have begun to enter the place of our will and our active participation. However, we have not yet reached the place of giving our consent.
4) Giving Consent
In this step, we actively give ourselves to the temptation and we begin to allow the temptation to lead to action. This is the point in which we have fallen into sin because from this point on, we have given our consent and allowed the temptation to become an accepted part of who we are.
The process of combating temptations involves us learning to identify, observe, process, and ultimately reject temptations as they arise. As we grow in our sensitivity to our interior life, we learn to identify temptations at their earliest stages, and so we can rob them of their vitality by addressing them early as opposed to later.
For strategies that can help facilitate this process, please see the following articles:
Thank you, Fr. VanHeusen!