Late last year, Pope Francis called for a new English translation of the last line of the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of “lead us not into temptation”, he suggested “Do not let us fall into temptation”. His point was that it is not God who leads us into temptation but the devil. Is he right?
Why do we ask God not to lead us into temptation? Would God do that?
James 1:13 13 When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
God does not tempt anyone. James goes on to say…
James 1:14-15 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
James’ point is that we cannot blame someone else (specifically, God) for our moral failures. God doesn’t tempt people. God does not try to make people fail. If we fail it is because of our own evil desires. Don’t try to shift the blame. We cannot say, “God made me do it” or even that God tempted me to do it.
And yet Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (4:1). So, does God lead people into temptation? What do you mean when you pray this prayer?
First, let us note that temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted. All of us are tempted. Being tempted is not a sin. It is giving into the temptation that is the problem.
We face temptations every day. Life is full of choices and we are constantly challenged to choose what is right over what looks appealing. We might often be troubled by temptations. We might have thoughts that disturb us – maybe disgusting thoughts or violent thoughts or selfish or unkind thoughts. We might feel disgusted that we could even think those things.
Having those thoughts is not the problem. Jesus had selfish thoughts. He was tempted to use His power for physical pleasure. He was tempted to do something spectacular so that people would be amazed and would follow Him (without His having to go to the Cross). Even Jesus was tempted to worship Satan. How could the Son of God have such a terrible thought?
But the point is that, to all of those temptations, Jesus said “No”.
Hebrews 4:14-16 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are. Jesus experienced the complete range of temptations. That means that many terrible thoughts entered His head. Yet, He did not sin. That is the point, isn’t it? Tempted, yet He did not sin. And the same is possible for us. We can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence so as to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. In that time when we are tempted – when those thoughts are in our heads – we can go to God for divine help – the grace of God – divine help so as not to sin. Tempted but not sinning – by the grace of God.
I read an article that suggested that there is a process of temptation.
- An evil thought
- Consideration of that thought – now we are dialoguing with the devil
- Enjoying that thought – and the possibility of sinning. We begin to persuade ourselves that sinning would not really hurt.
- The consent of the will. We decide to do it.
When Eve was tempted, first there was the thought: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Maybe I could eat it.
Then there was consideration of the thought. Maybe God is being selfish. He doesn’t want us to have our eyes opened and, like Him, to know good and evil.
Then there was the desire. Eve saw that the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom.
Then there was the action. She took some and ate it.
The original thought was just a thought. It was not a sin. She could have dismissed it and, actually, that would have been a victory. Yes, it was a little test but she would have passed that test and had even greater confidence in her ability to resist temptation. “Each victory will help you, some other to win.” The thought was not a sin but the final act was. She fell into sin because thinking about it and delighting in it are a slippery slope. If we entertain the thought and start to persuade ourselves, there is a big chance we are going to do what we ought not to do.
And James, in the passage I quoted earlier talks about how temptation leads to desire which leads to sin (which leads to death.) It is not exactly the same but it is the same idea.
Most of us probably know what a slippery slope it can be once the thought generates interest and then desire. Jesus, when He was tempted, had the sinful thought but let it go no further. He reminded Himself (and Satan) of what was right. “But God says…”
So temptation is not sin. Does that help us understand this prayer?
Some people explain it by altering the words a little bit. Maybe it means, “Do not let allow me to be tempted.” In that way God is not actively leading us into temptation. The temptation is seen as coming from somewhere else but God is being asked to protect us from it. But that is not what the passage says.
The word translated “temptation” can also mean “testing” so maybe it means “Do not lead us into times of testing. Protect me from trials.” The problems is that life is full of tests and God often does test us. The other day, I was reading John’s account of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy food for these people to eat?” But then the passage says, “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” Testing is good. It is only by being tested that we know if we are growing or not. We become stronger as we pass tests. 1 Peter 1:7 says that testing proves the reality of our faith. God is never going to protect us from all trials so why would Jesus tell us to pray that?
Satan tempts us, wanting us to fail. God tests us, wanting us to succeed.
Some people put the emphasis on the word “into”. We might be tempted but please do not let us fall into temptation. Please help us not to sin. But, again, that is not what it says. I am sure Jesus knows the difference between temptation and sin. Why would He teach us to pray that God not lead us into temptation if He meant we pray that God help us not to sin?
So, what are we to make of this? Well, it is tricky. It is not straight forward and people have puzzled over it. Here is a possibility.
The prayer reflects our awareness of our own weakness. We know about that slippery slope. When we are tempted, there is a chance that we will sin. We know that. I know that, when I am tempted, I am sometimes able to resist that temptation but other times I do actually sin. I don’t trust myself. I know how weak I am. Therefore, knowing the danger of tempting situations, I fear them and so we pray “Lord, please don’t put me in those situations. I know sinning is the problem but please keep me away from even the possibility of sin.” In other words, the pray reflects a desire for a buffer between me a sin. “Keep me a long way from sin. Don’t even put me at the top of that slippery slope.”
Whichever explanation is correct, one thing is clear. The basic thought is “I do not want to sin.” One of the top five prayer topics is for God’s help to not sin. The previous request was for forgiveness when we do sin but this one says, “I do not want to sin.”
I do not want to sin but I know I am weak. Father, I need your help – your grace, your strength.
If we were choosing one word to summarise this line of the prayer, I think it should be “holiness”.
Holiness is almost a lost concept and yet it is so biblical. It has an old world ring to it or reminds us of the phrase “holier-than-thou” and seems a bit goody-goody’ish. It reminds us of stained glass window saints. Can people in 21st century Mornington be holy?
1 Peter 1:14-16 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’
Holiness sounds otherworldly but its basic meaning is to be set apart – set apart for God. A place or an item might be holy simply because it has been dedicated to God. It is not like every other normal place; it is dedicated to God. And holy people are set apart for God; dedicated to God.
Biblically, we are called to be holy; we are called to be 100% dedicated to God. Many so-called Christians are very casual, part-time Christians. They are Christians when it suits them but other times you wouldn’t know. Their lives are not terribly different from other people’s. They avoid murder and adultery but they gossip and are greedy and self-centred. But Jesus teaches us, as one of the top five concerns, to pray, “I do not want to sin, but I know I am weak. Father, I need your help.”
As Peter said, it is about being obedient children and not conforming to our natural evil desires. It is about dying to ourselves and being holy in all that we do. All that we do – every area of our lives dedicated 100% to God. Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.
Is that a regular prayer of yours? Do you dedicate yourself to God and turn your back on the things of the world every day? If so, then pray for that divine grace to be holy. “Lord, lead me not into temptation.” The Lord’s Prayer is for those who want to be holy – who want to not sin and so pray for help to not sin – to not even get close to sin; not even be led into temptation. But, if we are in love with the things of the world, we are already leading ourselves into temptation.
The Lord’s Prayer is very, very simple but also very, very profound. When asked to teach the disciples to pray, Jesus identified just 5 prayer topics. We can use those five topics as a framework for our own prayers. I have given you the piece of paper with a pattern for prayer. You could use that as a framework for your own prayers and it will prompt you to pray about the things Jesus said to pray about. It doesn’t cover every possibility. God might prompt other thoughts. When praying “lead us not into temptation” we might focus on the “us” and pray for each other, that we will be dedicated followers of Jesus. We might pray for family or friends who are making bad decisions. We might pray for those who promote alcohol or pornography and tempt people to do what is wrong. There are many possibilities but those five lines of the Lord’s Prayer can be the framework that reminds us to pray for the things Jesus said are important: worship, lordship (or obedience), faith, compassion, relationships, and holiness.