Lead us not into temptation

Image by sebastian del val from Pixabay
Image by sebastian del val from Pixabay

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Mt. 6:13

Commentators on this verse to this day have spent a lot of time trying to sort out the difficulty of this petition. The difficulty comes in like this. The word behind “temptation” is the Greek word peirasmos, and could be translated either “temptation,” as it is in the KJV (and most other versions), or it could be translated “trials, testings,” (as it is the in GNT). If the former, then the difficulty is this. Temptation usually implies that someone is tempted to sin. But God, who is holy, does not tempt people to sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jam. 1:13-14). So if God does not tempt people to sin, why pray that he lead us not into temptation? Wouldn’t that be like praying that God not sin? It would be blasphemous to do so!

So that has led some to say, “No, let’s not translate this as ‘temptation,’ let’s translate it as ‘trials.’” In this sense, we are praying that God not bring trials into our lives. But then, doesn’t the apostle James also tell us, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him”? (cf. Jam. 1:12). Doesn’t the Bible teach that trials, though they are hard in themselves, are meant to bless us by strengthening our graces and sanctifying our souls? Doesn’t James say, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness”? (cf. Jam. 1:2-3). So if we are to count it all joy when we meet trials – how is that consistent with praying that God deliver us from them?

However, these objections to the logical consistency of the text are merely superficial. The gospel of Matthew itself provides the explanation. Go back to the beginning of chapter 4, and you will read these words: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Here you have Jesus being led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for the obvious purpose of being tempted by the devil. Now, at one level, you could say that God was leading Christ into temptation in the sense that the Holy Spirit was leading him to a place and a circumstance that he knew would be used by the evil one to tempt Christ to sin. Of course, with respect to God, the purpose of this experience was to try the character of his Son, to allow him to endure temptation, not so that he would succumb to it, but so that he would overcome it and thus be able to be a merciful and faithful high priest, able to sympathize with his people who endure temptation and give them grace to help in time of need. God’s purpose behind the peirasmos was holy. But the devil’s purpose behind the peirasmos was evil. He wanted to tempt the Son of God to sin. He wanted to sully the character of the spotless Christ. In other words, God led his Son into a trial and the devil tried to turn it into a temptation to sin. Peirasmos therefore can be both a trial and a temptation, depending on how we respond to it. As it comes from God, it is a trial, but if we respond wrongly to the trial – and God is not to blame when this happens – then it becomes a temptation to sin.

So here is what I think the Lord is telling us to pray. “Lead us not into temptation” is a prayer that God would not lead us into a trial or circumstance that would become a temptation to sin through our own weakness and the working of the evil one. Note that this petition is counterbalanced by the prayer, “but deliver us from evil.” Some have observed that these are really not two prayers, but one, the first saying negatively what the second says positively. To plead with God to lead us not into temptation is to pray that he deliver us from evil. It is interesting to note that “evil” could also be translated as “evil one;” indeed, some translations opt for this, or at least put it as an option in the notes. Thus, “evil one” would be a reference to the devil, and the prayer would be a petition that God not leave us in the hands of the wicked one, but deliver us from his solicitations to sin. It is either: “Lead us not into temptation so that the trial doesn’t lead to evil – deliver us from evil!” – Or, it is: “Lead us not into temptation so that we are left in the hands of the devil – deliver us from evil!”

This is consistent with the way James develops the theology of trial in the first chapter of his epistle. He begins by speaking of the benefit of trials, if we remain steadfast under them (cf. Jam. 1:3-4, 12). But then in verse 13 he warns against accusing God of tempting us to sin. Why would he do that? What is the connection between verse 13 and the first twelve verses? I think it is this: there are two ways you can respond to trial. You can remain steadfast under it and become spiritually complete (ver. 4), or you can wilt under it and sin. If the latter, we should be careful that we take responsibility for our sin; God may have sent the trial, but he did not force you to sin. This is the point of verse 13. The circumstances of the trial may be severe, but in the end the choice to sin is ours, and ours alone.

Interpreting the passage this way thus removes the objection that this is inconsistent with God’s character. But it also removes the objection that this is inconsistent with the Biblical commands to rejoice in our trials. For it is not trials in general that we are praying to avoid; we are praying against a wrong response to trials more than we are praying against the trial itself.

When we pray to God, “Lead us not . . .” with reference to the circumstances of our hearts and lives, we are implicitly acknowledging his sovereignty over our lives. We are confessing that God may lead us or lead us not into trials. He is not just up in heaven passively watching the decisions we make in our lives. He is guiding the paths that we take. He is the Good Shepherd that goes before us, and even if we wander off and stray he actively pursues us and brings us back to the fold. This is incredibly encouraging to me. We are not here to make it to heaven on our own. God is not just at the end of the race waiting to see if we’ll make it. He is leading us. He is with us to the end of the world. And when we make it to the end, it will not be our wisdom that we will praise that got us there; it will not be our holiness or strength of character. We will place our crowns at Jesus’ feet. He is the shepherd who led us there. We’re just dumb sheep. He leadeth us! As the hymn by Joseph Gilmore so beautifully puts it:

He leadeth me, O blessed thought! O words with heav’nly comfort fraught! Whate’er I do, where’er I be Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

By: Jeremiah Bass