Here we go again. This little prayer that we say every Lord’s Day morning without thinking is forcing us to think again. And really think this time.
“And lead us not into temptation.” Have you ever scratched your head over this little phrase, asking yourself, “How can God lead us into temptation?”
If you have – good for you. Because James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in the first chapter of his pastoral letter:
James 1:13-15 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Obviously, God is not the source of our temptation. Our fallen nature – the effect of sin on the core of our being creates in us a desire to do things our way and not God’s way. Some of us are old-fashioned enough that we believe in a real Satan – the Accuser – who tempts us by working hand-in-hand with the Original Sin in all of us.
As Satan did with Cain in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning. God warned Cain not to give in:
Genesis 4:7 “… sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
And Peter uses similar imagery in his first pastoral letter:
1 Peter 5:8 Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
So we can rest assured that God is not tempting us – but why would Jesus tell His followers – both in Matthew 6 and in Luke 11 – to pray, “do not lead us into temptation.”
Let’s look at what the words He used to try to figure this out.
The word translated as temptation here means “trial, proving, or test” – which is what temptation is: it’s a test of our resolve to obey God, a proving of our discipleship.
And the word translated as “lead into” can also mean “bring into” or “carry into” – you’ll want to remember “carry into”, because we’ll get back to that later. So it seems pretty clear that we will be allowed by the will of God to go through temptation, testing, and proving. That was the case with Job: God allowed it, but Satan did the actual testing.
John Calvin wrote that God’s reasons for allowing us to be tempted are very different from Satan’s reasons for tempting us. Satan tests us because he wants us to fail – as he tried unsuccessfully with Jesus in the wilderness. God brings us into testing to prove to us that we can follow Him, to exercise our faith, and to teach us to rely on His strength to resist. James 1 adds that being tested makes us better disciples:
James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything
Following Calvin’s lead, an old Scottish theologian wrote that what we are really asking for is “let us not be sifted.” In other words, “Lord, don’t put us in a position to find out whether we will or won’t obey you.”
What Jesus is asking us to pray is what He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me.” Most of us – myself included – have always taken that cup to be the cross. But while digging into “lead us not into temptation” I have started to see the cup as the temptation to avoid the cross – either by telling Pilate and the Sanhedrin what they wanted to hear, or by calling hosts of angels to rescue Him from the cross.
Jesus was asking that He be spared the temptation of trying to get out of the cross – but He was willing to endure it, because He knew that was what had to be.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew that going through trials, temptations, and proving have to be – they are part of the sinful human experience – and he offers these words of encouragement as we do:
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.
So our Great High Priest understands our temptation from personal experience – and the letter to the Hebrews goes on to tell us:
Hebrews 2:18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Jesus is telling us to pray as He did – that God would spare us some of the temptations of this life. But even though we must go through some of them, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells us that we don’t go through it alone:
I Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
This is where those words “carry into” enter into our understanding of what we are asking God to do. We are asking that God will not carry us into or allow temptation – but we are confident that if He does, He will carry us.
Perhaps your mom or dad or other loved one taught to swim. You may not have wanted them to take you out into the deep water because it can be a scary place. But all the while you know that someone who loves you very much is holding you. They carried you into a place where you didn’t want to go, but they carried you until you came back to shore safely.
It would be lovely if God did not allow us even to be tempted, tested, and tried – but that is an inescapable part of the fallen human experience. And when we go through it, God is leading us, carrying us, bringing us along.
As we sang in our hymn of praise this morning, “In His hands He gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes.” And in our middle hymn, “Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.”
So even when our prayer, “Lord, spare us from temptation,” is answered with a resounding “No,” we know that God will be carrying us as we go through it.