The Lord’s Prayer is certainly the most familiar prayer of Christians. But that hasn’t kept us from wondering about Jesus’ choice of words when he taught us to say: “Lead us not into temptation.” Doesn’t that imply that our Heavenly Father might lead us there? Wouldn’t that make Him complicit in our sins if He Himself put us in the way of temptation?
Martin Luther seems to have recognized this dilemma when he penned the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism:
“God surely tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world and our flesh may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair and other great and shameful sins; and though we are tempted by them, we pray that we may overcome and win the victory.”
Well, with all due respect to Brother Martin, doesn’t it seem that he has sort of side-stepped the issue raised by that word ‘lead’? After all, if Jesus had intended to say something like “strengthen us against temptation” He would presumably have done so. And this isn’t just a matter of the choice of words in our English translation; in the Bible’s two versions of this prayer (Matthew 6:13, Luke 11:4), in both cases a Greek word is used which consistently means something like “bring into” (e.g., Luke 5:18 where the friends of the paralyzed man were trying to “bring him in” to the house where Jesus was). So, the choice of words seems to be clear and deliberate: “Don’t bring us into temptation.” But why would Jesus use those words? It’s a puzzle, but of this we can be sure: Jesus knows temptation, and He knows us!
Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Though we can hardly wrestle here with the full depth of this passage, we note firstly that temptation to sin is not the same thing as sinning. In point of fact, the essence of temptation is the impulse to use God’s good gifts in ways that gratify our own self-centered desires, rather than His divine will (see also: Birds in the Hair). As Luther noted, those encouragements to abuse God’s gifts come from Satan, the world we live in, and our own human desires. When Jesus took up residence in Satan’s worldly realm, clothed in human flesh, He exposed Himself to the full force of those same impulses – in fact, we can properly say that Jesus was the ONLY human who has ever known their FULL force, since He was the only one who never gave in to their nagging pull.
Which brings us to the second point: Jesus knows US! He knows that we are weak and fallible creatures. Though it is true that some people can resist some temptations some of the time, the dismal fact is that no human (but Him) can resist all temptations all the time! Presented with the right temptation at our moment of greatest weakness, each of us WILL fail. This is not an alibi, but rather the fatal flaw — the death sentence – from which Jesus sacrificed Himself to save us.
In the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus taught that God could do nothing for the confident pharisee who trusted in his own ability to walk a path of righteousness. Rather, it was the tax collector who prayed: “God be merciful to me a sinner!” who pleased the heart of God and whose prayer was answered. “Lead us not into temptation” is a child’s humble plea that we cannot be trusted to walk safely through danger – and an appeal to our loving Father to take our hand – which He is delighted to do when asked.
To ask that we will be spared every opportunity to sin is as unrealistic as the sailor who prays that the wind will not blow. Without wind, there is no sailing, and a world without opportunity for abuse is a world without God’s good gifts. But just as the prudent seafarer will not pray that he will face and survive the perils of a hurricane, but rather that his vessel will be granted good weather for a safe passage, it seems that Jesus – the ultimate realist – thus taught us to pray, not that we would be able to resist the worst that Satan can throw at us, but that we would be guided away from the temptations to which we are most vulnerable. In so doing, we ask that our God who we trust to lead us in all things will also steer our course through the safest possible waters.