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The Lord's Prayer | Lead us not into temptation

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

On Sunday morning we focused on the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. There is something there about guidance, most apparently about not being led the wrong way, but I think also about being led the right way. There is also something about protection, about being kept safe from evil, which I think can be both the evil we do and the evil that is done to us. So they were some of the things I wanted to touch on, or at least have in the background of our thinking, although we thought mostly about guidance.

Let’s start with a closer look at this petition. You may be aware that earlier this year, Pope Francis approved a change to this part of the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of “lead us not into temptation”, the Catholic liturgy will have “do not let us fall into temptation”. He said “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department.” For the most part I agree with him, but the truth is that the traditional version is a good translation. “Bring us into temptation” may be a little more accurate, but “lead us into temptation” is certainly a fair reading.

Why then did Jesus tell us to ask God not to lead us into temptation? The word temptation can also mean testing, and so some people will suggest that while God won’t tempt us to sin, he may test us or our faith, and so this is a prayer to avoid being tested. I can understand that line of thinking, and I can see how it picks up on scriptural language about being refined by fire and recalls the trials of Job, but that is poetic language being used there, and I struggle with the idea that God would intentionally put us into situations that could be harmful. It would certainly seem strange for Jesus to instruct us to pray against testing if it was a good or godly thing.

And so I want to propose another answer. I suggested two weeks ago that we don’t really need to remind God to give us our daily bread, so praying for it is perhaps more a reminder for ourselves - a reminder to focus on what we need not we want, to acknowledge our ultimate dependence on God, to focus on today not yesterday or tomorrow, and to receive what we are given and pass on what we can. I think something similar is happening here, when we ask God not to lead us into temptation - it is a way of expressing our need for guidance and protection, and it acknowledges that we need God to help us in those things. I think then that we can pray with the same understanding as Pope Francis, without needing to change the words.

So that's got us thinking about temptation. Next we will explore that a little more through our first reading, Luke 4:1-13, which I chose because it gives us not just any picture of temptation, but Jesus’ own understanding of temptation. If Jesus experienced life as fully human, then I doubt this was the only time he was tempted, but this sounds like the kind of experience that would stick in your memory, so it must surely have been in his mind when he gave the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples.

I think Jesus’ experience in the wilderness tells us straight off the bat that not being led into temptation does not mean avoiding it altogether. If not even Jesus could manage that, then I’m pretty certain that we can’t, and so surely we can say that being tempted to sin is not in itself a sin. That doesn’t mean that we can deliberately entertain temptations as long as we don’t act on them - Jesus closed that loophole when he said that looking with lust, which is not just seeing but an active and intentional response to what is seen, is a form of adultery - but it does mean that it is how we respond to temptation that matters. And so I think this prayer is about having the strength to encounter temptation and head away from it not further into it.

I think the fact that Jesus was tempted during this period of forty days of fasting in the wilderness also gives us a few insights. Matthew and Mark say that Jesus was tempted after forty days, but Luke has it that Jesus was tempted for forty days. I don’t which of them has it right, but the temptation certainly comes together with what must have been a pretty tough time, and I think that tells us that temptations are not just moments of weakness, but can be rooted in sustained periods of difficulty and are most powerful when we are most vulnerable. We might also comment on the fact that Jesus appears to have been fasting as a spiritual exercise, and so these temptations come when he is most open to God. I have been in churches that have been very comfortable talking about spiritual warfare, and would see in this an example of the way the devil attacks us when we are most righteous, because that is when he most needs to trip us up. I’ve never been entirely certain of that belief, but I do wonder if being open to God makes us more aware of ourselves and the temptations we face.

We’ve already got quite a lot out of this passage, and we’ve not even looked at the individual temptations yet, so let’s go there now. The first temptation is for Jesus to prioritise his physical needs, to give up the spiritual discipline of his fast to answer the bodily pain of his hunger. Obviously our physical needs are important - I hope I said that clearly when I spoke about our daily bread - but what we see here is that they are not worth abandoning our call and throwing in our lot with the devil for. I still remember a former minister of mine talking about Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of soup, giving up all that had been promised for his future in order to satisfy a very temporary desire, and asking the congregation if we would choose the birthright or the bowl. Interestingly, when I googled temptation, the first definition that I got was “a desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment that threatens long-term goals”. So many of the temptations we face are precisely that, an encouragement to choose something now with no thought to the consequences. Jesus knew all that he was being called into and he was not willing to risk it for a loaf of bread. We too need to have an eye on what is most important, and choose the birthright not the bowl.

The second temptation was for Jesus to seize power. Elsewhere in scripture we read that all authority was given to him by God, so it seems an odd thing to tempt him with, and of course it was all a lie anyway as that power wasn't the devil's to give, but Jesus’ power was not recognised, and so I think the temptation is really for him to flex his muscles and use his power inappropriately, to use it for his sake and not for the glory of God or the good of mankind. There is an old proverbial saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and throughout history and around the world we have witnessed and are witnessing the danger of ambitious men. The corrupt and dangerous misuse of power by those who govern us has to be challenged, but we also have to look to ourselves and the ways in which we use the power we have, using it not to further our own interests but to lift up those with less power and to honour the one from whom all power originates.

The third temptation was for Jesus to test God’s promise, and I think that is connected to the temptation to doubt. I want to say clearly that I do not believe that doubt is always a sin - doubts are a natural part of a faith that rests on what is unseen, and it is only when we give voice to our questions and our confusions that we can find reassurance, so we mustn’t be fearful of them - but I think what is at issue here is that Jesus had no reason to doubt. Remember, the temptations come after Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens had opened and God had declared “this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased”. And his response that “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16, which itself recalls the time the Israelites complained to Moses about the lack of water in the desert, questioning the goodness and provision of God in spite of everything they had already seen. So I think what we are cautioned against in Jesus’ rejection of this third temptation is our tendency to doubt what God will do because we have forgotten what God has done, because I think it is that kind of doubt that grieves God.

Obviously these are only a handful of examples of the kind of temptations we will face, and I’m not going to bore you or batter you with an exhaustive list. I think we can take a few broad lessons about facing temptation from them though. We need to get our priorities in order, we need to use what we have well, and we need to remember all that God is and does. If we can do those things, we will be strengthened to walk away from the temptations we face.

I think we can take one more thing from this passage before we leave it, and that is summed up in Hebrews 4:15, which says “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin”. It may be impossible to live up to the example of Jesus, but he gives us something to strive for, and I find it a great comfort to know that Christ knows how I struggle and looks on my weaknesses not with judgement but with empathy.

So we've thought about what we don’t want to be led into, and now I want to think briefly about what we do want to be led into, how we do want to be led. I chose Psalm 23 to bring us into this because I think it is the most beautiful and powerful image in all of scripture of God leading us into good things. As one version has it...

The Lord is my Shepherd -- That's RELATIONSHIP!

I shall not want -- That's SUPPLY!

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures -- That's REST!

He leadeth me beside still waters -- That's REFRESHMENT!

He restoreth my soul -- That's HEALING!

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness -- That's GUIDANCE!

For His name sake -- That's PURPOSE!

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil -- That's PROTECTION!

For thou art with me -- That's FAITHFULNESS!

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me -- That's COMFORT!

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies -- That's HOPE!

Thou anointest my head with oil -- That's CONSECRATION!

My cup runneth over -- That's ABUNDANCE!

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life -- That's BLESSING!

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord -- That's SECURITY!

Forever -- That's ETERNITY!

So God will lead us and this is all he wants to lead us into, but how can we be led? In my experience, it is rarely about waiting for him to tell us what to do. I spent years believing that was precisely what it was, that there was one right path God was seeking to guide me down, and at times I began paralysed by the fear of missing it. Then God told me, through a scratch theatre night of all things, that he was sick of leading me by the hand, he wanted me to decide. That spoke to a very specific decision I was trying to make, but it’s been an important lesson. It has led me to understand that there isn’t just one green pasture or one still water or one path of righteousness. They are all plural, because God is so much more generous than we often give him credit for, and many times he will lead us not to specific destinations but to good choices.

But sometimes God goes have a specific destination in mind, and it is certainly true that some paths are more righteous than others, and so we do need a bit of closer guidance from time to time. But even then, it is very rare that we see writing on the wall or hear a voice from the clouds. God can and does speak in clear and even dramatic ways - my spirituality is primarily rational and contemplative, but even I have received prophetic words and pictures, and I know others who receive them much more frequently - but I think guidance is mostly a subtle and long term work.

In learning to be led by God, two phrases have been particularly important for me. Some of you may remember the nineties and noughties fad for WWJD bracelets. The acronym stood for ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and thousands of teenagers all around the world wore these bracelets as a reminder to stop and ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ when faced with a decision. Of course there are lots of decisions we phase that Jesus didn’t, and so it’s not as simple as finding the gospel scenario that matches ours and imitating Jesus’ response, but we can work from patterns and principles, because we know lots of what Jesus did. We know that he spent much time in prayer and in fellowship, that he acted with compassion and helped those he could, that he had a particular concern to include those on the margins and challenge the hypocrisy of the authorities. And so perhaps we can rephrase the question to say 'Jesus did these things, how can I?' and let that questions lead us.

The other phrase that has been important in shaping my understanding of guidance comes from a prayer I first prayed as a nineteen year old student. I can’t remember if it was a prayer I had read somewhere or if it came from me, but sitting in a friend’s living room, I prayed “let my heart be your heart”. I wanted to grow in wisdom and in connection with God, such that I saw and understood and loved the world as God did. I still want that, and I still pray that, and I believe that slowly but surely that is the change that’s has been happening within me, and that has shaped my thoughts and guided my decisions. And so I offer those words to you, perhaps for you to take up as your own prayer, although I offer them with a warning. It was within a month of first praying that prayer that I heard God speak the words that led me to leave university, and which put me on an entirely different path to the one I had thought I was on, so I am certain it is a powerful prayer indeed.

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