Lead us not into Temptation

It is all too easy to be so focused on the individual components of the Lord’s Prayer – the ‘petitions’ of which it is comprised – that we lose sight of its overall topography, or landscape. Even though the details bound up with each request are vitally important, we only appreciate their full weight and significance when we survey them as part of a whole.

When we do this, as we noted in the preceding article on this prayer, we cannot help but be struck by where Christ places its emphasis. In complete contrast to the so-called ‘laundry list’ approach to praying that is so common in many church circles today, the concerns that ought to dominate our praying are weighty in the extreme.

Towering above them all is an overwhelming acknowledgement of and submission to God in all his glory. Flowing from this is the humble, but confident assurance that all we could ever genuinely need, God’s gracious hand will lovingly provide. But then comes the shock. In terms of the weighting of the prayer, not surprisingly the dominant focus is God in all his might and splendour – this provides the bookends to the prayer as a whole. But the next most prominent feature is human sin, our need of pardon and also our need to be delivered from its guilt, power and consequences. How often is this concern reflected in the balance of what we pray for either in private, or in our corporate prayer?

So, following on from what we considered in the previous post on ‘Daily Bread and Daily Pardon’, our Lord teaches us to pray, ‘And lead us not into temptation’ (Mt 6.13).

This particular plea has been very much in global news headlines in recent months with Pope Francis’ edict to revise the wording of the Lord’s Prayer at this point. Instead of ‘And lead us not into temptation’, he has seen fit to replace it with, ‘Do not let us fall into temptation’, or ‘Do not abandon us to temptation’. His rationale for making this alteration to words that have stood for the best part of two millennia is that ‘The Lord does not lead us into temptation; that is Satan’s department’ – referencing James’ comment, ‘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’ (Jas 1.13). Whereas, at one level, the Pontiff is correct in saying this, he and his theological advisors fail to take into account the other relevant biblical data relating to this issue.

Most notably he/they ignore Luke’s record of the temptations of Christ. There, immediately after his baptism, we are told that Jesus ‘was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil’ (Lk 4.1-2). Both the connection and distinction between who leads and who tempts is clear in this statement. God the Spirit led the Incarnate Son into a sphere in which he would be exposed to temptation; but it was the devil that did the actual tempting.

When Jesus reached for the language of  ‘leading’ and ‘tempting’ in the prayer he gifted to his people for posterity, it was borne out of the deep personal experience of his own true humanity. He was not for a moment suggesting that his beloved Heavenly Father was guilty of trying to ensnare him; rather, he was acknowledging that his Father’s Sovereign Providence extends over absolutely all of life – even those circumstances in which we are prone to be tempted.

The apostle Paul echoes this in what he says to the Corinthian church – one that had been struggling with both temptation and sin on multiple fronts and needed to be safeguarded for their future as much as corrected for their past. He tells them, ‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it’ (1Co 10.13). This in turn ties in with what James says in his letter about the link between ‘trials’, ‘testing’ and ‘temptations’ (Jas 1.2-3, 12-15) where his focus is very much on God’s purpose as he leads his people through such difficult and dangerous experiences.

The flipside of what is in view in the wording of this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is the recognition of our own human weakness. The very fact Christ teaches us to cry out to God in his sovereign oversight of all things visible and invisible is because he, more than any, knows how weak we are by nature. In the words of Robert Robertson – in the hymn, ‘Come thou fount of every blessing’ – ‘Prone to wander; Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the courts I love…’ When we realise just how true this is, we will utter these Christ-given words of this prayer all the more earnestly.

We belong to a generation of professing Christians that has become far too blasé about sin. (Perhaps because we are a generation that has lost sight of what it means to truly ‘fear the Lord’!) But Jesus leaves us in no doubt as to the priorities of prayer that he lays out for us. Sin is serious and we are more prone to it than we care to admit; but most of all, only God can steer us away from situations where temptation can so easily prove to be our downfall.

Mark Johnston