Lead us Not Into Temptation

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-e39a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.r“Why does Jesus teach us to pray, ‘lead us not into temptation’?  God wouldn’t lead us into temptation anyway would he?  Isn’t it Satan who tempts us?”  This conundrum was posed me in a recent Sunday school class.

It’s a great question, especially given the biblical context of a text like James 1:13-15:

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;  14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

It is important to begin our discussion here – with the character of God.  James is absolutely unambiguous about God’s nature.  God does not sin; He is good.  He isn’t tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.  “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  So, whatever Jesus means by “lead us not into temptation” it clearly can’t cast any aspersions on God’s goodness.  God is never the author of sin, nor is he responsible for our falling into sin when tempted.

James is equally clear about who is at fault for sin: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”  It is humans who are responsible for sin.  When tempted, we often sin.  This is not due to any failure on God’s part, but is due instead to our flawed nature.  We sin because we’re sinners.  We can’t even blame Satan.  Sure, he tempts, but the proverbial buck stops here, with numero uno.

So why does Jesus teach us to ask God to “lead us not into temptation”?  Because, while God does not tempt us, he is sovereign over our lives.  He is even sovereign over our temptation.  Was God surprised when the serpent met Adam and Eve in the Garden?  Was it a shock to him that the hour of trial came to pass?  One thing God cannot be is surprised; it is a necessary extension of his omniscience.  But not only does he know what will happen; He is also sovereign over it.  He isn’t a passive observer; He leads us.

Consider this scripture:

Matthew 4:1-3  Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  3 The tempter came to him and said…

According to Matthew, Jesus was led by the Spirit (God!) into the desert in order to be tempted by the devil.  This was the intended purpose of Jesus entry into the wilderness; God led him there for this very reason.  God didn’t tempt, but he is sovereign over the temptation.  And the purpose of the temptation is good.  Indeed, if Jesus were not tempted he would not have been a fit substitute for us and his atoning sacrifice would be inadequate!  It was necessary that he be tempted in every way as we are, but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

God is sovereign not over only Jesus, but over all of us as well.  He is good, and his purposes in allowing and directing our circumstances (including temptation) are always for our good (Romans 8:28).  If we sin, God is not at fault.  We are.  We sin because of our own sin nature.

So, temptation is part of the Christian life that we should expect and anticipate.  It is woven into God’s plan for our lives for our good – so that we will rely more upon him and his Word, so that we will be deepened in an awareness of our need for him and his strength.  This is also clearly implied in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:13:

13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. 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.

God doesn’t take away all temptation, but provides with the temptation a “way of escape” (ESV).  Paul is clear about God’s goodness (“God is faithful”), but also affirms his sovereignty (“he will not let you…but will provide…), and likewise affirms a good purpose “so that you can stand.”

So what Jesus means in the sixth petition is something like, “Lead me is such a way that I have the strength not to fall when I come, as I inevitably will, into temptation.”  We could perhaps paraphrase in this way, “Lord, I know that I will face temptation today, but enable me to trust in you, to resist my own sin nature, to defy the devil, and in so doing to grow to be more like you.”