By Matt Reynolds
OPINION | As most Christians know from painful experience, temptation is as easy to find as it is hard to resist. Every day, in a hundred ways, we face pressure to cut corners, mistreat others, and gratify our wayward desires. Sometimes we grasp the danger and paddle mightily against the current. Other times we sink into sin as if relaxing into an easy chair. But frequent failure leaves us demoralized and ashamed.
Temptation already feels like an unfair fight. So why would God ever ratchet up the difficulty?
This hypothetical lies at the heart of Pope Francis’s recent remarks on the Lord’s Prayer. During the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). Speaking on Italian television last December, the pope wondered whether “Lead us not into temptation” should instead be translated as “Do not let us fall into temptation.”
The trouble with the common translation, in the pope’s reading, is that it pictures God pushing us toward sin rather than pulling us away. After all, we wouldn’t ask him not to lead us into temptation if he weren’t capable of doing just that. But surely, argues the pope, a righteous and loving Father would never place his children in the path of spiritual peril. “It is Satan,” he says, “who leads us into temptation; that’s his department.”
On the whole, the pope’s theological instincts are not unsound. He is correct to absolve God of blame for temptation, which ultimately flows from our unclean hearts. As James reminds us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (1:13–14).
As a matter of linguistic accuracy, however, Francis is on shakier ground. New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace, reacting on his blog, observed that the pope’s preferred language goes against the grain of scholarly consensus. Few Bible translations depart from “Lead us not” in any significant fashion.
This alone should caution against a hasty retreat from the familiar wording. But we need not recite the Lord’s Prayer through gritted teeth, in a kind of stodgy deference to inherited forms. “Lead us not into temptation” really does sound odd and unsettling when you ponder its meaning. But this phrase contains riches the alternatives can’t match.
“Do not let us fall into temptation” casts God in the role of protector and rescuer. And indeed, we desperately need these forms of fatherly care. Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But as Paul assures the Thessalonians, “the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one” (2 Thess. 3:3).
Yet we worship a God who does more than safeguard us from spiritual hazard. We worship a God who sovereignly guides our paths. “In their hearts humans plan their course,” declares Proverbs, “but the Lord establishes their steps” (16:9). We are not simply wandering this way and that, pursuing our own plans, while God rushes around steadying us when we falter, like a parent supervising a child’s wobbly first attempts at riding a bike.
“Lead us not,” then, evokes a God who leads his people, sometimes down paths they’d rather not tread: into the wilderness, into exile, and yes, into temptation. The Greek term periosmos appears as “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer, but elsewhere in Scripture it designates periods of “trial” or “testing,” ordained by God to refine our character and confirm our obedience. Abraham endured this testing when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. Job endured it when God allowed Satan to destroy his family and livelihood. And Jesus endured it when the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to square off with the Devil.
Which brings us to the most important advantage of “Lead us not”: its messianic echoes. Every time we implore God to “lead us not into temptation,” we rehearse our gratitude for the Son he led into temptation on our behalf, to pass the test we have flunked. “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. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16).
This is precisely why Paul says we needn’t fear any test or temptation, for God will give us the strength to endure—he will “deliver us from evil.” In fact, in Christ he already has. In this simple line about temptation, then, the whole gospel is present. Let’s not mess with it.
Matt Reynolds is an associate editor at Christianity Today.
Article first appeared here