The Lord's Prayer: some thoughts on how we should understand 'lead us not into temptation'

(Photo: Unsplash/Olivia Snow)

I became involved in a fascinating conversation about words the other day. We were talking about the "D Day" celebrations when someone happened to observe that the word "infantry" sounded uncannily like "infant" and wondered if they were related. I pointed out that, strange as it might seem, they are.

"Infant" derives from the Latin term for "a child" but eventually came to be used of foot soldiers that were too young or too inexperienced to serve in the cavalry.

That conversation was a useful reminder that the meaning of words can vary given their historical setting. Whoever would have thought, for example, that "bamboozle" was originally used in the context of swimming lessons?

It's worth remembering this when reflecting on the recent papal announcement about changes to the Lord's Prayer. The change to the Italian Missal controversially replaces "lead us not into temptation", from the original in Matthew 6:13, with "do not let us fall into temptation", and it reflects the Pope's concern that the current translation can give people the completely wrong impression of God.

He's not the first to express his concern, of course. Tertullian, who was born in the mid second century AD, made his thoughts known on this puzzling suggestion too and I can readily understand why.

The Bible tells us that God is holy and He would never want to tempt us to contradict His will or live in ways that cause Him grief. Jesus' brother James couldn't have made this any clearer. "When tempted no one should say 'God is tempting me'," he writes. "For God cannot be tempted by evil nor does he tempt anyone." (James1:13)

We cannot avoid temptation, of course. There's something in all of us that makes the wrong thing instinctively attractive. In addition to this, Jesus tells us that there are dark forces at work that are determined to pull us away from God. The world, the flesh and the devil make for a toxic combination. Even Jesus was tempted. The Book of Hebrews makes that clear. He was tempted as much as we are, it says, but in contrast to us, He didn't sin.

But where does God fit in all this? After all, the same Scriptures that tell us He does not tempt anyone also inform us that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert where He was to be tempted by the devil.

I believe the key to the conundrum is to be found in the word we often translate as "tempt" because it can also mean "to test". William Barclay's insight is really helpful here.

In his 1964 work, The Plain Man looks at the Lord's Prayer, he wrote, "Peirazein is regularly used of the divine placing of a man in a situation which is a test, a situation in which he may fall, but in which he is not meant to fall, a situation which may be his ruin, but out of which he is meant to emerge spiritually strengthened and enriched."

This is clearly what happened to Jesus because the Gospel writer Luke tells us that he went into the desert filled with God's Spirit but came out that torturous experience "in the power of the Spirit".

It's for reasons like this then, that James could write, "Consider it pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that it may be mature and compete, not lacking in anything." (James 1:2-3)

The Pope is absolutely correct. God does not "induce temptation". He can and should be compared to a good father who will help us resist temptation as well as one who will help us to get back on our feet when we've messed up.

But He's a father who wants to see His children grow too. He wants us to become more and more like His one and only Son, and this will inevitably mean we will be tested. As Tom Smail helpfully wrote in Renewal in Wales Today more than thirty years ago, "If you are looking for an experience of the Holy Spirit that is going to put you on some kind of charismatic cloud where you can float in untroubled glory into the Kingdom of God my friend you are in cloud cuckoo land, you are looking in the wrong place altogether. Jesus doesn't know how to give anyone an easy ride. He hadn't one Himself and He won't give it to anybody."

We will never be free from temptation. We will never be spared testing, but whereas God's wants us to grow, the evil one wants us to "come a cropper". It's all about desired outcomes. God tests, the devil tempts.

It's for this reason I believe the best way to understand this challenging section in the Lord's Prayer is to see it as a petition "to overcome" rather than "to be spared temptation". And God assures us that we can and will – if we depend on Him.

That's why Jesus goes on to teach us that we should also pray "deliver us from evil or the evil one" (the word can mean either). Given all this, I will let William Barclay have the last word. "It may be best simply to see in it the instinctive appeal of the man who knows how weak he is and how dangerous life can be, and who takes his own peril to the protection of God."

Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God