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By Sigrid Fowler
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we conclude with two petitions that deal with safety. After making a plea for forgiveness (based on our own choosing to forgive), we are to request that our Father “lead us not into temptation.” Seems simple enough. The Bible clearly states that God does lead and guide us in the things we do, the places where we go.Translators differ about these verses, but I won’t get into questions about accuracy or preferences. The text coming tomy mind was set to music, the words fixed in memory withsinging: “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord / And he delighteth in his way. / Though he fall, though he fall, he will not be cast down / For the Lord upholdeth him with his hand’[repeated lines]. However we read Psalm 37: 23-24, we come away with the certainty that God does guide, especially those who delight him. Yes, he leads–and temptations exist.
So what does Jesus want us to understand through the prayer he’s teaching us? Apparently questions like this came across the desk of James because he does a brief teaching that addresses the question. Though this New Testament writer makes no such claim, he is traditionally known as the brother of Jesus, one of the unbelieving brothers who came to faith after the resurrection and was nicknamed “Camelknees” because of his devotion to prayer. James declares, “Let no one say when he or she is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1: 13 ). If God doesn’t tempt anyone, why are we supposed to say, “Lead us not into temptation”?
James is making an important point when he says, “God cannot be tempted,” and he goes on to explain how temptation works in our lives: “But each person is tempted when he or she is lured and enticed by their own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1: 14-15). In other words, temptations strike a chord in us. Some tempting thought crosses the mind, and since our perception has, with Adam and Eve, lost the shield of holy innocence, the thought elicitsa welcome. It’s a homey. There’s something recognizable about it, some kinship to our inner self; there’s a beckoning quality. None of these things afflict the holy God we serve. To make matters worse, a sin repeated is easier to indulge in again later. We’ve heard that voice before and agreed. But even the first sinful appeal in a sense created echoes within us, and we share the trait with all other humans since the first two. Sin has an attraction we aren’t able to resist. Indeed, that’s one bottom-line answer to the question: Why do I need a Savior?
So, one more time: Why do we say, “lead us not into temptation?” Surely God doesn’t direct our steps that way!No, God doesn’t tempt anyone. There’s something else going on here. Perhaps we can call this prayer a plea for mercy. Perhaps Jesus is saying that it’s all right to remind our Fatherand ourselves that we are tempt-able. We need his mercy and compassion because we’re laboring under constitutional weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and wrong inclinations. God is not.
It’s useful when praying this prayer to remember the source: Jesus Christ gave us the prayer. Okay, but what didGod the Son know about temptation? Nothing by direct experience, we have to say. As James tells us: “God cannot be tempted.” However as the mortal Son of Man, Jesus experienced temptation. Go read Matthew 4: 4 and Luke 4: 4 (easy to remember!) and the surrounding verses—the wilderness scene when Jesus was weak from a very long fast. He was tempted but did not sin. The writer of Hebrews fills in some details: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4: 15). This writer goes on, and not surprisingly, mercy is the topic: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4: 16). Praying the Lord’s Prayer, we remember our weakness, God’s holiness and mercy.