Monday, September 25, 2017

Lead Us Not

I’ve always kinda wondered why the Lord instructed his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” After all, James is clear that God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

So why should we ask God not to do a thing we already know he won’t do?

These are not words to mess around with. They were spoken by the Lord Jesus himself, and he went to the trouble of having them recorded twice in precisely the same form:
Matthew 6:13            καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμὸν
Luke 11:4                  καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν
(The differently-angled diacritic mark on the second-last letter of peirasmos in my Greek Interlinear is almost surely a typo, so I don’t count it as a difference.)

Heads and Hearts in Harmony

One answer, I suppose, is that prayer is more about getting our own heads and hearts in harmony with God’s will than it is about moving God in one direction or another. There are lots of things in the Lord’s Prayer that God is going to do whether we get on board with him or not.

“Hallowed be your name.” That’s happening, folks, whether or not it happens voluntarily. “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” When the Living God swears by his own life, you can be 100% confident whatever he has declared is going to take place. Your opinion and mine about the value of God’s name matters not a whit.

And yet, we’re told to pray for this despite the fact that ten trillion of our most deeply earnest prayers couldn’t make the hallowing of God’s name one iota more certain.

The same may be said for the phrases “Your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. There’s not any question about those two things being absolutely inevitable. The purpose of praying for them is not to make them happen, but to align ourselves with Heaven and remind ourselves of our small part in that wonderful project.

In that spirit, “lead us not into temptation” might well have the force of “Since God will not lead us into temptation (because he doesn’t DO such things), let’s not lead ourselves there.”

Who’s Tempting Whom?

A second perfectly reasonable approach is to construe the Lord’s words to mean “Please don’t lead us into situations where other people will tempt us.” In that case, there is no suggestion that it is God that might be doing the tempting, but rather that the temptation is something you naturally encounter when you pass this way, as we all must.

Thus the plea would be along the lines of the Lord’s reasoning in the Garden of Gethsemane: If I must go there, then go I will, and gladly. But truly, I would rather not.

Not an unreasonable way to look at it either.

Blessed is the Man who Perseveres Under Trial

A third approach is to note that peirasmos (“temptation”) often bears the meaning of “trial” rather than “temptation”. Peter uses the same word when he declares about Lot that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials.” I don’t think Peter is suggesting that Lot was ever tempted to start living like the Sodomites who surrounded him. That was not his problem. Rather, he was afflicted, “distressed” and “tormented” by their depraved behavior. It sickened him, a man whose soul is described as “righteous”. Likewise, the Lord refers to those who have “stayed with me in my trials”, which seems a more likely intended meaning than “temptations”. Several other NT uses of peirasmos are better translated “trial”.

Taken this way, the Lord’s Prayer accepts the possibility of trouble and affliction at any moment, but simply expresses the believer’s wish not to encounter anything that is not specifically intended by his Master for his ultimate good. It is a statement of complete and utter dependence that appeals to a loving God to withhold from his life the random pain that is the natural result of living in a fallen world, to withhold the ordinary fallout from his own unwise actions and those of others, and to divert the calculated attacks of Satan and his shock troops.

Anything that gets through such well-fortified heavenly defenses was always meant to, and the believer who knows this in advance is equipped to accept whatever comes to him in that spirit, knowing that it is indisputably for the glory of God.


  1. Many points of interest are suggested by the history and employment of the Our Father. With regard to the English text now in use among Catholics, we may note that this is derived not from the Rheims Testament but from a version imposed upon England in the reign of Henry VIII, and employed in the 1549 and 1552 editions of the "Book of Common Prayer". From this our present Catholic text differs only in two very slight particulars: "Which art" has been modernized into "who art", and "in earth" into "on earth".
    The version itself, which accords pretty closely with the translation in Tyndale's New Testament, no doubt owed its general acceptance to an ordinance of 1541 according to which "his Grace perceiving now the great diversity of the translations (of the Pater noster etc.) hath willed them all to be taken up, and instead of them hath caused an uniform translation of the said Pater noster, Ave, Creed, etc. to be set forth, willing all his loving subjects to learn and use the same and straitly commanding all parsons, vicars and curates to read and teach the same to their parishioners". As a result the version in question became universally familiar to the nation, and though the Rheims Testament, in 1581, and King James's translators, in 1611, provided somewhat different renderings of Matthew 6:9-13, the older form was retained for their prayers both by Protestants and Catholics alike.

    From The Catholic Encyclopedia.

    1. I note that my ESV, though a much more recent translation, opts for the archaic "Lead us not" over the NASB's "Do not lead us". The latter is (i) modern and (ii) less awkward-sounding. The NIV, a contemporary of the NASB, also opted for the archaic form.

      I don't know why two groups of modern translators went that route, but my guess is the working group encountered stiff resistance to any disruption of that "universal familiarity" you mention.