And lead us not into temptation.Matthew 6:13 (KJV)
What does it mean to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the time of trial”?
When we think of temptation, we often think of someone or something seducing us into doing that which we know is wrong. But this isn’t the only meaning of the Greek word in this prayer that Jesus teaches us. It often means to be tested rather than to be tempted. “Save us from the time of trial” tries to capture that meaning, of being tested more than being tempted. And I think that is an important difference.
Because I don’t believe that God tries to seduce us into doing evil. But perhaps there are times when God tests us. We can think of the story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, when God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his only son. Or, we can think of Peter’s First Letter, when he tells us to rejoice in our trials, because they mean that our faith is being tested, so that it will be found to result in praise and glory when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7) Or, we can think of the Letter of James, which I just read, when he tells us that the testing of our faith produces endurance.
Tests and trials in life happen, and they can strengthen our faith and help us to bring glory to God. They can help us to become mature and complete. So I do believe that God sometimes allows us to face trials like these. But we shouldn’t think that God ever tempts us to do evil.
As the Letter of James reminds us, God tempts no one. We are tempted by our own desire. Here are his words:
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.James 1:12-15
We are tempted by our own desire, and when that desire, once conceived, gives birth to sin, which when fully grown gives birth to death. So what do we do about this? Here are some wise words from Martin Luther:
No one may be exempt from temptation. But we can certainly defend ourselves and relieve all temptations by praying for and imploring the help of God. In the book on the old fathers of the church we read that a young brother wanted to be rid of his evil thoughts. The old father said: Dear brother, you cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair.Martin Luther, Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer
That is one of my all-time favorite images for temptation. Because we all have temptations. And we cannot prevent them, just as we cannot prevent the birds from flying over our head. But we can prevent them from building a nest in our hair.
And one of the best ways to do that is through prayer. To call on God in times of temptation, and ask for God’s help. Every time we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are confessing our faith and our belief, that God can help us when we are being tested or tempted. “It is true,” Martin Luther writes in his Small Catechism about this, “that God tempts no one, but we ask in this prayer that God would preserve and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us.”
We ask in this prayer that God would preserve and keep us, from every trial and temptation in this life. And the truth is, we need help. We all deal with temptation. We are all tested as we go through life. As I often say to people, there is no easy way to get through this life. Life is difficult. We all face struggles. The trials and tribulations of life can beat us up, wear us out, and lower our resistance to whatever it is that tempts us. We can all relate to that famous line from Oscar Wilde – “I can resist everything except temptation.” Stressful times, like the one we are in, make it even more difficult to resist whatever it is that tempts us.
So, what do we do? Two things: Pray, and trust in Christ. Pray, “lead us not into temptation.” Believing that God will help us to do just that. But when we fail, as we will, trust in Christ.
Do you remember what Jesus did after Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water to Jesus, but began to sink when he noticed the storm around him? Jesus “immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” That is what Jesus does for us when we begin to sink. He immediately reaches out and catches us. Pray. Trust in Christ.
And, do you remember the words of Hebrews 4? “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus was tested as we are, and passed the test. For us. That is why we can trust him.
His most famous test, of course, was in the wilderness, after he was baptized by John, when he spent forty days fasting and being tested by Satan. He passed that test. Resisted every temptation. That is why a great writer once wrote that “If every copy of the Bible were destroyed, and we had only the single page which tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it would be enough.”
It would be enough, because it shows us that Jesus has passed the test for us, the test that we ourselves could not pass on our own. So we pray, lead us not into temptation. Save us from the time of trial. And we trust in Christ. Knowing that Jesus was led into temptation, that he faced a time of trial, for us and for all the world. And believing that he is eager to help us in our time of trial.
Jesus is eager to help us to resist temptation, and when we fail, when we begin to sink, he is always ready to reach out his hand, forgive us, help us up, and set us back on our way. On our way to serving God faithfully, by hallowing God’s name, and ushering in God’s kingdom, that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. To the glory of God. Amen.
This is the seventh part in a series I am sharing on the Lord’s Prayer. You can find the first six parts here:
Why We Pray “Our Father”
What Does It Mean to Hallow God’s Name?
What Does It Mean to Pray “Thy Kingdom Come”?
What Does It Mean to Pray “Thy Will Be Done”?
What Does It Mean to Pray “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”?
What Does It Mean to Pray “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”?