"Lead us not into temptation…" is a phrase that much has been written about, for the sentence in which it stands is considered the most difficult in the Lord's Prayer. The point of difficulty has shifted in modern times, so something needs to be said. It is true that, neither the child at a mother's knee nor the aged cottager repeating the Prayer will stray far from the essential meaning. Each, at least, knows temptation; each asks to be delivered from evil. The more closely we examine the Our Father, however, the more spiritually vital it becomes; and the more our eyes are opened to the wealth of teaching beneath the simplicity of the phrase. And it is, I believe, through the close scrutiny of the exact wording that we should solve the difficulty and arrive at the true understanding of this final petition.
Of the older and more familiar difficulty: "Are we to believe," one may ask, "that God leads us into temptation?” We shrink from such a thought - yet why is it needed, as Jesus teaches, to beseech the Father that he will not lead us into temptation? From very early times some people had tried to excuse their misdeeds by assigning the blame to God, so the son of Sirach reproved them: "Do not say: It is through the Lord that I fell away. . . . Do not say: It is He that caused me to err." Afterwards St. James repeated the warning, "Let no man say when he is tempted that I am tempted by God." Was he driven to enforce this because of this sentence in the Our Father that had been misunderstood, and the mischievous arguments based on the misunderstanding? In later years we may be sure that the difficulty was compounded by the rendering of the Greek phrase to "ne nos inducas" in Latin, and, from the Latin, to "Lead us not" in English. Those words would be the right equivalent of another Greek verb than that which is used. The Greek phrase actually employed here has no such strong directive. The Revised Version has recognized this by putting "Bring us not" in place of "Lead us not," and we might wish that "Bring us not" were adopted in our liturgical use of the Prayer. Yet that change, though it would lessen, not remove the difficulty, still allows the possibility that God might bring man into temptation, unless our prayers intervene.
The way to properly understand the phrase seems to be shown by some variants of the sentence. Indeed, these "glosses " often passed from liturgical versions of the Prayer, where, in all probability, they originated, into actual texts of the Matthean and Lucan Gospels. The most felicitous1, is that quoted by St. Augustine: "Many people when using the Prayer word this sentence 'Suffer us not to be led into temptation.'" This version of the sentence, dating back to very early times, persisted through the centuries, and can even be found today.
Mere gloss though it be, we can hardly doubt that this expansion of the original sentence reveals its true meaning. Naturally enough, the Greek sentence - probably like the Aramaic it was translated from - was phrased as concisely as possible, that it might be memorized more easily. And, for the same reason, a parallelism of form would be preserved between it and the petitions which preceded it. Thus "bring us not into temptation" is a condensed sentence, but the spirit of the petition makes it sound "Suffer [Permit] us not to be brought into temptation." When thus understood and used, the older difficulty associated with it disappears.
Another and a far more serious, difficulty still survives. Recognizing that the words contain no suggestion that we might be "tempted by God," and that "suffer us not to be brought into temptation" be their true meaning, we are driven once again to ask why we are taught to say this petition. It seems to ask the impossible. We are sure that Jesus never bade his disciples to offer petitions which, by their very nature, could never be fulfilled. Yet this petition is asking us to escape temptation. Not the greatest saint that ever lived could be exempt from that. Nor for our Lord Himself in His earthly life was this possible. And we are not to suppose that His only temptations were those He faced in solitude immediately after the Baptism. There were others which beset Him throughout His ministry and some at least - perhaps abandoning His work in the face of hostility and seeming failure - He bore in common with His disciples. "You are they," He said to them near the end, "which have continued with Me in My temptations" (Luke 22:28). How, then, can we ask to be spared that which is, in fact, inevitable? Why should we seem to ask to escape from the common lot of human nature? What do we really mean when we say, Lead us not into temptation"?
We know the difference between temptation and sin. We see that the potential good of temptation is as real as its potential evil. We understand how fundamental it is that the law of effort is to the condition to progress. Science has taught us to understand how it operates in the physical world, and to see struggle crowned by survival in the cosmic evolutionary process. And in the spiritual world it is he who overcomes that inherits. To meet and to master temptation seems to be the one means of strengthening character, so that if we do not meet temptation we could not make moral progress. Even for our Lord Himself, being Man, the rule held. It could be only His conquest over temptation which caused Him, in St. Luke's bold phrase, "to grow in favor with God." And, though temptation was from the devil, it was by the Spirit that He was led to meet it. In short, if human nature were barred from meeting temptation, it would be barred from moral growth. St. James may have had this truth in mind when he wrote that Christians should be glad "when they fall [i.e. from tranquil well-being] so as to be tossed about by many trials." The "trials" here suggest external afflictions and persecutions rather than internal moral dilemmas.
Now our concern turns to the words “Bring us not or suffer us not to be brought, into temptation." The petition is that we may not be brought into temptation. That is quite a different petition from one where we may not be tempted. In Greek the movement "into" denotes a change for the person approaching not merely of outward position, but the inward condition.2 To "enter into" the Kingdom of God is to:
• stand within the Kingdom;
• yield to its claims,
• be dominated by it,
• take its law as the law of one's being.
A valediction3 ["go in peace" (Mark 5:34)] which our Lord used often does not mean, as the English renders it, "depart, and let your mind be at peace," but rather "bring yourself into the state, or condition, of peace." And so to "enter into" temptation is very different from merely encountering it; it is to yield to its demands, to be subjugated by it.
Our Lord bids us pray that we may not enter into it. When in Gethsemane He bade His disciples "watch and pray, that You enter not into temptation," He knew that within a few minutes temptation would confront them - the temptation of cowardice and disloyalty. For them to ask that they might not be brought to that temptation would have been useless. But He would have them desire that they might not be brought into it, into its power so as to be mastered by it. They must approach its walls, where the battle was to be fought. But they need not be led captive into its citadel4.
This interpretation of the prayer seems to be confirmed by the remainder of the sentence. It is not an independent petition; the separate petitions of the Our Father are linked by the word "and." Here there is no "and" followed by a fresh petition; "but deliver us from evil" merely completes and illuminates the phrase "bring us not into temptation." The Greek words may mean either "from evil" or "from the evil one"; on the whole, I think the impersonal rendering, as we have it, gives us the better rendering. But the distinction is of little importance. We ought to notice carefully the preceding words. Those translated "deliver us" mean literally "draw us away to Yourself," and the preposition is "from," not "out of" evil. Thus we ask that, when brought to temptation, we may not be brought into it, but may be saved at that entrance by the power of God, drawing us back from evil to Himself.
Let us use a simple illustration to make the point clear. A man whose weakness is alcohol has to pass daily by a bar on his way home from work. There is no alternative route, so it would be vain to ask that he not be brought to temptation. It stands on his way; he cannot escape encountering it. But we can pray that he may not be brought into it; that he may pass by the door without entering. And each time God's power enables him to do that, he will be a better man for it, because he has come to temptation without coming into it; he will be the more likely to conquer it again the next time.
Thus we seem to have reached an interpretation of this sentence in our Lord's Prayer, derived from a study of its actual wording, which is simple, which satisfies, which clears away the difficulties and misunderstandings. Satanic is its source and fearful are its perils, but God's overruling power has utilized it as a means for our spiritual growth. Only by meeting temptation can we follow in our Master's steps, and, by conquering it through His power, will it make our characters rise nearer to His ideal.
By Anthony C. Deane, Canon of Worcester Cathedral, pre-1939.
1 felicitous: Admirably suited; apt: a felicitous comparison. Exhibiting an agreeably appropriate manner or style: a felicitous writer. Marked by happiness or good fortune: a felicitous life.
2 As if to stress the point, the preposition is duplicated in the Greek, in a way that cannot be reproduced in English; "do not into-bring us into temptation" would be its literal equivalent. And, as the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek reminds us, this preposition "after verbs of going, coming, leading, etc., is joined to nouns designating the condition or state into which one passes," as of entering "into the Kingdom of God," " into life," "into punishment," and so forth. English readers miss this important shade of meaning in the Greek idiom.
3 valediction: An act of bidding farewell, and leave-taking. A speech or statement made as a farewell. A word or phrase of farewell used to end a letter or message.
4 citadel: A fortress in a commanding position in or near a city. A stronghold or fortified place; a bulwark. A fortress in or near a fortified city, commanding the city and fortifications, and intended as a final point of defense.