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Lead us not into temptation: What can this possibly mean?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2020

Not long ago Pope Francis expressed concern that, in praying the Our Father, people should not think that God ever leads them into temptation, so another translation would be better. Actually, however, God does in some sense lead us into temptation. When we look at this from the mindset of the ancient Jews, we can see very clearly how this is true. It is bound up in the reality of Providence.

In general, the Old Testament texts do not distinguish what we would now call God’s permissive will from his active will. This can create confusion when we read things like, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. If that is so, how can Pharaoh be blamed for his response to Moses? Why is it Pharaoh’s chariots and charioteers that are destroyed in the Red Sea, and why is Pharaoh’s firstborn son slain by the angel of death? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of Divine Providence.

God’s Providence is all-encompassing, but it operates far more mysteriously than through a direct manipulation of all events, a manipulation that would turn free will into a fiction. By his permissive will, God allows sins and other tragedies because he can bring good out of them; they are a furnace of spiritual triumph. But through his active will, he ensures whatever is necessary to give each soul the best chance for union with Himself. For God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

Woven into this complexity is the question of what God expects from different people in different circumstances. Our Lord Himself explains:

And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required. [Lk 12:47-48]

Thus considered, it is clearly part of the Divine Plan generally to “lead us into temptation” in this profoundly Providential and Biblical sense. At the same time, there is value in reflecting on a common alternate translation. Scripture, in both the Old and New Testament, warns against putting God “to the test”. That, of course, is sheer presumption. But we who, unlike God, cannot pass all tests perfectly, might well petition God: Do not put us to the test. Spare us any test that might separate us from You.

Temptation beyond our strength

Of course, we also know from Scripture that God does not tempt us beyond our strength, so is it possible that we do not need to ask to be spared? Consider St. Paul to the Corinthians:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. [1 Cor 10:13]

Let us note, in passing, that St. Paul uses the expression “not let you be tempted….” This shows the distinction between God’s active and permissive will, already being made at the time of Christ. But, again, shall we then say we have no need to pray not to be led into temptation, or not to be put to the test? The answer, I think, is found in the purpose of temptation itself: Temptation is a kind of trial by fire, in which we are purified for the glory of God and, ultimately, for our own glory. It is St. Peter himself who helps us here:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. [1 Pet 1:6-7] But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. [1 Pet 4:12]

Now we may well wonder at these passages which portray temptation as very valuable, when in fact St. Paul claims that God does not tempt us beyond our strength. Does this mean temptation is easy? And again Our Lord tells us to pray not to be led into temptation, not to be put to the test. Is that not even easier? Finally, how are we to reconcile all of this with our own experience of temptation, and of the number of times we succumb to it?

Subjective and objective, perception and reality

I think the solution lies here: When we are filled with every grace, temptation seems as nothing; but when we are still working at the growth of God’s life in us, God challenges us to stiffen our own wills to overcome evil so that, by our very desire to cooperate with God, we may grow into union with Him. This is how we lay a claim to the gift God offers, in a manner consistent with human freedom, ability and growth. It is simply how human nature ordinarily interacts with God on the way to glorification in Him.

Thus, to say that God does not tempt us beyond our strength is certainly theologically true. After all, sin is by its very nature always voluntary. When it is not voluntary—as when there is an irresistible compulsion of any kind—an objectively immoral action ceases to be personally sinful; and when there is significant but not irresistible compulsion—or even other mitigating circumstances—it generally will not be mortal sin, but will be reduced to venial, owing either to lack of clear knowledge of the fault or lack of full consent of the will.

Thus St. Paul’s affirmation that God sets limits to our temptations—his sturdy theological maxim—is a great source of hope in time of trial. It teaches us that God, in every temptation, provides a path to spiritual triumph under duress. But this does not fully address the problem of how we perceive a temptation, how utterly devastating it may seem, how we struggle to meet it, and how—despite real effort—we sometimes fall. This is where we must recall that Our Lord will not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick. Isaiah foretells this of the Messiah (42:3) and St. Matthew quotes it in application to Christ (12:20). It takes far more than struggling and slipping and sliding in the midst of emotional and moral anguish to separate us from God.

If we have never been subjected to a serious, prolonged, excruciating temptation, we must thank God for it. I tend to assume that it hits us all sooner or later, but I really don’t know if that is true. But since Our Lord Himself teaches us to ask the Father not to lead us into temptation, or not to put us to the test, He must be referring primarily not to the ordinary, easy-to-conquer temptations we all experience in the normal course of spiritual development, but to those which are excruciatingly difficult, those which take all our strength and more to fight, those which could precipitate a decisive break with Him if we refuse the struggle or abandon the conflict.

Light from St. Catherine of Siena

Some of the saints have described poignantly what it is like to be in this crucible of serious temptation—serious for us, that is; for another with different strengths and weaknesses, it might be as nothing. St. Catherine of Siena recorded a formative experience in her own spiritual life. At a particular time, she was undergoing serious temptations to impurity. She, who was used to constant communication of God’s presence within her, including conversations with Christ Himself, suffered a long period of anguish, stumbling fearfully, and feeling she had been left in the grip of sin with no escape.

When the temptations—that terrible night!—finally abated, and she felt Christ’s presence again, St. Catherine accused Him directly: “Where were you Lord? Why did you leave me?”

But Our Lord answered, “I did not leave you. If I had, you would have fallen.”

Certainly we must pray to be spared such a test! But if it comes and we are plunged into our own darkness, it is precisely this sort of Presence, without any necessary solace, in which we may trust. And it is just this unsweetened presence of Christ—no matter how badly or how well we think we are getting on—that we all must make the desire of our hearts.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 05, 2020 10:10 PM ET USA

    It’s also helpful to recall that the principle of a divine test goes right back to Eden. Having warned Adam and Eve about the one dangerous tree in the garden, God lets them be tested by the serpent to find out whether they love Him enough to believe He would never deceive them. Not by asking them, but by watching what they actually choose to do.

  • Posted by: winnie - Feb. 03, 2020 9:06 AM ET USA

    A helpful reflection!