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Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Throughout the season of Lent we’ve taken a deep dive into the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples as a model prayer. Today we focus on “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This phrase is translated in different ways. As we read in our pew Bibles, in Luke, the New Revised Standard Version translates it, “and do not bring us to the time of trial.” Is it temptation, or trial? Well, the answer is both, or either. The same Greek word can be translated trial or temptation or test.[1]

This part of the Lord’s Prayer is confusing because scholars and preachers have come up with such vastly different interpretations of what it means. One scholar says it obviously has to do with the ultimate time of trial, with something like Judgment Day or Armageddon.[2] Another says it’s just as obviously not about Judgment Day but about what we face every day.[3] Some treat the word “temptation” as dealing with any old temptation people face, while others say, no, this is a specific temptation, the temptation to use violence in God’s name, thereby causing the very thing Jesus stood against.[4]

One challenge with this part of the prayer is “Do not lead us not into temptation.” Does God do that? Does the God who is love lead us into temptation? That doesn’t sound very loving, or very fair. We can find stories in Scripture that support a reading that God tests people, and others affirming that God doesn’t. In his letter, the apostle James writes, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and God tempts no one.”[5]

I like the way one of our local biblical scholars responds to this dilemma: “’Do not lead us into temptation’ … does not imply that God is the author of temptation any more than a sergeant, who is leading his platoon into battle, is the originator of war. Jesus knows the reality of evil and the danger of being overcome by it.”[6]

Another challenge is that we might get the impression that all trial or temptation is a negative thing – the thing we would very much like to avoid. “Temptation” is a tricky word because we’ve watered it down. We might say, “I’m tempted to order dessert,” or “I’m tempted to go for a run now, before it gets hot” – temptations that don’t have very serious consequences. Or, we might use the word to describe our inclination to do something that actually is morally wrong: We might say we are tempted to cheat – on a test, perhaps; or, as tomorrow is April 15, maybe on our taxes. We are tempted to steal from an employer or use violence to solve a problem. We are tempted to be unfaithful in a relationship. These temptations, if we succumb to them, have greater and darker consequences for our selves and others.

And then there are the temptations we may never name as such, but which can be even weightier: The temptation to believe that we can control every part of our lives, or the people in our lives. The temptation to believe that we are powerless to change. The temptation to live without hope. The temptation to believe power and money are everything.

But the thing is, temptation isn’t the same as succumbing to temptation. Temptation is the point where we stand on the edge with one foot raised but we haven’t yet stepped off. So are we praying, in the Lord’s Prayer, that God keep us from even that? Keep me from even facing tough choices? After all, life is constant choices, many of them tough, which means life is constant temptation. Besides, Scripture affirms that trials and temptations can strengthen us. The apostle James, again, advises his community: “[C]onsider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”[7]

The recent scandal involving college admissions fraud gives us fresh insight into temptation, and in particular, into the temptation to avoid all trials and suffering. The news covering this story introduced me to the term “lawnmower parents.” Lawnmower parents go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their children from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure. Instead of preparing children for challenges, they mow down obstacles so kids won’t experience them in the first place. I’m convinced that most lawnmower parents start with good intentions. Maybe they themselves experienced a lot of shame around failure as a child. Maybe they felt abandoned by their parents in their moments of struggle, or dealt with more obstacles than most. Any of us – even non-parents – can empathize with someone who doesn’t want to see his or her child fail. But raising children who have experienced minimal struggle doesn’t create a happier generation of kids. It just might create a generation of people who have no idea what to do when they actually encounter challenges, when they have to make a choice, when they are standing on that edge. A generation for whom failure is far too painful, leaving them with coping mechanisms like addiction, blame, and internalizing a sense that they aren’t capable of handling anything important alone.[8]

I don’t believe Jesus is inviting us to pray that we’ll avoid all trials, tests and temptations. Jesus did know about temptation, and his own experience with temptation may point to what he’s inviting us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If you’ll recall from the first Sunday in Lent, we begin Lent with Jesus’ forty-day journey into the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized, and as he came up out of the water, he heard God’s voice telling him, “This is my beloved.”[9] But in the wilderness, he was tempted to believe he was someone else: “You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump from the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Prove who you are. Prove you’re worthy.”[10] Jesus resisted this temptation. Being God’s beloved was enough. His whole life and ministry was claiming that identity for himself – and for everyone else – in the midst of everything.

I wonder whether this isn’t the very temptation Jesus means in the Lord’s Prayer. I wonder, because doubting that identity, disbelieving that before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own beloveds, just may be at the core, the very root of every temptation the human species faces, and of every step off the edge that humanity takes. What would the world be like if we trusted that we and everybody else are worthy of love and belonging just because we belong to God? What could tempt us if we believe that’s enough? Other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism and consumerism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, teachers, the kids at school,[11] the neighborhood gang. Other voices demand that we prove we’re worthy of love and belonging. Prove it, they say, with power and money, strength and status, good grades and a good job. Prove it, they say, by having the smartest kids with the highest SAT scores who get into the best colleges. So many voices have a go at telling us who we should be, whether we are worthy, and who we are, when only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.[12]

Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer adds the familiar line, “…but deliver us from evil,” or as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, “rescue us from the evil one.”[13] Maybe the best definition of “the evil one” is anything or anyone other than God that tries to tell us who we are.[14]

Knowing you are God’s beloved is a source of strength, and courage, and hope. Today, on Palm Sunday, we watch Jesus enter Jerusalem. He knows it’s a dangerous place; he knows the cheering crowds will make the authorities feel even more threatened by his popularity. He rides into the city anyway, knowing that he’s been faithful, trusting that he’s God’s beloved. “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” prayed Jesus. This prayer foreshadows Jesus’ own trial, and his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest. He prays what we all pray, that we might avoid trials if we possibly can – it’s the kind of prayer we can’t help but pray. But more than that, it is a prayer for God’s strength and presence to get us through whatever we face.

Because we will face temptation – to worship the wrong things, to ignore our neighbor, to swaddle our children, to seek revenge instead of offering forgiveness, to see a stereotype instead of Jesus in the least of these. We will face trials: broken bodies, broken relationships, broken dreams; the coldness or violence of the human heart acted out in homes or communities or on a global stage. These things, in turn, will tempt us to despair, to give up, to live as though God does not love us and cherish us, as though God is not by our side.

This part of the Lord’s Prayer acknowledges that reality, but also speaks to how we face it, how we get through it. Jesus’ prayer is that we not be tempted to give up on God, because the God who loves us, who names us and claims us, never gives up on us. And that, my friends, is next week’s lesson.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] πειρασμόν

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 15.

[3] Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), 69.

[4] Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 168ff.

[6] Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), 106.

[7] James 1:2-4. The Apostle Paul wrote, “… we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5.

[8] Anonymous, “Lawnmower Parents Are the New Helicopter Parents & We Are Not Here for It,” August 30, 2018,; Karen Fancher, June 25, 2016, “College Professor Warns: How Not to Be a Lawn Mower Parent,”

[11] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 139.

[12] Bolz-Weber.

[14] Bolz-Weber.

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