In the Our Father, we pray, “And lead us not into temptation.” This sounds a little odd, because why would God lead us into temptation?
Upon first hearing, this petition of the Our Father does sound like we are asking God not to lead us into temptation. (The Our Father is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.) In this sense, the petition sounds like God would purposely place us in temptation and set us up for a fall to sin. The literal translation of the Greek text is indeed, as we recite, “and lead us not into temptation.”
Consequently, we must understand this petition in its context. The preceding petition asks our heavenly Father to forgive us our sins as we forgive others a very positive petition imploring an outpouring of God's healing grace. The petition in question must also be viewed positively: it asks the Father not to lead us into temptation, but not in the sense of God putting us into temptation.
St. James reminds us, “No one who is tempted is free to say, 'I am being tempted by God.' Surely God, who is beyond the grasp of evil, tempts no one” (Jas 1:13). Our Lord would never set us up for a fall to sin.
Rather, as the Catechism indicates, the petition means more “do not allow us to enter into temptation” or “do not let us yield to temptation” (No. 2846). Jean Carmignac, the great Qumran scholar, after a very thorough study, suggested that the petition is best rendered, “Father … see that we do not enter into temptation” or “that we do not give in to temptation.” Therefore, we understand the petition in the sense of God giving us the grace to recognize and resist temptation. We must realize that our human efforts are not sufficient to face all the temptations surrounding our daily lives. We need divine assistance to lead a holy life.
Moreover, the petition invokes a grace to persevere along the path of holiness. St. Paul admitted the constant need for God's grace. He wrote, “…Let anyone who thinks he is standing upright watch out lest he fall! No test has been sent you that does not come to all men. Besides, God keeps His promise. He will not let you be tested beyond your strength. Along with the test, He will give you a way out of it so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:12-13).
Reflecting on his own faith journey at the end of his life, St. Paul wrote in his second Letter to St. Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). St. Paul realized the test of this life, but also the grace of God which allowed him to meet it head on and persevere.
Similarly, St. John of Avila (d. 1569) in a sermon delivered on the first Sunday of Lent reminded the faithful:
God is strong enough to free you from everything and can do you more good than all the devils can do you harm. All that God decrees is that you confide in Him, that you draw near Him, that you trust Him and distrust yourself, and so be helped; and with this help you will defeat whatever hell brings against you. Never lose hold of this firm hope…even if the demons are legion and all kinds of severe temptations harass you. Lean upon Him, because if the Lord is not your support and your strength, then you will fall.
Highlighting this understanding of this petition, the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent in its exposition of the Our Father stated:
We do not ask to be totally exempt from temptation, for human life is one continuous temptation (cf. Jb 7:1). What, then, do we pray for in this petition? We pray that the divine assistance may not forsake us, lest having been deceived, or worse, we should yield to temptation; and that the grace of God may be at hand to succor us when our strength fails, to refresh and invigorate us in our trials.
The idea of persevering also moves us to ponder the final time. Some Scripture scholars suggest that this petition does not necessarily refer to our daily temptations to sin, but perhaps the great eschatological test when we may be tempted away from the Lord. Here we would face the one great future trial with a terrible onslaught by the devil (cf. 2 Thes 2:1-8).
Matthew's version of the Our Father adds “but deliver us from evil” evil not being some amorphous force but a personified evil, the devil. The devil is the tempter, the Satan, who tries to obstruct the Lord's plan of salvation and tempt us from the path of holiness. Recall that at the Last Supper, Jesus prayed to His Father, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the evil one.” However, we need not live in fear for, by the grace of God, we will persevere.
Therefore, as we continue our Lenten preparation, we must undergo a thorough self-examination, recognize our temptations and weaknesses, and repent of sin and receive sacramental absolution. We must implore the Lord to pour forth His grace to give us a firm resolution of heart to follow Him, to keep us vigilant against temptation and evil, and to persevere until the end.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)