Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 13 in our series on the Our Father.

This week’s line from the Our Father reminds us of our fragility. As we move from the heights of hallowing God’s name to the humdrum of our ordinary life, this experience of fragility comes to be one of the most prominent parts of our spiritual life.

To pray “Lead us not into temptation” means, above all, acknowledging the reality of temptation. We are in-between people. We want God’s will to be done; we long for his kingdom; we even acknowledge the holiness of his name – but truth be told, other things are often more attractive. We are tempted.

To situate temptation within the Our Father is to appreciate more deeply what sin means. It is not just that we are tempted to break the rules, or to reject God outright, whatever that means. Rather, our temptation is, for example, to long for other things more than for his kingdom. This takes us back to all our previous reflections. In the case of the kingdom, we see that the temptation is not only against the assertions of his will, but against a place of peace and order, against a world ruled by the mercy of Jesus. Truth be told, we often long for – we are often tempted by – visions of something else that sounds better, whether it’s the domination of creature comforts or the assertion of our will over others.

We say thy will be done, but honestly, we often prefer the brute assertion of our will, or we abandon the wisdom and the love that are his will, and say “God won’t mind; his rules aren’t that important anyway.”

And his name? Above all, we are actually tempted to live as if God is not Father.

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What is perhaps most interesting about temptation is that it presumes that we want to do the right thing. What a strange creature we must be, to be tempted. We haven’t rejected God outright – and yet we still turn away from him in our actions. We know that’s not who we want to be, but we do it anyway. So very fragile.

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But the first half of this prayer expresses our fragility even more deeply. “Lead us not.” Surely this is the strangest part of the whole Our Father. It is not “lead us away from temptation,” nor “deliver us” from temptations already present. We will pray “deliver us from evil” in a moment, but here the verb is “leading into” and our request is “please don’t lead us.”

“Do not abandon me” is in fact a constant thread in the prayers of the Bible. As if God could abandon us.

Now, God never abandons us. Even the great cry of anguish in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why you have forsaken me” (v. 1) changes gradually to “be not far from me” (v. 19) and finally “they who seek the Lord will praise him . . . for the kingdom is the Lord’s” (vv. 26 and 28).

Indeed, it’s a strange truth that there would be no point in praying to a God who you think has abandoned you. Crying out “My God” already presumes that he is still there. God never abandons us.

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And yet we so radically depend upon him that we can almost describe everything that goes wrong as God abandoning us. I am weak and he is strong: with him, all things can be conquered, without him, nothing.

And temptation is so powerful, our ability to live the Our Father we profess so weak, that rather than saying, “we’ll just try really hard,” we say “please, don’t let me fall.”

There are, perhaps, two sides to this. On the one hand, we do not want to be in a place of temptation. “Lead us not into” partly means “I do not want to be there.” If I am in the place of temptation, I will fall. Don’t let me be there.

On the other hand, we are so fragile that even falling onto the wrong path seems like God abandoning us, or, even worse, actively putting us in harm’s way.

The point is not to blame God for what goes wrong. The point is to profess our absolute dependence on him. Notice, in fact, that the Our Father doesn’t make the slightest effort to justify God, to explain why it isn’t his fault. Its focus is much more practical: on our absolute dependence on God to keep us on the path of his holy name, his kingdom, his wise and loving will.

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What would change in your life if you really believed that you are weak and he is strong?

eric.m.johnston

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