Lead us not into temptation.

Matthew 6.13, Luke 11.4.

This part of the Lord’s Prayer gets controversial, because it sounds like our Lord’s brother James totally contradicted it when he wrote,

James 1.13-15 NRSV
13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

So because James said God tempts nobody, people don’t know what to make of it when Jesus has us pray,

Matthew 6.13 NRSV
“And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.”
 
Luke 11.4 NRSV
“And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

’Cause praying that God not lead us into temptation, implies sometimes he might lead us into temptation.

Okay. The word in the Lord’s Prayer which popularly gets translated “temptation” in both Matthew and Luke, is πειρασμόν/peirasmón, “temptation.” Yep, the translators got it right. It’s the noun-form of the verb James used, πειράζω/peirádzo. Means the same thing.

But while James said God tempts nobody, we got scriptures where it kinda looks like he does. Look up any Old Testament verses which include the word נָסָה/naçá, which means the same thing as peirádzo: Test. Try. Prove. Experiment. Tempt. Here, lemme quote just a few.

Genesis 22.1-2 NRSV
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
 
Deuteronomy 8.3 NRSV
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
 
Deuteronomy 13.1-3 NRSV
1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.

Heck, David even told God to put him to the test:

Psalm 26.2 NRSV
Prove me, O LORD, and try me;
test my heart and mind.

Not sure whether David passed that particular test; he was a horny fella. Definitely loved God though.

Anyway. How do we deal with this particular bible difficulty? Real simple: We remember James is wisdom literature.

Wisdom, and where to apply James.

Wisdom literature is situational. It’s not a timeless “biblical” principle which is always true in every case. It’s something which is usually true in most cases. All things being equal, it’s true. But in some situations, when things aren’t equal, it’s not advice to follow. It’s definitely advice to remember, ’cause when things go back to normal, follow the advice! But we apply these teachings on a case-by-case basis.

How d’you know which case to apply them in? You use your head. You apply wisdom. And if you lack wisdom—as James pointed out in the context of his statement about how God doesn’t tempt—ask! Jm 1.5 God’ll grant that request.

Problem is, biblical literalists don’t understand this, and get absolutely outraged that I dare suggest there are verses in the bible where we get to choose whether or not to follow them. Really, any exercise of situational ethics tends to outrage them. There are absolute truths in the universe, they point out, and the bible’s one of them, and I’m undermining it.

I absolutely agree there are absolute truths in the universe. Where I disagree with them, strongly, is how many absolute truths there are. Literalists have a bad habit of making absolutes out of everything. (Especially things they don’t like!) And there simply aren’t as many as they claim. The bible has gray areas. On purpose. I’ll quote my favorite proof text:

Proverbs 26.4-5 NRSV
4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Verse 4 says don’t. Verse 5 says do. Which do you follow? I kid you not, literalists are gonna come up with the most convoluted attempts to actually follow both! But a big part of their convolutions involves hiding the fact they’re only following one… and most of the time it’s verse 5. (Well, in my experience. The Christians you know might exhibit more self-control than the Christians I know.) But the author of Proverbs deliberately put these proverbs right next to one another to make it clear: Sometimes you follow one. Sometimes the other. First you gotta figure out which type of fool you’re dealing with. Which requires, duh, wisdom.

Okay, take this knowledge with you to your reading of James. He wrote God tempts no one. Old Testament says he totally tempted some people. Why’d James say otherwise? Because he’s writing to newbies, and he’s trying to discourage them from deterministically blaming God whenever bad things happen to “good” people.

James 1.12-16 NRSV
12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.

When you have an ordinary bad day, and I’m not talking about a Job-level bad day, it’s not God putting you to the test. It’s life putting you to the test. In this world we’re gonna have hard times. Jn 16.33 It’s not the devil out to get you, no matter how many times you might hold up your “Not today, Satan” coffee mug in your Instagram photos. And it’s definitely not God out to get you.

But that’s what the ancient Jews used to think, whether we’re talking Jesus’s listeners in his Sermon on the Mount, or James’s readers. Pharisees and Sadducees alike were mighty fond of determinism. Not all of ’em, but just enough to push their worldview on the rest of the population, and as a result we still have people who think God dispenses trouble upon us all the time, just to toughen us up and build character.

No he doesn’t. You know how he grows character? He has us follow the Holy Spirit. That’s how he prefers to grow fruit in us. Not by hardship; by obedience. Not by siccing the dark on us, but by shining his light on us.

That idea of whipping us into shape? That’s a human idea. And while it may work for our physical bodies, it’s unnecessary torture to our mental and spiritual state. But people justify it all the time: “It’s how I built character, so it’s how you gotta develop character.” Yeah, but those people are jerks. And their interpretation of God turns him into a massive jerk. So let’s not follow them. Let’s follow Jesus.

James’s statement about how God tempts no one, is therefore usually true. All things being equal, it’s true. God usually tempts no one.

But under certain circumstances, like when the LORD decided to test Abraham, the Hebrews, King David, Job, or Jesus himself… well, he brought ’em to a time of trial.

And here, Jesus teaches us to pray he not do that.

Into temptation?

I’m not sure “lead us to temptation” is the very best way to interpret εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν/eisenénkis imás eis peirasmón, “might bring us to trial.” It’s why I translate this part of the verse, “May you not bring us to trial.”

See, God may test us, but he doesn’t want us to fail. Doesn’t want us to sin. Doesn’t want our temptations to get the better of us. In fact y’notice every time he put people to the test in the scriptures, he expected them to succeed. Still does.

If he puts us to the test by placing one of our temptations in front of us, it’s because he totally expects us to resist temptation. And he’s stacked the deck on our side: If we need help in beating any temptations, God’s not just offering moral support and his best wishes: “I’ll be over here rooting for you, but you’re on your own, kid!” He’s right here. He offers to all the heavy lifting. When we resist the devil and it flees from us, Jm 4.7 it’s because if it doesn’t run, it knows God’s standing right beside us, ready to kick its ass.

When Jesus was led to his times of trial, his Father was fully aware Jesus would succeed. Wasn’t even a question. The devil’s temptations in the wilderness, even in Jesus’s starved-to-death condition, were easily slapped down with Deuteronomy quotes. The crucifixion itself, even in Jesus’s dead-tired condition, was something he was fully ready to undergo.

And if, God forbid, we ever have to suffer like that, it shouldn’t be a moment where we’re wracked with temptations. Otherwise we’re gonna fail. Y’know, not all the ancient Christians heroically stood up for Christ during the Roman persecutions: A whole lot of them totally capitulated, and worshiped the emperor instead of undergoing crucifixion, torture, or the arena. They weren’t at all ready to die for Jesus. A lot of Christians still aren’t.

And Jesus knows this. Hence, “May you not bring us to trial.” And its connected idea in the other part of Matthew 6.13, “But rescue us from evil.”

Now, sometimes circumstances—not God—put us in those times of trial just the same. Sometimes our own sins do it. I remember this one criminal who got caught, tried, convicted, and might get sentenced to five years, and he had the audacity to tweet, “God’s putting me through some stuff lately.” Yeah, that’s not God putting him through that: It’s our criminal justice system, ’cause he stole a TV. I’ve likewise done boneheaded things and had to suffer the consequences, and claiming God led me to these times of trial is equally stupid. Those trials were my own fault.

But y’know, even in self-generated times of trial, God’s still here with us. Still offering his help. Take it!

And whenever we lead ourselves into temptation—’cause yeah, that’s who’s totally done it—God’s still there. Never presume God’s behind the temptations. Those are our desires, not stuff God put into us. God doesn’t do evil.

If any trial legitimately comes from God, I remind you he always expects us to win, and offers to help us win. And when trials don’t come from God, he still offers to help us win. It’s only fatalists, who don’t know God, who thinks he’s got it in for us, and wants us to fail so he can send us to hell. We who know God, know he’s for us, not against us.