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Why I Still Pray ‘Lead Us Not into Temptation’

Parsing a confusing phrase from The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord's Prayer
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The Lord’s Prayer has been a wonderful blessing to me over the years, as well as to millions of Christians through two millennia. But one phrase in the prayer has confused and bothered some: “Lead us not into temptation.” 

We know, of course, as the Bible says, that, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:13-14, NIV). So why would the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples say, “Lead us not into temptation?”

That dilemma prompted an announcement from the Vatican, under the direction of Pope Francis, that liturgy will soon be revised to what the Roman Catholic authorities say is a more accurate translation: “Abandon us not when in temptation.”

I agree that the phrase is easily misunderstood, but I’m not sure that’s the solution. The proposed new wording simply substitutes one misunderstanding for another—that God may abandon us when we are tempted. I don’t think that’s any more the case than the inference that He leads us into temptation. 

For many years now, I’ve tried to teach (and reflect in my own prayers) the value of a pause in the English translation of the phrase. I’ve prayed, privately and publicly, “Lead us…not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The pause helps me to pray for God to lead me, even as I emphasize that I desperately need Him to lead me (in an echo of the 23rd Psalm) in paths of righteousness and deliverance rather than the primrose path to destruction I am prone to tread. 

But there’s one more reason I am loath to let go of “Lead us not into temptation.” It’s easy for us to forget the context of Jesus’ words. In Matthew’s Gospel, the prayer occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:9-13). In Luke’s Gospel, the prayer is placed much later, in answer to His disciples’ request to “teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). In both cases, however, Jesus offers the prayer after His own travail, when “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1, NIV).

Jesus was led into temptation. It was a necessary part of His mission, a trial He had to endure and an event so important that two of the Gospel writers included it in their accounts. 

But we are not Jesus. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” These days it reminds me that I am not Jesus, that He endured much greater temptations than I do and yet remained blameless. It gives me hope and strength. And I often remember as I pray, that even if I neglect God’s leading and stumble into temptation, “God is faithful; He will not let [me] be tempted beyond what [I] can bear. But when [I am] tempted, He will also provide a way out so that [I] can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV, paraphrased).

I know He won’t lead me into temptation, the way the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, but I need Him to lead me. And I need His deliverance when I stray from the paths of righteousness or face trials along the way.

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