Lead Us Not into Temptation . . .

SCOTT HAHN

The Lord's Prayer is like a marathon course whose last mile winds up a steep hill. Or it's like a Himalayan mountain whose ultimate peak crowns a sheer, vertical rock face.


We approach the end of the Our Father, and still we face the petition that has proven a stumbling block to many great minds in Christian history. The psychoanalyst C.G. Jung's misinterpretation of this petition was a major factor in his break with orthodox Christianity. He cited Jesus' words as evidence that God is not merely "love and goodness," but also "the tempter and destroyer."1

Why, after all, would God lead us into temptation? When the Scriptures speak of a "tempter," they always mean the devil (cf. Mt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5). Temptation is the hallmark of Satan's action in our lives. Why, then, are we praying that God — "Our Father . . . in heaven" — will not lead us into temptation?

God Does Not Tempt

We must read Jesus' words with utmost care, for He chose them with a precision that is perfect and all-knowing.

The Lord's Prayer is not the only time Jesus directed His followers to pray against temptation. Twice in the Garden of Gethsemane, He urged the apostles: "Pray that you may not enter into temptation. . . . Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Lk. 22:40, 46).

We may conclude, then, that temptations are something to be strenuously avoided. However, Jesus also said that temptations are inevitable: "For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!" (Mt. 18:7). It is clear, in this last context, that God is not the originator of temptations. God does not tempt us. "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one" (Jas. 1:13). But temptations do come — from our fellow men, as Jesus implies above; from the devil, as we see in Jesus' encounter with Satan in the desert (cf. Mt. 4:1-11); and from adverse circumstances in life, such as physical illness, failure, or humiliation.

God does not will our pain; nor does He will the sins of others, which cause us pain. Suffering and death came into the world as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Yet God's will is accomplished in spite of these things; and He has ordained every occasion of temptation to be an occasion of grace as well. It all turns on how we respond.

Freedom's Guarantee

This is a subtle matter, but a very important one, and it is easy to see how it has scandalized even great minds such as Jung's — for it involves the cooperation of God's omnipotent will and our human freedom.

God did not force Adam and Eve to love or obey Him. He allowed them a choice. He placed them in a garden full of delights and invited them to partake of any tree but one. "[O]f the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat," God commanded, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2:17).

Temptation came to the first couple in the form of a serpent — a deadly beast with an angelic intelligence. He posed veiled threats as, with crafty words, he undermined Adam and Eve's trust in God. Fearing for their lives, and too proud to cry out for help, they consented to the temptation. They sinned, and in sinning they failed the test that God had permitted for their good. If they had feared God more than they feared the serpent, they would have chosen martyrdom at that moment, and they would have entered into a life even greater than paradise. By offering a complete sacrifice of their lives, they would have begun to live the life of glory. For God is love, and love demands a total gift of self. In eternity, the complete gift of self is the Trinity's inner life. In time, the image of divine life is sacrificial, life-giving love. We must die to ourselves for the sake of another. And that's what Adam and Eve failed to do.2

Why would God allow this? The Catechism quotes the ancient scholar Origen in this regard: "God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings" (no. 2847). God made man and woman to be free. That free choice is what made temptation possible. But it is also what made love possible. For love cannot be coerced; love requires a free movement of the will. With freedom came the potential for the highest love, but also for the gravest peril.

What's the Use?

Origen says that "[t]here is a certain usefulness to temptation" (quoted in the Catechism, no. 2847). Temptation, when resisted, strengthens the believer. Indeed, God permits trials for this reason. Temptation makes us face the stark choice: for God or against God. When we make the decision for God, we grow stronger in faith, hope, and love.

Contrary to popular belief, then, temptation is not a sign of God's disfavor or punishment. Indeed, down through history, all of God's "favorites" were led to be tempted by severe trials. Consider Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice his only son. Consider Joseph, who was beaten and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Consider Job, whose family and property perished in Satan's murderous rampage. Above all, consider Jesus, for God did not spare Him the most severe temptations. "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Mt. 4:1, emphasis added). The Greek verb for "lead" is different here from the verb in the Lord's Prayer, but the idea is more emphatic. When Mark tells the same story, he says that "[t]he Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness" (Mk. 1:12). The Greek verb translated as "drove" means, literally, "threw"! If Jesus Himself was "thrown" into severe temptation, we should not complain that we are unloved by God when He "leads" us into temptation. For, like God's other beloved, we will shine more brightly when we, with God's help, have struggled successfully.

"God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth" (Wis. 3:5-7).

Temptation, then, is something useful in God's providence, because of God's grace.

Tempted to be Tempted?

Trials are useful, but still we should not seek them out. In fact, we should avoid them as much as we can. Note that Jesus did not teach us to pray, "Lead us into temptation." For that would surely be presumptuous of our own power of endurance.

Adam learned the hard way that, on our own, we do not have the strength to overcome temptation. Those who think they can prevail are usually in for a fall, as Adam was.

For who among us is better prepared than Jesus' apostles? They enjoyed a privileged schooling, at the feet of the Master Himself. They received the Eucharist from Jesus' own hand. Moreover, on that very night, just hours after their First Communion, Our Lord warned them in no uncertain terms — twice! — that they were about to face their most fearsome temptation. Yet, like Adam, they failed. They feared. They fled their Master's side. Will our faith hold up better under fire?

This is why Jesus urged the apostles to "pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Lk. 22:40, 46). Temptations may be inevitable, but a realistic Christian knows he's not ready for them.

The inner logic of the Our Father should tell us so. To the extent that we don't advance the Kingdom of God, to the extent that we don't do God's will, to the extent that we don't worthily and gratefully receive our daily bread, to the extent that we don't seek forgiveness, to the extent that we don't forgive — to that same extent will we be vulnerable to temptation.

Trial is necessary, but if we enter trial with unforgiven sin or with an unforgiving spirit, we will be unprepared. We'll lose. What is it that causes a difficulty to become a temptation? It is our own inability to bear it — because we have failed to live out the other petitions of the Lord's Prayer.

Endnotes

  1. C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 56.
  2. See my books: A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture (Ann Arbor, MI: Charis Books, 1998), ch. 3, and First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity (New York: Doubleday, 2002), ch. 6.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Scott Hahn. "Lead Us Not into Temptation . ." Lay Witness (May/June 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Scott Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of many books, including Lord Have Mercy, Letter and Spirit, Understanding the Scriptures, Swear to God, Scripture Matters, Understanding Our Father, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, and co-editor of Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Dr. Hahn has also written numerous articles in lay and academic publications.

Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) and is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness
 


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