‘Lead Us Not Into Temptation’ — What Does This Mean?

And lead us not into temptation…

Have you ever wondered about this petition in the Lord’s Prayer? What exactly are we asking of God our Father?

This petition of the Our Father must be taken in conjunction with the next, which is, “Deliver us from evil,” then the meaning is more clearly understood.

God does not “lead” us Himself into the temptation of sin such that if we pray to Him for deliverance He can save us from the evil deed or if we do not pray for deliverance then, well, too bad for us. He tests our fidelity by demanding obedience to His commandments (all, of course, for our own good), but our disobedience is all of our own doing, whereas our obedience, on the other hand, is due to His grace. Of ourselves, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do” (Luke 17:10).

Calvin taught that the word “lead” (εἰσενέγκης, in Greek) in this petition means the same as to “impel.” This cannot be the meaning for it would inculpate Him who is All-Good in our being separated from Him and by Him if He impelled us into temptation. This view of Calvin does seem consistent, however, with his outrageous doctrine of determined predestination — that God made some men to be vessels of election, to manifest His Mercy, and others to be vessels of reprobation, to manifest His Justice, and, pray all you want, there is nothing you can do about it.

The fathers and doctors of the Church teach that the meaning of the prayer is that God may not suffer us to be led into temptation when we are lax and make ourselves unworthy of His protective grace. We are led into temptation, therefore, by our own fallen nature which draws us into selfish sin in opposition to grace. Do not deprive us of your grace, O Lord, which is your free gift, and of which we are undeserving.

Saint Augustine stood with many other fathers when he wrote: “‘Suffer us not to be led into temptation,’ as being what is implied in the word lead. For God does not of Himself lead a man, but suffer him to be led from whom He has withdrawn His aid.” (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount ii 9) And again, “When then we say, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ what we ask is, that we may not, deserted by His aid, either consent through the subtle snares, or yield to the forcible might, of any temptation.” (Epist. 130, 11.)

Lead us not into temptation. “For whoso is not led into temptation of his own evil will,” writes the same saint, “is free of all temptation; for, each man is tempted of his own lust. (James 1:14.) God would have us pray to Him that we may not be led into temptation, though He could have granted it without our prayer, that we might be kept in mind who it is from whom we receive all benefits. Let the Church therefore observe her daily prayers; she prays that the unbelieving may believe, therefore it is God that turns men to the faith; she prays that the believers may persevere; God gives them perseverance even unto the end.” (De Don. Pers. 5)

Saint James in his epistle writes, “Let no man, when he is tempted, say that he is tempted by God. For God is not a tempter of evils, and he tempteth no man. But every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured. Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin, when it is completed, begetteth death” (1:13-15).

Cornelius a Lapide, commenting on the Our Father says, “God only permits us to be led into temptation. So the Fathers and all Catholics. In a manner, God is said to do what He permits, since nothing can be done without His suffering it to be. The meaning then is —  Permit us not to be led into temptation in such a manner, at least, that we are overcome by it, as fishes and birds are taken in a net. ‘Let us not,’ as S. Augustine says, ‘be bereft of Thy help, so that we should be deceived and consent to any temptation.’”

A Lapide continues, “Suffer not temptation to befall us. And yet in the Lives of the Fathers, we read, that certain saints wished for temptations as a means of increasing virtue, through fortitude of mind and trust in God. Whence S. James says, ‘My brethren count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.’ (1:2). For by temptation we are proved and exercised, we fight and are perfected. Christ therefore puts us in mind of our infirmity, and that because of it, we ought not to expose ourselves to temptations; but should, as far as may be, ward them off, and pray against them. And we can only overcome temptation by the help of God’s grace. Wherefore in temptation we must continually and ardently pray for God’s help. As S. Peter Chrysologus says, (Serm. 44), ‘He goes into temptation, who goes not to prayer.’ And S. Gregory Nyssen says (Orat. 1 de Orat. Domin.), ‘If prayer precede business, sin findeth no way of access to the mind.’”

But deliver us from evil. That is, from temptation, for of temptation the preceding petition speaks.