Lead Us Not Into Temptation

A reader asks:

I loved the article, Is God A Consequentialist? Why do we pray in the Our Father, “Lead us not into temptation.”?

Here is a chapter from my book The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary. If you are interested in the rest of my treatment of the Our Father and the Hail Mary, you can get it here.

Chapter Nine
Lead Us Not Into Temptation

One of the great consolations Christians have is that we worship a God who has himself wrestled with temptation. At the Judgment, we will face not an Olympian abstraction who breezed through on his looks and money, nor a severe and icy critic who eyes us coldly and says, “Why can’t you just not be tempted, like me!” but by a man who himself has faced and struggled through every temptation the world ever had to throw at our miserable species. God, it is true, asks a lot from us and I, for one, have to admit that I sometimes resent it. But the fact remains that he doesn’t ask anything of us to which he hasn’t subjected himself. Hunger, thirst, misunderstanding, rejection, bitter hate, betrayal, torture, and death are all things he has faced, right along with the accompanying temptations to selfishness, self-pity, pride, lust, resentment, grudges, vengefulness, bitterness, and despair. And the temptations he faced occurred, not by accident, but by his own divine plan. Before he begins his mission, Jesus is described by Mark as being “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. He fought and beat them all, and he tells us he will give us his Spirit in order that we may do likewise.

It is notable that the Catechism tells us (CCC 2846) that this petition against temptation “goes to the root of the preceding one” (i.e., “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Partly that’s because temptation is where sin is conceived, but also it is because perhaps the greatest temptation we feel in this life is the temptation to refuse forgiveness to others. After all forgivenness is, by definition, for people who don’t deserve it since they really sinned against us and we really are their victims. Because of this, we can feel an enormous temptation to “stand on our rights” instead of standing on the grace of Christ. Like the proud ghost in C.S. Lewis’ wonderful little book The Great Divorce we want to say, especially when we are really wronged, “I only want my rights, I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” To which our Guardian Angel replies in Lewis’ immortal words, “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity.”[1]

It is curious that we pray to God, who has already put himself through Hell to win us our salvation, to “lead us not into temptation.” It seems as odd as praying to a lifeguard to not deliberately drown us. Why on earth are we asking God to not do what he would never ever do? Part of the problem is that the Greek contains more ideas than can be adequately rendered in English. The Catechism (CCC 2846) tells us, “It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation” (cf. Matthew 26:41).

Jesus is not teaching us that we worship a capricious deity who might suddenly take an irrational dislike to us, herd us into temptation, and try to damn us for fun. He is teaching us to worship his Father, the God of Israel who “cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). That God is absolutely consistent and is not about to suddenly and whimsically betray us like a fairy, sidhe or sprite in some pagan myth. He is not perverse and mercurial. His purpose is from age to age. He means to set us free from sin, death and the devil. But part of his purpose can only be fulfilled with our cooperation. So just as we ask the Father to give us what is good, so we ask him to protect us from temptation by helping us to avoid and escape it.

And brother do we need the help. We want to turn salvation into a legal game in which we seek, not to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, but rather to see how much we can get away with and, as the saying goes, “still be saved.” We have numerous elaborate strategies for attempting to offer as little of ourselves as we can to God, while trying not to appear as though we are basically seeking our own way. We see this in the sort of questioning which asks things like, “How far can I go with my girlfriend before it’s technically, you know, ‘fornication’?” The very question reveals a corrupt will and intellect before the sin has even been technically, you know, committed. In the final analysis, it boils down to the not-yet-converted Augustine’s prayer “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!”[2] And we see the identical pattern with whatever other favorite sin we are trying to sidle up to.

So we are taught to ask God to guard us from the way that leads to sin for the same reason we ask him for our daily bread: because grace is as necessary for our spiritual life as bread is for our physical life. We are locked in combat between the flesh and the spirit and we need all the help we can get to know how to discern what God is doing with us in the middle of this war zone. As Paul puts it:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.

So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:5-17)

Satan’s temptation, of course, always consists of using some good thing God has made and trying to lure us into loving it in a disordered way. No fish bites a bare hook. It’s always wrapped in a juicy worm that is, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, tasty-looking both to our appetite and to our pride. But the hook is still death. This is why Paul tells us that Satan appears as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The mark of the world, the flesh, and the devil is that they tell us to seek some good (it matters not what) by rejecting what God has commanded. To break this ancient habit it is necessary that God permit us to face trials even as he teaches us to avoid temptation—and to learn to tell the difference.

Therefore, the Catechism tells us:

The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man (cf. Luke 8:13-15; Acts 14:22; Romans 5:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:12), and temptation, which leads to sin and death (cf. James 1:14-15). We must also discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation. Finally, discernment unmasks the lie of temptation, whose object appears to be good, a “delight to the eyes” and desirable (cf. Genesis 3:6), when in reality its fruit is death.

God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings. . . . There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us.[3] (CCC 2847)

One thing to note about temptation is that when we aren’t actively courting it, we’re facing, not sin, but concupiscence. Sadly, this term is one that has fallen into disuse in contemporary culture, leading to the tendency to conflate temptation with sin itself. A pattern of thought that afflicts many believers and one that the devil, the accuser of the brethren, loves is “If I were truly a Christian, I wouldn’t be having these thoughts and feelings at all.” But this is not so. Temptation only sprouts into the weed of sin when we water it with consent of the will. That is why the Church speaks of concupiscence, not as sin, but as the “tinder for sin” when she teaches:

Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.”[4] Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). (CCC 1264)

To vary the metaphor, think of it this way. Original sin is like a birth defect. It’s not so much a thing as the lack of something; a hole in our souls where God was supposed to be. Our first parents, in losing the life of God in the soul, lost it for us, so we are born without something that ought to be there just as, for instance, a baby might be born with a missing heart valve. In Baptism, the life of God is given us so that we can “walk with Christ” (cf 1 John 2:6), just as heart surgery for an otherwise fatal defect might save a child’s life, yet leave him with a weakened constitution that easily tires. In the same way, we are healed from the death-dealing effects of original sin, but still must grapple with a weakened will, a darkened intellect, and disordered appetites caused by that severe blow to our God-given human nature. None of these things are sinful by themselves and, in fact, they are the field of battle on which we live out our fidelity to Christ.

Indeed, it is precisely because concupiscence is not sin that God sees our struggle to overcome temptation, not as a revelation of how rotten we are at heart, but as the glorious battlefield upon which we grow in virtue, courage, and grace. I once had a conversation with a man who had struggled for years with homosexual temptation. He was married and had been a faithful husband and father, but feared that his temptation revealed how sinful he really was. I told him what the Church taught about concupiscence and that the first thing he needed to know was that his Father in heaven was proud of him and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He had fought the good fight and loved his wife and family by the power of grace. He burst into tears. Nobody had ever told him about concupiscence. He’d been taught that temptation told us who we “really” are and had lived for years with the burden of supposing God was constantly angry at him.

The truth is Jesus is the revelation of who we really are. He, not sin, is the final word about the human person. Therefore, Paul tells us, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Note that Paul does not say, “If you give in to temptation, that proves you aren’t really a Christian.” That’s why he tells a Corinthian Church that is positively riddled with sinful members, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Paul, aware of the possibility of the radical misuse of our freedom, warns of the real possibility of damnation for his flock, but does not enter into the stupid game of attempting to claim that baptized people who sin, even gravely, are “not really Christians.” Instead he accepts the reality that they are, at least for the moment, bad Christians, exhorts them to become what they are and reminds them of what that is. He does not say, “You pretended to be washed, sanctified and justified.” He takes it for granted that they were and demands that they conform their lives to the truth of what Christ has revealed in them through the sacraments.

The mystery here is that the sacraments are grace, not magic. They do not cancel our free will. Paul, of course, realizes that we will fail and fall, but that when we do, Christ’s will is to forgive and heal and call us back to repentance once again, because he, not sin, is the final word about who we are. Note as well that, instead of concluding from this that he does not need to bother rebuking the wayward Corinthians because it will all turn out well in the end, Paul sees it as his duty to warn them that if they do not repent, they will not see the Kingdom of God. In short, he understands that just as “give us this day our daily bread” implies a duty to feed the hungry, so “lead us not into temptation” implies a duty to strengthen, encourage and, where necessary, warn and rebuke those who are struggling in the battle with temptation.

One of the great lessons the saints teach us is that the battle with sin is the hardest and longest battle there is. This is not a discovery of the New Testament saints but was already old news in the Old Testament. That’s why Proverbs tells us, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). This imagery informs the New Testament as well when Paul tells us:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

The only weapon that will ultimately carry us through this battle to victory is prayer with our eyes wide open, vigilant and alert. This is how Jesus himself defeated the Tempter and it is why he calls us to “watch and pray” (cf. Matthew 26:41). We are not to live in fear of the Enemy, nor in an endless navel-gazing search for our own faults. We are instead to live as Christ did, with our eyes fixed on the Father and on the prize to which he called us when he prayed for us to the Father, “Keep them in your name.” (John 17:11). Only by such vigilant prayer can we overcome the Enemy of our souls.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), p. 28.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter 7. Available on-line at http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/augconfessions/bk8.html as of March 3, 2011.

[3] Origen, De orat. 29:PG 11, 544CD

[4] Council of Trent (1546): DS 1515

  • Steve

    Here is what Pope Benedict said about that section in Jesus of Nazareth Part I:

    “I know that I need trials so that my nature can be purified. When you decide to send me these trials, when you give evil some room to maneuver, as you did with Job, then please remember that my strength goes only so far. Don’t overestimate my capacity. Don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.” – Pope Benedict XVI

  • Heather

    Wow, that was lovely. I wish I had read that paragraph on original sin prior to my RCIA class last week which talked about God the Father, Creation, and the Fall. Will need to bookmark it for inspiration when we return to the topic in our session on Baptism in the new year.

  • Eve Fisher

    It’s amazing the number of people (especially on the Protestant side) who basically preach, “Well, if you’re a REAL Christian, you won’t be tempted by ___”. And yet St. Paul says, plainly, that Jesus was tempted and DID NOT SIN. And we are told, over and over again, by Jesus and St. Paul and St. Peter that we will be tested, i.e., tempted, to purify our souls. Meanwhile, too many people are running around feeling like failures because of thoughts/feelings that appear in their minds, even if they totally reject those thoughts/feelings.

    Another problem is today the few people who have ever heard of the word “concupiscence” believe it means “lust” and specifically, “sexual lust.” But then, it seems that most people believe that the only sins God cares about are the physical: sexual sins, gluttony (fat is SO out), and addiction (“just say no”). There’s not a lot of problem, or preaching, or teaching on greed (“which is idolatry”, according to St. Paul), envy, pride, or anger. Perhaps because most of our economic system is based on getting us to buy more and more stuff? And the only way to do that is through our greed, envy, pride?


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