Lead Us Not Into Temptation

The Annunciation by Bartolome Estabon Marillo, 1680

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). It is a very good thing to learn one’s faith at a young age. And it is a very good thing to revisit things learned long ago. A child’s first learning about God, His love, and His ways of dealing with men results, unavoidably, in a child’s understanding. No one can escape the law expressed in the age-old dictum: “That which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” Yet, as a child grows, the initial understanding is meant to keep pace. There is a constant need for a purification of concepts, as Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI never tired of reminding us.

The New Testament bears witness to this need for a purification of concepts. When St. Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Matt 16:16), he was certainly correct. He passed the catechetical quiz, “Who do you say that I am?” by using the right word. And he was certainly correct in thinking that, as Messiah, Jesus would fulfill God’s promises. But between his understanding of how Jesus-the-Messiah would fulfill those promises, and God’s plan, which culminates in the Paschal Mystery, there was a giant discrepancy. After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus immediately begins Peter’s tutelage by foretelling His suffering and death.

The apostles’ understanding of what Jesus understood in all of His teaching about the Kingdom of heaven is another, striking example. On the day of the Ascension, their final question to the risen Lord is, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They were likely thinking of Israel as a sovereign kingdom, free from Roman occupation and oppression. After all of their time with Jesus and taking in His teaching about the Kingdom, they still needed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in order to fully understand the Kingdom as Jesus understands it.

The Holy Spirit never ceases to lead the Church as whole, as well as each of her members, to an ever more mature faith. “To bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation the same Holy Spirit constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts” (Dei Verbum, 5). To cooperate with His graces, we need to recognize that it is already a grace to become aware that a prior understanding of one or another element of faith needs to be purified. We need to see this as a divine teachable moment, and as an invitation to move beyond thinking as a child.

These were my thoughts when a small group of Catholics who take their faith seriously asked me what they should think about a God Who has to be asked not to lead us into temptation. They had drawn a conclusion from the wording of this petition, that unless we ask God not to lead us into temptation, He will. I pointed out to them that the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates that the Greek can mean both, “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation” (2846). So, we are asking God for the grace to remain strong in our baptismal resolve to reject Satan and all his works, to reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God’s children, and to reject the glamour of evil and to refused to be mastered by sin.

It can be added that the faith of God’s people that is reflected in the Bible entails a profound sense that nothing escapes God’s providence. The expression of this is to attribute to Him all that happens, even when it is clear that God did not make it happen. For example, we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 4:21). But it should be evident that He did not make this happen in the same way that He worked the parting of the sea, or provided manna in the desert, or brought about the conversion of King David. By the time of the New Testament, the Lord’s long and patient pedagogy had brought His people fully to realize what human freedom and responsibility truly mean. Thus, while God allows Judas’ to open himself to the devil, it is not God who influences his heart to betray Jesus, but the devil (Jn 13:2). God does not lead us into temptation, but He does allow us to experience the consequences of the misuse of freedom, that of Adam and Eve, our own, and others’. We can choose to listen to voices other than God’s.

So, this petition, when said with understanding and from the heart, is borne of a salutary humility regarding our own weakness. Who would beseech the Lord for protection, for support, and for grace not to yield to temptation if not the one who has received the grace to strive to do God’s will, and to give Him glory, and yet has also encountered his own susceptibility to betray that God-given desire, and thus God Himself? Blessed is the one for whom the words, “And lead us not in temptation,” are the spontaneous expression of this humility.

Over and above the disposition of humility, the proper understanding of this petition also depends on how we define temptation, and, inseparably, sin. It may be that we are accustomed to a trivial understanding of temptation because we have a trivial sense of our own dignity and of the immensity of God’s love for us, fully revealed in Christ’s death on the Cross. Placed at the crossroads of the spiritual and physical orders, our intellect and freedom are fashioned both for ascending and for descending. Their ascent is to things divine, while their descent is to things corporeal, the “lower” part of our nature. Two orders of temptation correspond to this ascent and descent of our intellect and freedom; we can ascend too high, and descend too low. The first, concerning our ascent, boils down to pride, which occurs when we overestimate our abilities and value our own judgments above God’s judgments. The second, concerning our descent, boils down to weakness, which occurs when we find ourselves unable to do the things we want to do and unable to avoid the things we want to avoid. This is the battle between the law of concupiscence in our bodies against God’s law in our minds, which St. Paul so vividly describes in Rom 7:14-25.

The difference between these two orders of temptation led St. Thomas Aquinas to say that by the sin of pride, man thinks too highly of himself, by exalting himself to the level of exercising his reason autonomously, that is, withdrawing it from submission to God. In contrast, by sins of weakness of the flesh, man thinks too little of himself, by lowering himself to the level of animals, which are not guided by reason.

Even a superficial survey of the conduct of self-identifying Christians, at least in the West, suffices to conclude that if there is any awareness of sin, it is most likely to regard temptation as weakness of the flesh (Matt 26:41; Rom 8:3). That is tempting which offers the immediate gratification of some pleasure, which, though it is known not to be good for us is nevertheless desired and sought. Excess in alcohol, chocolate, recreation, or fatty foods, the prospect of forbidden pleasure, procrastination, gossiping, wasting time on mindless activities—these and many more things are occasions to confront basic human weaknesses, the state of being torn between what is reasonable, and what is not. But, God did not have to become man and eventually to die on the Cross in order to reveal that unreasonable actions have undesirable consequences. Even the worldly embrace the discipline of the body, since they define happiness in terms of the body. Yet, He did have to die so that we can know how much God loves us, and that His love is wounded by sins by which reason is excluded from ordering our bodily pleasures. In unforgettably expressive terms, St. John Paul II put it this way:

The “convincing” is the demonstration of the evil of sin, of every sin, in relation to the Cross of Christ. Sin, shown in this relationship, is recognized in the entire dimension of evil proper to it, through the “mysterium iniquitatis” (cf. 2 Thess 2:7) which is hidden within it. Man does not know this dimension—he is absolutely ignorant of it apart from the Cross of Christ. So he cannot be “convinced” of it except by the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of truth but who is also the Counselor.

For sin, shown in relation to the cross of Christ, is at the same time identified in the full dimension of the mysterium pietatis,” (cf. 1 Tim 3:16)… Man is also absolutely ignorant of this dimension of sin apart from the Cross of Christ. And he cannot be “convinced” of this dimension either, except by the Holy Spirit: the one who “searches the depths of God.”

The power to overcome temptation is unleashed by thinking about the price that Christ paid to reveal how God’s love reacts to our sins. For, “It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced” (CCC, 1432). The Paschal Mystery is the definitive “marvelous work of God,” which puts all things in their definitive perspective, the perspective of love.

To think otherwise when praying, “And lead us not into temptation,” carries the risk of abdicating our responsibility to live reasonably by looking for a divine intervention when, in reality, we are quite capable of removing these temptations ourselves, by basic discipline. Or, does being a Christian make one less capable of self-discipline than those without any faith, who should make us blush for the discipline we observe in their lives as they pursue their earthly vision of human fulfillment? It is salutary to turn to God in our weakness, but when that weakness is rooted in the disordered inclinations of our bodies, it is presumptuous to turn to Him unless we are doing our part to chastise our bodies in order to bring them into submission (1 Cor 9:27).

It is not likely that those disciples of Jesus, who were privileged to be the first to hear Him pray the Our Father, thought first and foremost about temptations rooted in the weakness of the flesh when they heard Him say, “And lead us not into temptation.” For them it must have meant something more profound. The word, temptation, must have made them think of Israel’s tempting of God in the desert. For the event at Massah-Meribah was etched in Israel’s memory (Ex 17:7; Dt 6:16; 9:22; Num 20:13-14; 27:14; Ps 81:7; 95:8). Jesus’ contemporaries would have understood that He is saying, in effect: “God, forbid that we repeat the sin of our forefathers! Let us never grumble against You by second-guessing Your ways!” In the Bible, to grumble (or to murmur, or to complain) in this way (Ex 15:24; 16:2, 7-9; 17:3) is to disapprove of the dispositions of God’s wisdom. It is to stand in judgment of God based on one’s own contrived notion of how God should conduct Himself. Peter grumbled in this way when Jesus foretold His betrayal, passion, and death, and we know the rebuke that this evoked from the Lord. The scribes and Pharisees grumbled in this way when Jesus consorted with sinners (Lk 5:30; 15:2; 19:7; see also Matt 20:11).

The petition is, then, for the grace to call to mind the fundamental lesson of faith in God’s loving wisdom. We overcome the temptation to complain about what is happening in our lives, and to fantasize about how different things could be, by remembering how God has worked in the past. In the desert, the emancipated slaves should have called to mind the ten plagues, and the parting of the sea, and reasoned that just as God was in charge of things then, so He is now, and as strange as it may seem to be living in a state of constant threat to our very existence—lack of water and food, venomous serpents—nothing takes God by surprise, and we should give Him glory by trusting that He will finish what He has begun. In contrast to the grumbling people, Moses displayed this kind of faith when he reasoned with God when He threatened to exterminate His people for their lack of faith. It is clear that God wanted to elicit this act of faith in response to what the people considered a bizarre form of liberation from slavery.

Throughout God’s dealings with His people in the Old Covenant, He is preparing them to trust in Him in the face of the display of His wisdom that qualifies as most bizarre of all: liberation from all sin and evil through the suffering and death of His Son. If we want to visualize what the answer to the petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” looks like, we can do no better than to reflect on Mary’s fiat, “let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It begins in response to the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement that she will be the virgin mother of the Messiah. How could this not appear to her as a contradiction? Yet, she believes because she is convinced that God cannot contradict Himself. Her fiat progresses to the Presentation and Simeon’s prophetic utterance about Jesus being a sign of contradiction, and about a sword piercing her heart. How could this not stand in contradiction to the good news made known by Gabriel? Yet, she believes because she is convinced that God cannot contradict Himself. And when she cannot fully understand what her Son says (about having to be in His Father’s house, and about His hour not yet having come), her habit is to keep the memory of God’s mighty deeds and promises alive in her memory. She does not demand that God give her immediate understanding. She does not put Him to the test by demanding a confirming sign, as Zechariah did (Lk 1:18). She is not among those of the evil and unfaithful generation that asks for signs (Matt 12:39, 16:1-4). She does not demand an enlightenment from heaven, as if she has a right to live without any intellectual tension. She simply believes, convinced that there is no tension in God’s Mind, for in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, “God knows what He is about.” Perhaps daily she returned to, and drew strength from, the Scripture: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8).

Most of all, we should think of Mary at the foot of the Cross. For, this is the apex of her pilgrimage of faith, the definitive test of the resolve of her fiat. For here, as St. John Paul II teaches, “standing at the foot of the Cross, Mary is the witness, humanly speaking, of the complete negation of these words” that Gabriel had spoken so many years earlier at the Annunciation (Redemptoris Mater, 18). As God tested Abraham’s faith to manifest it to the edification of all who came after him, so Mary is privileged to undergo a testing of her faith, precisely so that we might know what we are asking for when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation.” Neither Abraham, nor Mary, fell into the trap of the Israelites, when their faith was tested at Massah-Meribah. These offspring of Abraham responded to God’s test of their faith by testing God’s wisdom and fidelity, and grumbled to express their disapproval of His management of their deliverance from slavery. In contrast, in every way, Mary is one with her Son, fully embracing with Him that mysterious necessity in the Father’s plan of love, that the Messiah should suffer and die before entering into His glory (Lk 24:26; Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23).

Loving us in His Son, the Father grants us the privilege of accompanying Him through the Paschal Mystery, taking Mary as our supreme model for this accompaniment in faith. For the drama of Good Friday plays out in all of our encounters with evil and suffering. Combining biblical testimony with theological depth and pastoral insight, the CCC bears witness to the fact that the fiat of faith is constantly put to the test by what seems most to stand in contradiction to what we believe about God, Who is all-loving and all-powerful (see CCC, 309):

Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it (CCC, 164).

To pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” is to pray for the grace to respond to every Good Friday in our lives the way that Mary responded on the first Good Friday. Conscious of the weakness of our faith, it is to ask the Lord to increase our faith (Mk 9:24) so that we can cooperate with God as He tests our faith, only to purify and to strengthen it, and in this way, to avoid turning the table on God by allowing the tests He sends to become a testing of Him. It is to beseech the Lord for the grace not to grumble.

But, the mere absence of grumbling defines the fiat of faith on our Good Fridays only negatively. Positively, the fiat of faith takes the form of an anticipatory act of thanks and praise, an act that as St. Alphonsus Liguori assures us is all the more meritorious in adversity. For our faith assures us that every Good Friday death is followed by an Easter Sunday resurrection, that our God specializes in turning mourning into dancing, and tears into joy (Ps 30:12; 126:5). When we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we are praying for the grace not to have our sight limited to what we are able to see on Good Friday, but rather to see the Easter resurrection beyond every Good Friday of suffering. Otherwise, we shall most certainly find ourselves succumbing to the temptation to put God to the test, as if Good Friday were the end of the story.

When we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” it may be salutary to recall an incisive verse of St. Paul: “We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Our consciousness of loving God is the assurance that He gives us that “everything,” and this includes every Good Friday, will work for our good. And what could be closer to us, what could be more definitive as evidence, than the witness of our own hearts regarding our love for Him? Our love for Him, which is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is the earnest, the down payment, the fulfillment of a promise that is God’s pledge to fulfill every promise He has made to us. In this light, the gift of the Holy Spirit corresponds to the gift of being set free from slavery in Egypt through the parting of the sea. That liberating intervention by God was as a down payment, a pledge that He would not leave what He began unfinished. And this is why He rightly expected His people not to grumble when they were put to the test. This is the meaning of the Lord’s admonition: “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested me, and put me to the proof, even though they had seen my works” (Ps 95:8-9). God expected His people to treasure in their memories what they had witnessed—the ten plagues, the parting of the waters—and to draw strength from these to make a fiat of faith when they confronted apparent contradictions. These great works—and after Israel’s grumbling, the water from the rock is included among them—are the earnest of His fidelity and the foundation for the fiat of faith in the face of apparent contradictions.

The earnest God has given to us is far superior: Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The words of Psalm 95 preeminently apply to Christians: Indeed! We have seen all of His works! Mary teaches us to treasure these things in our hearts so that we can cooperate with God as He answers our petition, “And lead us not into temptation.” Calling His marvelous deeds to mind is His answer to this petition. These memories are the fuel of faith that thanks and praises God in advance of His definitive deliverance from evil and suffering. In this way, rather than to grumble and to put God to the test, with Jesus, we can commend our spirit into the hands of the Lord (Ps 31:6; Lk 23:46) with bold confidence that evil, suffering, and even death are not final realities. Did Jesus recite all of Psalm 22 from the Cross? If He did, then we can only marvel as the movement from the initial “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” to these words:

Lord, do not remain distant; my strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my forlorn life from the teeth of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls. Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you: “You who fear the Lord, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him…. All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the Lord; All the families of nations will bow low before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, the ruler over the nations. All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought (Ps 22:20-32).

There is a tendency, when petitioning the Lord, to look for the answer to our prayers outside of ourselves. In the case of the petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” this might take the form of imagining that God takes into account our weaknesses as He manipulates exterior events and circumstances. It would take a private revelation to have any certainty about this. But it is a matter of public revelation that, outside of us, God has died in order fully to reveal His love for us. And in this revelation of His love lies the power to transform us interiorly so that we are able to overcome temptations.

Thus, God has already answered this petition in the most fundamental way possible. When we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we are asking God to deepen our faith, hope, and charity, which are all rooted in the definitive demonstration of God’s love in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. We are asking Him to perfect our faith, hope, and charity so that we consider living in the certainty of having been loved by God in Christ (CCC, 2778) the highest of all goods. It is a question of believing that so long as we are in possession of God’s love, we want for nothing, that we are in possession of the pearl of great price, and the treasure found in a field (Matt 13:44-45). Combining this with the assurance that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39), and we discover the formula by which temptation is vanquished. To the extent that we allow ourselves to be captivated by God’s love, the possibility diminishes that we could be drawn into an inordinate love of the comparatively puny goods of this world. In its perfect state, this being captivated by God’s love is heaven. But we should keep in mind that in the Lord’s Prayer we also pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Love of God puts all other things in perspective, and perspective—precisely, the perspective of eternity—is the key to overcoming temptation. For from the perspective of eternity, which is God’s own perspective, everything that would distract us from God’s love appears in its true puniness, at which point the seductive power of created realities dissolves.

In this light, we see that God is constantly answering our petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” through His holy Church. Through her preaching and teaching, through her liturgy, through the daily prayers, and the reading of Scripture that she inspires, and through the edifying power that comes with the Communion of Saints—those in heaven and those holy men and women on earth through whom God inspires us—God continually transforms us by captivating us with His love. It is salutary to realize, then, that He is thereby constantly answering our petition, “And lead us not into temptation.

Douglas G. Bushman, STL About Douglas G. Bushman, STL

Douglas Bushman is the St. John Paul II Professor of Theology for the New Evangelization at the Augustine Institute. Prof. Bushman’s theological service has been shaped by the Church Fathers’ spiritual reading of Scripture, the methodology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the pastoral orientation of the Second Vatican Council, as interpreted by the post-Conciliar popes. He has taught theology at virtually every level of the Church’s life: parish, diocese (including programs of formation and courses for adults, catechists, permanent deacons, Catholic educators, and seminarians), Catholic schools, and undergraduate and graduate degree programs. He has served as Director of Education for the Diocese of Duluth, MN, and is past Director of the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies (University of Dallas), and of the Institute for Pastoral Theology (Ave Maria University). Currently Prof. Bushman’s research focuses on the pastoral theology of the Second Vatican Council and the New Evangelization.


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    A ‘WOW’! Truly stunning in its simplicity, clarity, directness, breadth and depth of understanding and presentation of an explanation of what has always been to me a quandary. What was meant by the petition in the Our Father …” lead us not into temptation.” A true treatise on Faith with a healthy dose of how and why Mary’s life is an incredible inspiration and guide for us.

  2. I too find this work “lead us not into temptation” clear and simplicity true. I would humbly advise Douglas Bushman not to loose this pathway of truth based on the scriptures and the fathers of the church reflection on them. Keep steadfast on this course do not divert into the chaos and apostasy arising out of second Vatican council11.