By Joey Royal
In recent months, the media have been abuzz about some comments Pope Francis made in an interview with a Catholic television station in Rome. The interviewer had asked him about a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer. French Catholics had recently dropped “lead us not into temptation” and adopted instead “do not let us fall into temptation.” The Pope reportedly supported the change, and took the opportunity to say that God does not tempt us; it is Satan who in fact tempts us. He stressed that God is a loving Father who is there to pick us up when we fall, and that we should not think of God as one who pushes us into circumstances that make us likely to sin.
Something the media seemed to miss, and we should keep in mind, is that the Pope said this as an expression of pastoral counsel rather than a pronouncement on doctrine. As such, I think he’s right, and his words are in fundamental agreement with the Epistle of James: “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it” (James 1:13-14).
And yet temptation in the Bible is a complex idea. For example, the Greek word that the New Testament uses for temptation (peirasmon) can also mean trial or test. The word can carry both a positive sense, as in a test that calls for our best effort to overcome, but also a negative sense, as in a test whereby a tempter tries to confuse our sense of good and evil and lead us astray.
When we say that God does not tempt us, it is this latter meaning we have in mind, which is the idea of temptation as an invitation to sin. It is the experience of being or lured away from God by something or by someone. This is why most Christians historically have understood our Lord’s petition as something like “Give me strength to resist temptation.” That might not be obvious from a surface reading of the Lord’s Prayer, but we can reasonably infer it based on what Scripture says elsewhere.
But the former meaning — that of a test we are to endure faithfully — is a different story. Scripture recounts numerous instances of God leading people into experiences of testing and trial. One thinks of Abraham’s faith being tested as he is called upon to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22), or God’s permission to Satan to put Job to the test (Job 1:6-12). Even in the New Testament, God is ultimately responsible for initiating Jesus’ experience of temptation by Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). What God does not do in each of these instances — and here the Pope is exactly right — is tempt anyone to sin. Leading someone into a situation of likely temptation is different than doing the tempting. This difference is especially pronounced when we consider that the same Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness also helped Jesus overcome Satan’s deceptions.
This may be unsettling to us, but consider this: Life is full of temptation. To be human is to be tempted. God does not shelter us from these experiences because that would be to shelter us from life itself. Every day the Christian is presented with numerous opportunities to sin, which are made all the more difficult because of our innate propensity to disobedience. In other words, we are tempted so often because we want to sin. Consider the various snares that entrap us: the voracious desire to accumulate “just a little more” that leads us to overextend our credit limit; the promise of sexual pleasure that lures us to pursue a sinful relationship or to click that explicit Internet link; the drive to comfort and self-preservation that leads us to idleness; the love of praise that leads us to falseness before others; the lust for power that tempts us to use others for personal gain. In other words, temptation — the opportunity and enticement to sin — is everywhere.
The call from our Lord, then, is to persevere in the face of repeated, persistent, and often agonizing temptation. But it’s important to remember that we’re not called to do this on our own. The Christian life is not a call to heroic self-mastery; it is a call to humble dependence. We must be honest with one another about the desires that entice us and the sins that beset us. General confession on Sunday morning is a good thing, but better still is regular private confession with a trusted Christian, whether a friend, a pastor, or a respected elder in the faith. Temptation thrives in the darkness; only when we expose it to the light can we hope to overcome.
Above all, we have our Lord’s help. Christ has “in every respect been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He has experienced all our temptations firsthand, has resisted them, and has overcome the powers of evil and death from which temptation draws its dark power. The call is for us to share in Christ’s victory. And we do this by abiding in Christ, by sticking with him. After Jesus successfully overcame temptation, we’re told, “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and attended to him” (Matt. 4:11). In other words, during the temptations and tests and struggles of life, God is not elsewhere. God is there in the midst of it with us. Let’s cling to him.