There has been a fair bit of discussion of Pope Francis’ suggestion that the Our Father’s petition “lead us not into temptation” be changed. The reason given for this proposal is that God never leads us into temptation, that is, tempts us to sin. Satan may tempt us to sin, but God does not. In this light, the pope states that he prefers the French and Spanish translations not “to let us fall into temptation.” Recently, the Italian Bishops Conference voted to change the Our Father to “do not abandon us to temptation.”
On one level the point that Pope Francis is making is obviously true – the Father does not literally steer us in the direction of sin, wherefore we need to pray that he cease from doing so. But is the prayer that Jesus taught us actually instructing us to pray that our good heavenly Father not actively direct us into tempting situations wherein we could fall prey to sin?
I think not. Jesus has a much deeper theological point to make; one that he wants us always to be aware of when we pray to the Father.
A proper understanding of this petition is found in Jesus’ own life. His life exemplifies, and so becomes the interpretive key, to the authentic meaning of the petition. Moreover, as in Jesus’ life, the petition, “lead us not into temptation,” cannot be understood apart from “deliver us from evil.” Together they form one complete petition.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism, Jesus undertook the salvific ministry that his Father now entrusted to him. This “embracing” is why his Father declares: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17) Jesus, as the anointed Messiah, would be the Father’s loyal, obedient Son by becoming the Father’s saving suffering-servant. (see Is. 42:1 and Ps. 2:7)
Significantly, Jesus immediately “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1; Mark 1:12 states more strongly that “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.”) Is the Father, through the Holy Spirit, thrusting Jesus into the tempting hands of the devil? No. The very Spirit-filled commissioning of Jesus to be the salvific suffering-servant brings its own temptation, its own testing.
Fear of the suffering entailed in being the messianic servant naturally arises within Jesus’ humanity, and in the face of this fear, he is confronted with temptation. Would he not prefer his own messianic self-aggrandizement, a worldly exaltation that bears no pain? By fending off the devil’s temptations, Jesus refuses to seek worldly glory and prestige – the gaining of the whole world. He would remain true to the salvific ministry given to him by his Father.
Similarly, in response to Peter’s declaration that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus specifies that for him to be such means that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” To which Peter protests that such cannot possibly be the case given who Jesus is. Jesus immediately rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mt. 16:16, 21-23)
Like Satan, Peter is tempting Jesus to be a Messiah other than the one his Father anointed him to be – the suffering-servant-Son. Because Jesus is really tempted, Peter is a hindrance. Peter’s words strike an all too tempting cord within Jesus’ own fearful heart and mind, a temptation that Jesus must reject.
Being the loyal and obedient suffering-servant-Son leads Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we find a stark contrast between Jesus and his apostles. His fateful hour has arrived and Jesus knows that his Father is leading him to the cross. This very “leading” is leading him into temptation, and so he prays to his Father that he be not led into temptation but that he be delivered from evil. Moreover, he exhorts his apostles to pray lest they too “enter into temptation.” (Mt. 26:41) Jesus, because of his prayer, will overcome his temptation. The apostles, not having prayed, will fall.
While he desperately wants to be delivered from the evil of the cross, Jesus ultimately rejects his own tempting heart – “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Mt. 26:42) Jesus knows that his Father sent him into the world for this very hour. “Now is my soul troubled.” And yet “what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (Jn. 12:27)
Jesus recognizes that his Father will not save him from his hour of death, but he trusts that his Father will deliver him from the evil of death that this hour brings.
In his crucifixion, Jesus enacts the Our Father. On the cross, Jesus hallows his Father’s name. He establishes his Father’s kingdom, for on earth, as he did in heaven, he has done his Father’s will. On the cross he obtains the forgiveness of sins and forgives all who have sinned against him.
Yet here on the cross Jesus undergoes his final and gravest temptation. In fearful torment, Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46) Doing his Father’s will has brought the dying Jesus to the moment when he feels that his Father has utterly abandoned him. In his apparent forsakenness, Jesus, nonetheless, trusts that his loving Father has not deserted him.
While the first verse of Psalm 22, which he speaks, is a cry of seeming despair, Jesus would proceed to acknowledge in that same psalm: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; to you they trusted, and were not disappointed.” (Ps. 22:3-4) Doing the Father’s will led Jesus into his final temptation, but this ultimate temptation leads him confidently to pray “deliver me from all evil.”
His Father did deliver him, not by taking the cross from him, the death that Jesus so much feared, but by delivering him from the evil of death. He raised Jesus gloriously from the dead. In this definitive act of deliverance from evil, the Father everlastingly declares: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
What we now can see is the inherent conjoining of “lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from evil.” While the doing of his Father’s will led him into temptation, yet Jesus firmly trusted that his Father would deliver him from death and raise him to the newness of everlasting life.
Thus, there is not only a present component to this petition, the present freeing from the temptation and the present deliverance, but also, and more importantly, an intrinsic eschatological component within this conjoined petition, the final liberation from all temptation in the definitive delivering from all evil. This final deliverance consists in resurrected glory, the reward for doing the Father’s will. This understanding is what Jesus wants us to grasp when he taught us to pray the Our Father.
In our wanting to hallow the Father’s name, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit we received at our baptism, leads us to do the Father’s will. The doing of the Father’s will often, as followers of Jesus, leads us to take up our own individual crosses. Our crosses, as with Jesus, often fill us with dread – our anxieties over our marriages, families, work, health, the Church, and the world. Thus, doing the Father’s will leads us into temptation – fear of the evils that might befall us and those we love.
When we pray “lead us not into temptation,” then, we are asking the Father to free us from the tempting foreboding that doing his will entails, and petitioning that he do so by delivering us from the evil that doing his will portends. Moreover, we make this petition believing that, even if evil does befall us in this world, we are assured that the reward of doing the Father’s will leads, as in the case of Jesus, to our glory, a present glory, though one rejected by this sinful world, and the eternal fullness of glory that Jesus will bestow upon us at the end of time.
This deeper Christocentric understanding of the petition “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” undercuts, I believe, the more simplistic and ill-founded interpretations that call for a change in the Our Father, a change that would be pastorally disastrous. This Christic interpretation is more in accord with our lived experience and truer to the Gospel that we strive to follow.
Jesus, the Son, has taught us to pray every day that our Father would lead us not, in doing his will, into temptation, but that he would deliver us from the evil we fear and, in so doing, empower us, in the Holy Spirit, to hallow our Father’s name here on earth and forever in heaven.
*Image: My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Eli, Eli lama sabachthani) by James J. Tissot, c 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]. This is one of the 350 watercolors Tissot did in the series The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ). Tissot made two trips to the Holy Land (1886–87 and 1890), taking inspiration there from the landscapes, clothing, architecture, and faces he saw.