St. Benedict begins his Rule, “Hearken O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart.” This fundamental principle shapes not only the life of the monk, but of every Christian. Will we listen to the words of Christ, Our Lord and teacher, and conform our life to them? What is the alternative? As shocking as it is, the words of Christ are constantly explained away:
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41).
And now the latest: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13), which has been adapted by numerous conferences of bishops.
In terms of translating the Our Father, I think there are two major considerations. First, there is our reverence for revelation and the Church’s tradition. In general, we must not fall into embarrassment before Christ’s words when they are countercultural or difficult to understand. They are the model that directs our thoughts and life, even to the point where St. Paul affirms “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We cannot presume to instruct Christ, thinking that we know better than the Word of God.
The more particular concern focuses on the word “temptation.” Critics of the traditional translation may be right about a general point of theology—that God is not a tempter—though they may also be deflecting from a crucial consideration, namely that the Our Father directs us to God and His Kingdom. The prayer ascribes to God’s providence the power to direct our lives, which can lead us into trial or can remove us from it. Understanding the controversy entails both keeping the overarching theology of temptation in mind while squaring it with the meaning of Christ’s own teaching.
The Our Father Controversy: Trials and Temptations
The Our Father constitutes the teaching of the master on prayer, responding to the request “Lord, teach us to pray.” In his response, Jesus shows us how to relate to the Father. Nonetheless, both the French (along with French-Canadian) and Italian bishops recently voted to change the translation to “do not let us enter into temptation” and “do not abandon us to temptation” respectively (the latter with the encouragement of the Holy Father); the change was rejected by the Germans. The theological question at hand concerns whether or not God leads us into temptation. Christ does not say that the Father tempts us, but that we should pray that we not be led into the trial of temptation.
The devil, not God, is the tempter, but we are tempted as a whole by the unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil. God does not tempt, but he does put us to the test, allowing us to experience temptation as a necessity of our faith: “For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Matt. 18:7). It is through trials, including temptation, that our faith and maturity reach perfection. Paul and Barnabas taught precisely this point, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
To understand the meaning of temptation, however, it is necessary to recognize how it relates to trials more broadly. Tempto, the Latin verb, and the related noun tentatio do not have the restricted meaning of temptation solely. They both point to testing and trial. The crucial Greek word in the Our Father, peirasmós (πειρασμός), likewise means a trial as well as temptation. Peirasmós appears in the temptation narrative of Christ in the desert and signifies there an action of the devil. Peirasmós appears frequently in the New Testament, though it is normally translated as a trial rather than temptation. The difference between a trial and temptation appears to be of later theological origin, as they have a common etymological origin.
God does try us, though we would not say he tempts us. For example, “God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). He tests our faith but does not lead us into sin. James makes this distinction in his letter: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:12-14). Tempting proposes sin and contains a lie within itself: this action is good for you and it will fulfill your desires, though it actually will lead to unhappiness and destruction.
God wills that we face difficulties to test our faith, though he does not propose evil to us as if it were good. Temptation, therefore, in today’s understanding, entails a particular kind of trial that proposes something evil to the person to test them. In the Our Father, the difficult line could just as easily be “lead us not into the test” or “put us not to the test.” Does this mean that the word temptation is improper there? Either way, it seems that Pope Francis would object, arguing that “it is not God who tosses me into temptation in order to see how I fall” (Our Father: Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, 94). Nonetheless, it is the Lord’s will that we face trials and temptations, though he certainly does not abandon us to them.
Even if “lead us not into temptation” is understood as God allowing us to face a moral test, it makes sense to pray that the Lord not put this test before us. Take the important example of the Garden. Before the Fall, God provided Adam and Eve with not only with preternatural gifts, infused knowledge, and the grace of original holiness, but also a sheltered location where he cared for them. For all this, their faith and obedience had to be tested and God allowed the temptation of the enemy to enter this cloister. Many ask, why would a good God allow temptation not only to enter the Garden but to face each one of us? The answer comes from the nature of our freedom. We are in the midst of a battle in this world and must fight for the good, with the help of God. God wants us to choose the good freely and to cry out to him in prayer for the help we need, recognizing our own weakness.
The Catechism’s Explanation
The Catechism elucidates the reality of prayer in the midst of moral struggle, giving us the most authoritative explanation of the contested passage of the Our Father. The text both expresses support for the interpretation of not allowing us to enter temptation and a deeper explanation of why God wills for us to face temptation.
2846 This petition goes to the root of the preceding one, for our sins result from our consenting to temptation; we therefore ask our Father not to “lead” us into temptation. 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. Matt. 26:41). “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (Jas. 1:13); on the contrary, he wants to set us free from evil. We ask him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin. We are engaged in the battle “between flesh and spirit”; this petition implores the Spirit of discernment and strength.
2847 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; Rom. 5:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:12), and temptation, which leads to sin and death (cf. Jas. 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. Gen. 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 (Origen, De orat. 29: PG 11,544 CD.).
2849 Such a battle and such a victory become possible only through prayer. It is by his prayer that Jesus vanquishes the tempter, both at the outset of his public mission and in the ultimate struggle of his agony (cf. Matt. 4:1-11; 26:36-44). In this petition to our heavenly Father, Christ unites us to his battle and his agony. He urges us to vigilance of the heart in communion with his own. Vigilance is “custody of the heart,” and Jesus prayed for us to the Father: “Keep them in your name” (John 17:11; cf. Mark 13:9, 23, 33-37; 14:38; Luke 12:35-40). The Holy Spirit constantly seeks to awaken us to keep watch (cf. 1 Cor. 16:13; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Pet. 5:8). Finally, this petition takes on all its dramatic meaning in relation to the last temptation of our earthly battle; it asks for final perseverance. “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake” (Rev. 16:15).
It is clear that God allows trials and even temptation for our purification, endurance, and to learn love through suffering. We must pray to God for the strength we need to face temptation and to persevere until the end, which pertains to his grace.
I’ve already mentioned the crucial example of Abraham’s testing above, which could be the example par excellence. Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands by producing on his own the heir God had promised. God then led him to this test to see if he was willing to surrender even the son of promise when he finally came. This event becomes emblematic of trials in general: are we willing to cling to God rather than to ourselves or even what is most important to us—even when that is something God has expressly given us. Our trials provide the difficult opportunity to choose God before all else.
Other relevant passages from the Old Testament that show how God tests his people include:
- “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died. In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their ancestors did” (Judg. 2:21-22).
- “In the whole land, says the Lord, two-thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one-third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zech. 13:8-9).
- “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked” (Psalm 11:5).
- “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Prov. 17:3).
- “Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself” (Wis. 3:5).
- “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation” (Sir. 2:1).
These examples make clear that God puts his people to the test, allowing them to experience temptation and trials in order to be purified.
We also see many examples from the New Testament, using the word peirasmós, which can be translated either as trial or temptation. First, we see clearly that God has prevented the moment of testing for the church in Philadelphia: “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial (peirasmou) that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10). The passage parallels the petition from the Our Father by making clear that it pertains to God’s providence to allow us to face temptation or to be freed from the trial in his mercy.
Paul speaks at length of trials and temptations, both in exhorting others and in describing his own ordeal. He writes to the Corinthians: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation (peirasmós) has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12-13). Looking back on the failures of the Israelites, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to turn to God to give them the strength they need. It’s God’s fidelity, not our own strength (which would make us fall), that helps us to persevere, which requires us to pray that we not enter into this trial.
We see this playing out for Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (vv 7-10).
Paul makes it clear that God wills for him to endure this trial for his purification and perfection. He recognizes that he does not have the strength in himself to bear it, but God gives him the grace necessary to endure the test.
Peter likewise speaks of the necessity of trials for perfecting faith: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials (peirasmois), so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:6). “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal (peirasmón) that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). He notes that these trials of judgment begin with the household of God, meaning that God’s faithful, even more than anyone else, must be proven by trials, ordeals and temptations.
Temptation and trials are necessary, as Jesus said, in order that faith may grow to maturity. We see this in the parable of the sower: “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation (peirasmou) fall away” (Luke 8:13). Jesus gives the remedy when he directs his apostles during their trial in the second Garden: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (peirasmón); the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). The Our Father gives us the most direct way to pray that God direct us away from this moment of temptation.
Our belief in God’s providence embraces all things: “The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history” (CCC, 303). God directly wills that our faith be tested and allows the evil one to tempt us as part of the trials that lead us to maturity. Sacred Scripture clearly teaches us to pray and trust in the midst of trials and temptations.
Although there is nothing wrong per se with a theological interpretation of the Our Father that speaks of permission rather than direct leading, nonetheless, changing the actual words of the prayer reflects away from the necessity of facing temptation and the role of God’s providence governing it. God in his mercy can remove trials and can give us an outpouring of grace to face them when necessary. The humble ask the Father to exempt them from trials, recognizing their own weakness: “For the lowliest man may be pardoned in mercy, but mighty men will be mightily tested” (Wis. 6:6). The Our Father, as given to us by Jesus, leads us into an act of abandonment to God’s providence, recognizing God’s lordship over all.
We should fight to maintain the original translation and meaning of the Our Father, allowing the Gospel to speak for itself. Although even this central prayer of our faith requires catechesis, the explanation provides us with the opportunity to relate to the difficulty and battle of the Christian life. Unfortunately, Christians have become complacent in the face of temptation and the attacks of the enemy. As we pray with the words that Jesus gave us, we place ourselves under his direction as the master of life, who alone can teach us how to pray to the Father. It’s astonishing that we even need to defend this truth!