Does God Lead us into Temptation?

Christ-apostlesPope Francis suggests that “lead us not into temptation” is not a good translation of the words in the Our Father. The news cycle has again been thrown into chaos. The internet has again erupted.

It began when, in a television interview in Italian, the Holy Father commented on the Lord’s prayer in regard to a new liturgical French translation that asks God not to “let is fall into temptation.” (The Vatican has recently started allowing local episcopal conferences to generate new liturgical translations, rather than having them done “in house”). Pope Francis said the translation “lead us not into temptation” is “not good” and added:

The French have changed the text and their translation says “don’t let me fall into temptation,” . . . It’s me who falls. It’s not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.

Pope Francis is certainly correct theologically. The Letter of James says: “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 (Jas. 1:13-14).”

So whatever God does in the Lord’s Prayer, it can’t mean that he is tempting us to evil, in the sense of enticing or seducing. Some language versions, including the Spanish, have long agreed, and translate this as: “Don’t let us fall into temptation.”

But is he correct about the actual translation? What does the original actually say? Though the liturgical translations of the Our Father are from the Latin, the Latin comes from the words of the Gospel, which are in Greek.

There are two versions of the Our Father in the New Testament. The one in Luke 11:2-4 is shorter and worded somewhat differently in places than the one in Matthew 6:9-13, but in regard to the words in question it is identical to Matthew. These are the words of Jesus himself: me eisenekes hemas eis peirasmon.

The verb eisphero means “to bring into, carry into,” or by extension “lead into.” In his just-published article in the National Catholic Register, Mgr. Charles Pope is blunt, and even ferocious in his disagreement with the Pope:

Eisenenkes is an aorist subjunctive in the active voice. “Lead us not” is simply the clearest and most accurate translation of me eisenenkes. To instead render it “do not allow us” is to read into the text an extended meaning that is not there. While the intention may be to assist the reader to understand that God does not tempt us or directly cause us to fall, the effect is to imply that the inspired Greek text is inadequate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begs to differ:

CCC 2846 . . . 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.”

I’m not enough of an expert in the language to know who is right. It is true, though, that the aorist does funny things in Greek. And we have to remember that Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, so there is undoubtedly some nuance lost.

I suspect that the real crux, however, is in interpretation, not translation. If you pair this phrase with the phrase following it in Matthew, it becomes more understandable, as a kind of rhetorical contrast of what we don’t expect God to do with what we know he will do. Contrasts are always heightened. “Do not bring us to temptation, BUT RATHER deliver us from evil.”

There is more involved here, however. I’ll let Msgr. Pope out of his cage for a bit, to explain why Scripture often attributes things to God without mentioning any secondary cause:

In more ancient and believing times, people were more aware of and conversant with God’s role in sustaining and being the primary cause of all things. They were more comfortable with attributing things to God’s primary causality, things that today are more often attributed to the secondary causality of physical nature or man. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out regarding the more ancient appreciation of primary causality, This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (# 304).

This brings us back to the request in the Lord’s Prayer that God “lead us not into temptation.” Surely God does not tempt us in any direct sense. He does not will to entrap us or to confound us so as to make us fall. However, because He is the first cause of all existing things, He is also the first cause of things that tempt us. So, in asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we ask Him, who providentially holds us and all things in existence, to lead us forward with the graces we need to resist it. This will allow us to enjoy the good things He gives without giving way to the temptations of our inordinate desires.

A quite clear and vivid presentation of this same idea can be found at the beginning of the book of Job. Satan goes up to heaven and discusses things with God. God allows Satan to put Job to the test. It is what we have always called “God’s permissive will.” Nothing can be done without that.

There is another noteworthy thing about this story. Job is not being “tempted” so much as “tried.” Satan does not dangle beautiful women or opportunities for embezzlement in front of Job. He subjects him to terrible tragedies, including the loss of his wealth and health and the death of all his children. Satan wants Job to turn against God in his misery and curse him: the ultimate temptation and ultimate fall. Job comes close at times, but doesn’t succumb (Read the Book of Job: it’s magnificent).

This brings up another possible meaning for peirasmos, (test, trial) one that some Biblical interpreters prefer. The Old Testament often refers to God testing his people:

Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testing (en peirasmo), by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? All this you were allowed to see that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other. (Deut 4:34-36).

Here we see that God both did the testing and allowed it, so his people could realize the extent of his power and the necessity of their complete trust in him.

These references also occur in the New Testament, for instance in 1 Peter 4:12. And perhaps it is also the meaning of peirasmos in the Lord’s Prayer.

In its commentary on Matthew 6:13, the New American Bible says “Jewish apocalyptic writings speak of a period of severe trial before the end of the age, sometimes called the ‘messianic woes.’ This petition asks that the disciples be spared that final test.”

So the words of Jesus could be referring to the warnings he frequently gave to his disciples about the coming terrible siege and fall of Jerusalem, or the persecution they were going to undergo, or perhaps the tribulation before the end times. He speaks of these things often in the Gospels, and warns the disciples that they are coming. He is teaching them in this case, as in all others, to pray that God might spare them from these things, if possible, but as in all things, to confidently say: “deliver us from evil.”

We may or may not need a new translation, but good catechesis gives us so much.

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