In the model prayer Jesus gave His disciples, we are told to pray that God will “lead us not into temptation.” This strikes many people as a little strange because it seems to suggest that without this petition, God would lead us into temptation—a conclusion that is clearly out of sync with God’s character (1 John 1:6). Moreover, James tells us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (James 1:13). He goes on to tell us what sensitive disciples are already painfully aware of—temptation comes from the unchecked impulses within us (v. 14-15). Whatever the petition in the model prayer means, it’s clear what it doesn’t mean—God doesn’t actively or personally lead anyone into temptation.
While God doesn’t personally tempt us, He does allow us to be tempted. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus wasn’t tempted by the Spirit for the same reason that God doesn’t tempt anyone, but He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where He was be tempted by Satan. Satan does the tempting, but God allows it. This might make some uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t. What God does is no different than what parents do when they send their sons and daughters off to college, a job or even other countries. They understand they will face temptation there, but they also know it is a necessary part of their growth and development. They cannot reach maturity without it.
But notice that, strictly speaking, the petition isn’t about asking God to keep us from being tempted—we’re asking Him to keep us from being led into temptation. The preposition (eis) seems to suggest something more sinister than just being tempted—it’s being led into the heart of darkness where Satan is. That’s why the parallelism says, “But deliver us from the evil one.” What we are praying for is deliverance from Satan! We’re asking God to keep us out of the enemy’s camp.
When Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, he “was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5). “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (v. 6-7). “Lead us not into temptation” corresponds not with Cain’s initial temptation (offering an unacceptable sacrifice) but with the larger temptation that God’s warned him about—falling into the enemy’s clutches. This seems to be very much the kind of thing Jesus prayed about regarding His apostles (John 17:15).
So, what has been said up to this point? While God allows people to be tempted, He doesn’t actively or personally lead anyone into temptation. Furthermore, what seems to be under consideration in Matthew 6:13 is something more than simply being tempted, it’s about falling into the kind of temptation where we will be overcome (Psalm 119:133). All of this is helpful, in what positive way are to understand “Lead us not into temptation” in reference to God?
I think we are to understand the word “lead” not in the primary sense of causing, but in the secondary sense of allowing something. We are to asking God not to allow us to get caught up in temptation. And we pray this pray not because we lack confidence in Him but because we know where we are headed if left to our own devices. We’ve experienced the crushing power of the evil one in our lives and know we must have divine assistance if we are to overcome. It is precisely because we trust God (and distrust ourselves) that we pray this prayer and ask Him to intervene.
The One who conquered sin prayed this prayer!