The Lord’s Prayer: What Does “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” Mean?

The Lord’s Prayer is, of course, the perfect prayer. I don’t know that we have to offer any sort of proof for this other than the fact that it is the prayer given by Our Lord Himself. In St. Luke’s Gospel we read,

And it came to pass, that as he was in a certain place praying, when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him: Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.

And he said to them: When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.

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St Luke’s version seems just a little scaled down, and I’m sure there is a good reason for this. Fortunately, though, we have more than one Gospel from which to get the whole story!

St. Matthew records the words of the prayer at greater length!

Thus therefore shall you pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our supersubstantial bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. Amen.

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That this is the perfect prayer is attested to by St Augustine, who said,

if we pray rightly and fittingly, we can say nothing else but what is contained in this prayer of Our Lord.

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Since it has come up in the news recently, I have been thinking particularly of the sixth petition  in the prayer: “And lead us not into temptation.”

It has been suggested that perhaps this particular formation of words in English is the result of a bad or faulty translation.

Well, I suppose those of us who don’t know any Greek or Latin will just have to let the experts tell us what to think when it comes to the translation. Ignorance of the classic languages often results in one having to simply bow in deference to the experts.

Now, I happen to know just enough Greek to make my way around a first or second year Greek textbook, and even to read bits and pieces, fragments, of classical literature. Perhaps a little Xenophon, snippets of Aristotle, a little Herodotus – but better than any of these, I am able to make my way through the New Testament in Greek – although slowly.  Especially when I am reading from a Greek – English interlinear translation!

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When it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, I suppose we have to consider the fact that Our Lord spoke Aramaic. Nonetheless, I think we have to also accept the fact that the only authoritative versions of the prayer were written by the Evangelists in Greek.

As far as I know, there is no official Aramaic text of The Lord’s Prayer.

The sixth petition of the Lord’s prayer,  “Lead us not into temptation,” is written,

“καὶ μὴ  εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” 

and in CAPS,

“ΚΑΙ ΜΗ ΕΙΣΕΝΕΓΚΗΣ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΙΣ ΠΕΙΡΑΣΜΟΝ”

Now if I were to translate this I would render it thus:

and (καὶ) do not (μὴ)  lead in (εἰσενέγκῃς) us (ἡμᾶς) into (εἰς) the trial/temptation (πειρασμόν)

The word “εἰσενέγκῃς” is the aorist subjunctive active of the verb “εἰσφέρω“. Which means  “I lead into, bring in, announce.”

So to translate εἰσενέγκῃς as Do not lead us into is an excellent translation of the Greek -speaking as a tertiary level Greek teacher. And the word “Πειρασμοσ” (peirasmos) is rendered by “experiment,” “trial,” or “temptation.”

Thus the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer seems to be excellently translated as Do not lead us into temptation or Lead us not into temptation.

What does this mean?

Well, here we must go to St. Thomas just as the ancient Israelites went to Joseph in Egypt. And,of course, St. Thomas never disappoints. Speaking about the last three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer he says,

We are directed to beatitude accidentally by the removal of obstacles. Now there are three obstacles to our attainment of beatitude. First, there is sin, which directly excludes a man from the kingdom, according to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, etc., shall possess the kingdom of God“; and to this refer the words, “Forgive us our trespasses.”

And here is the crux!

Secondly, there is temptation which hinders us from keeping God’s will, and to this we refer when we say: “And lead us not into temptation,” whereby we do not ask not to be tempted, but not to be conquered by temptation, which is to be led into temptation.

He finishes,

Thirdly, there is the present penal state which is a kind of obstacle to a sufficiency of life, and to this we refer in the words, “Deliver us from evil.”

I must confess that I found it revealing when St Thomas said that when we say lead us not into temptation, “we do not ask not to be tempted.” 

That is precisely what I used to think the prayer meant. Don’t let me be tempted.

Whether Oscar Wilde actually said “I can resist anything but temptation,” I think the sentiment is shared by many. And so we might pray lead us not into temptation!

But, if we reflect further on the word temptation (πειρασμόν- peirasmon) we see that it appears first to mean experiment or attempt or trial and then temptation. In other words suppose we compared ourselves to olympic athletes- what is it that we are practicing for? What are all those long training sessions for? Why all the painstaking exercise and long hours spent listening to coaches? Isn’t it all so that we can compete in a trial? Doesn’t every Olympic athlete want to have an opportunity to prove himself?

In other words the contest or competition is the trial.

The actual race is the trial or experiment of strength and endurance. And such is a temptation.

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Christians are just like athletes. St. Paul is thinking along the same lines when he addresses Timothy,

But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry. Be sober.

For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord the just judge will render to me in that day: and not only to me, but to them also that love his coming. Make haste to come to me quickly.

Perhaps the Christian will always avoid the near occasion of sin. But this does not mean that the Christian will pray that God will remove every trial of his strength, every temptation. As a matter of fact, it could be that this is God’s very plan by which he helps souls to gain strength and merit- that is, by allowing for temptations to enter into our paths that, with His grace, we can overcome.

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“Lead us not into temptation” is an excellent way to express these things. Of course God is not the cause of evil. Nonetheless, don’t we pray that God will provide for our spiritual growth in holiness by allowing us to undergo trials that are within our power to overcome?

So how can we express all of these things? What words can we come up with that say:

  1. “Please God, provide us with the contests, trials, and temptations that by your grace we will overcome and grow in your love.”
  2. “Do not let us go untried”
  3. “Let us not fall when we are tempted”

If we were to say, “Do not let us be tempted,” this would be against our own spiritual good.  If we were to say “Let us not fall in temptation,” this would exclude the notion that we ought, as “Christian Athletes” pray for contests of our strength that are proportionate to our ability.

Thus, by the words Lead us not into temptation”, we should understand, “O Lord, let us be tested in the contests of life that You, O Lord, mercifully and lovingly allow to be placed on our paths. But we beg you, Gracious Lord, to not let us perish or fall in those trials.”

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in Aquinas, Lord's Prayer, The Passion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Lord’s Prayer: What Does “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” Mean?

  1. Susan Taylor Brand says:

    I suppose I have a rather facile view of this verse, unencumbered by translations, but I always thought this meant, “if possible, protect us from situations which might lead us into spiritual peril,” along with the understanding that, this being a fallen world and the condition of our souls sometimes requiring it, He was going to allow us to be tempted or put to the test periodically.

  2. marklangley says:

    Well, I think your “unencumbered” by translational interpretation is spot on. I wonder what most Christians think – especially in light of Pope Francis’s latest comments about it?

  3. Gene Tobola says:

    Does James contradict what you say is the meaning of Lead us not into temptation? You said it means ” O Lord, let us be tested in the contests of life that You, O Lord, mercifully and lovingly allow to be placed on our paths. :
    James says in 1:13 ” When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;”

    • marklangley says:

      Thanks Gene,
      If we make a distinction between God’s active will and his permissive will, then we can escape this apparent contradiction. I take it as a shared assumption that nothing happens outside of God’s will. So that is why I said “mercifully allowed” (I am thinking of the story of Job for example.)

  4. lmgilbert says:

    Mark, FWIW, There is a pretty good indication of what most Christians think at Bible Hub, an evangelical site. It ( at http://biblehub.com/luke/11-4.htm ) lists something like 25 translations of that verse from 25 different versions of the Bible, of which about 22 have “Lead us not into temptation” or its equivalent “Bring us not into temptation,” as the translation of Luke 11:4.

    That would seem to indicate that Pope Francis’s understanding faces stiff opposition from biblical scholars across a very wide theological spectrum indeed. The evangelical Pulpit Commentary at the bottom of the page suggests, “The simple meaning of this concluding petition in St. Luke’s report of the prayer is, ‘Thou knowest, Father, how weak I am; let me not be tempted above that I am able.’” This corresponds to Pope Benedict’s interpretation ( In Jesus of Nazareth, Vol I) : “the object of the petition is to ask God not to mete out more than we can bear, not to slip from his hands.”

    In brief, the English speaking Christian world is at least in agreement on this, that “lead us not into temptation,” is a perfectly adequate translation whose meaning hardly brings the justice of God into question.

  5. Pingback: MONDAY CATHOLICA EDITION – Big Pulpit

  6. polylogism says:

    And the Lord hardened Pharao’s heart

  7. aiello01 says:

    If an alternative to the word “temptation” is “trial”, could it be that we are asking God not to chasten us (see 1Corinthians 11:32 and Hebrews 12:6)?

  8. Brian Roche says:

    I’ve always had trouble with this..as though the Lord would lead us into temptation! I have always thought that the wordage of our prayers should have been brought up to date ever since when listening to my then 4 yr. old daughter saying, Our Father who aren’t in heaven. This and many other archaic methods of speech should be modernised.

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