Monday, November 18, 2019

God doesn’t tempt anyone. Then why do we say in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation”?

There has been some debate and discussion in recent times regarding the phrase “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer.  Even Pope Francis himself weighed in on this issue, calling for a new translation of that phrase which gives the impression that God plays an active role in leading anyone to sin.  God, who is all good and benevolent, appears in this part of the prayer (or at least in the translation of it), to be an active player in causing us, his beloved children, to be tempted and therefore to sin.  His benevolence seems to be somehow tainted with malevolence. Certainly God doesn't do that (ref. to James 1), but the words of the translation in this prayer can appear to have us see God directly leading us to sin. It can therefore be a tad problematic for some.

It’s always good to do hermeneutics and exegesis when we encounter such issues with the Word of God.  After all, this prayer comes to us directly from the Gospels, and hermeneutics is that branch of biblical studies that deals with interpretation of texts, going to the very origins of the text’s language. The bible texts that we have in English are translations from the Old Testament’s Hebrew and the New Testament’s Greek, and all texts, biblical or not, suffer from what is known as being lost in translation.

In the English language, whenever the word ‘temptation’ is used, it implies the act of being lured, seduced, persuaded and beguiled into sin.  It has the implication that one’s strong will is being somehow debilitated and weakened, preventing one from being resolute to stay the course.  

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the part that teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, (paragraph 2846), there is a very interesting admission in the Catechism that mentions of “a difficulty”.  It specifically says that this translation is indeed “difficult” because the Greek verb in the original text can mean two things.  For the Greek geek, the verb here (both in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel) is ‘peirasmos’.  This word is synonymous with both ‘trial’ and ‘temptation’, and this is what lies at the root of this knotty issue.  

God certainly gives us many trials in life, like illnesses, setbacks, failures, betrayal from our nearest and dearest, having addictions, etc.  These trials are not in themselves good, but they need to be seen as paths through which we can grow in virtue and holiness.  A healthy spirituality teaches us to look at trials as God’s invitation to have us grow and mature.  They are opportunities given to us to show how much tenacity and steadfastness we have in God’s love (with the help of God’s grace, of course) and not yield and fall by giving in to the temptation to either give up, or yield to despair and hopelessness.  So, we need to make it clear that God permits us to be tried in life, so that we can strengthen our faith and love for him.  

I would at this point compare this to my daily difficult but necessary physiotherapy and joint and muscle strengthening exercises that I put my operated hip through, having had hip replacement surgery on 26 August this year.  They are really forms of trials that I place on my new artificial hip.  These daily and repeated stresses are necessary so that muscle fibers around the joint are not just sitting there and languishing away. By the trials and strains of often exaggerated movement and actions, they strengthen the joint and give the necessary stability and support to this hip so that my movement and gait become smoother and my limping less and less pronounced.  

The choice is always there during the exercises (trials) to just stop and give up (temptation).  In the Greek ‘peirasmos’, the same word would apply to both the exercise and the temptation to give up.

But in this prayer, we are in effect asking God for the grace, when the trials come in life, to not yield or give in to the temptation that is inherent in the very trials that we go through. This refusal to yield or give in to the temptation is something that we need to activate on our part, demonstrating our effort in wanting to grow and mature in life.  We are also praying to not fall into temptation, but to be given the grace to grow in virtue.  

We face all sorts of temptations in life, but the temptations themselves are not sin.  To be sure, there is a final temptation that all of us will face in our lives when our lives are at their final moments.  This ultimate temptation is to give up our faith altogether, to wring our hands in despair, and to not believe that God’s mercy is available to us when we need it most.  This is why in the prayer that concludes the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick prayed at or near the person’s death, the words of the prayer always ask that the infirm be strong in facing temptation.  We often have too facile an image of the temptations that we face in life, limiting them to sins that involve the 7 capital sins.  

But the temptation that all of us face in the end, whether one is strong in body or not, is to be tempted to negate God’s love and mercy, when we are at death’s door.  This would be our final and definitive battle against temptation for every single person.  Is it any wonder that the phrase “now, and at the hour of our death” appears so clearly in the Hail Mary prayer?

No, God does not lead us to sin, nor does he actively cause us to fall.  When we pray that line of the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the grace to be strong and steadfast when the necessary trials of life show up at our doorstep.  

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