What does “lead us not into temptation” mean?
Temptation comes about like a sort of inquiry in which man discovers who he is, for previously, he was hidden from himself, but not so hidden from his Maker.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger
There is a complexity in the prayer not to be led into temptation because it is, on the face of it, a prayer that is not answered. At the bare minimum, all men struggled constantly throughout their lives with concupiscence, which remains after baptism as a trial. The moral life is fraught with temptations for every opportunity to choose virtue also presents an opportunity to choose vice. Such a surface-level reading of a request to be spared temptations must be deemed incorrect as it simply doesn’t happen and would, in fact, be injurious to spiritual progress. Is the prayer, then, a request to be spared temptations that originate from God?
It is to be rejected that God positively offers an evil choice. God is not the author of evil, and yet we do know that God does permit evil choices to come into our lives. It might be mistaken that the intent of the prayer then is for God to not let us fall into temptation, recalling the wickedness and snares of the devil from the prayer to Saint Michael, but this would not be the aim of the Author of Scripture.
Backing up a few chapters, we find an analogous verse: Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1). God may lead one to be tempted by the devil. This ties nicely with the second half of the prayer the deliver us from evil, but it creates complexity with the lead us not… as it indicates that temptation is not of the devil but it can cause one to be captured by the devil. It also indicates that from the point of view of God, the evil one isn’t His adversary, but rather is an instrument in His plans.
The Good Shepherd leads His flock besides cool waters and into ardent pastures, but also into the desert, the lonely and howling places, and up the rocky paths to Mt. Sinai and to Calvary. God is with us in both the good times and the bad. There is something very deep going on with what is contained in temptations and through understanding this one will find great humility, not to put too fine a point on it.
Why does man face temptations? For punishment? Those of Adam’s seed bear the punishment of inclination to evil, proclivity to malice, loss of grace, enmity with God, etc. such that a temptation intended to punish doesn’t serve any other purpose other than begetting more evil. As God is not the author of Evil, temptations are not means for punishing, nor are they means for seeing who should be punished or not punished. All have fallen short of the Glory of God (cfr. Rom 3:23); the point and punishment have already been merited out. Yet it is clear that the process of temptation delineates between those who choose path A and path B. The resolving of a temptation reveals something about the one tempted.
If the temptations here are not simply moral choices containing a pleasing morally evil choice, in order to elicit further punishment (a surface reading), we can break the prayer down to further elicit understanding. The prayer broken apart is “that thing that you do causes a something to be revealed, do not do it”. There are two frequent Old Testament depictions of God that fit this form of the prayer; God as Creator and God as Judge.
Taking as examples: And I went down into the potter’s house, and behold he was doing a work on the wheel. And the vessel was broken which he was making of clay with his hands: and turning he made another vessel, as it seemed good in his eyes to make it (Jer 18:3-4); The furnace trieth the potter’s vessels, and the trial of affliction just men (Sir, 27:6); we find that temptations functions as means for revealing flaws in a work so that the flaws might be recrafted as well as providing for a finalizing, or eschatological completion of the work. We are Adam’s, lit. clay of the earth, in the hands of our Creator. If He is a Good God, and indeed He is, He will rework us to remove our flaws, but this is not indefinite for the kiln fixes the well-made pot but destroys the flawed pot in the same way that a refiners fire burns up all that is dross (cfr. Isa 48:0; Pro 17:3; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:2).
It is in the depictions of God as Judge that the desire not to be led into temptation begins to take shape. And all things that are done, God will bring into judgment for every error, whether it be good or evil (Ecc 12:14); If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it (Psa 129:3); A swift stream of fire issued forth from before him: thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him: the judgment sat, and the books were opened (Dan 7:10). Temptation, because it results in a revelation, is a time of judgment where God sits as the Just Judge, from whom none can appeal. It is a trial.
These depictions allow us to rework the prayer as the following:
“Let us not be ruined in the proving” which indicates both a trust in an all-powerful creator, as well as an eschatological significance to man’s creation – that he was meant for something that God intended and is being well-fashioned to fit that purpose – yet he has within his own being the capability for ruining it all in the final temptation.
“Bring a case not against us,” which gives an eschatological significance to If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath any thing against thee;Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift (Matt 5:23-24) by recognizing that God does have a case against us. This prayer is desired because one knows that only God is Good, that man, simply by being a creature, cannot “measure up” to divine standards necessary for his supernatural end, and further, that man is very well acquainted with his personal sins.
Lead us not into temptation now has a tension to it that is evocative of the temptations and trials of Job in the book of the same name. God led Job, God leads us. He faced temptations, we face temptations. Job prayed thus, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21b). This is humility in the face of temptations into which one is led. This is the humility that is the meekness of the lamb before the sheerer, before the sacrifice (cfr. Isa 53:7).
This tension can only be resolved through the second half of this prayer the but deliver us from evil.
For now, Behold, we account them blessed who have endured (the temptations). You have heard of the (humility) of Job, and you have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is merciful and compassionate (Jam 5:11).