Darrell Johnson is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent College in Vancouver.
Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer, "is reputed to have said that he went to bed with the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer and woke up with the sixth." Makes sense, does it not? Go to bed reviewing the day and realizing we need to pray the fifth petition, "forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors"; wake up previewing the day, and realizing we need to pray the sixth petition, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one."
"From the evil-one." "Deliver us from the evil-one." Not just "deliver us from evil," although it is not wrong to pray that way. It's just that in the sixth petition Jesus uses the definite article "the evil." He uses this same phrase in the rest of his Sermon on the Mount to refer to his enemy the devil (Matthew 5:37), "the evil-one." The one who has rebelled against God. The one who seeks to dishonour the Name of the Father. The one who seeks to drive out and undo the Kingdom of the Father. The one who seeks to thwart the good and perfect will of the Father. The one who seeks to deprive the Father's children of daily bread. The one who seeks to divide the Father's children from him and from each other by causing them to cling to their hurts and grievances. The one who seeks to destroy Jesus and all that Jesus creates and redeems. "Father in heaven, you who sit on the throne of the universe, you who are always close at hand, do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one."
I like what philosopher Dallas Willard says about this sixth petition: "this request is not just for evasion of pain and of things we don't like, though it frankly is that. It expresses the understanding that we can't stand up under very much pressure." Willard goes on: the prayer is "a vote of 'no confidence' in our ability. As the series of requests begins with the glorification of God, it ends with the acknowledgment of the feebleness of human beings." "Oh Father, we cannot stand up under very much pressure, do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one."
This sixth petition is at once the most critical petition for us to pray and yet the most puzzling. The difficulty is this: why ask God not to do what is not in the character of God to do? Would God even tempt us? Would the God we meet in Jesus ever intentionally lead us into temptation? Then why bother praying, "Lead us not?"
The word translated "temptation" is the Greek word peirasmos. Peirasmos has two different meanings. One is "test"; the other is "temptation." One is "trial," the other is "enticement to sin." Two very different things! A test is something meant to prove a person's character, and in the process, improve it. A temptation is meant to entice a person to sin, to bring a person down in some way. A peirasmos is a difficult or challenging situation in life, which can either be a test, proving and improving a person's character, or a temptation, enticing a person into the way of sin. Whether it is a test or a temptation depends on who is behind it and how we respond.
Scripture is very clear about God's relationship to a peirasmos. On the one hand, God does not tempt. God does not entice to sin. James 1:13, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God': for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone." On the other hand, Scripture makes it clear that God does test. Look at Abraham. Genesis 22. Abraham was tested to the extreme over his son Isaac. Or look at Job. Or look at Jesus, who is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. God does not tempt, but he does test. God does not tempt anyone, but God does test everyone.
Thus the puzzling wording of the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer. If God does not tempt anyone, why pray "lead us not into temptation?" That is, why bother asking God not to do what God would never do? Are we not wasting our breath? If God does test, what good does it do to translate the prayer "lead us not to the test?" Or "do not bring us to the time of trial?" That is, why bother asking God not to do what in the nature of things God must do? Are we not wasting our breath?
Can this difficulty be resolved? Yes. How? By paying attention to the whole petition. The prayer is not just, "lead us not into temptation." The prayer is, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one." The little word "but" ties the two clauses together. How? The second clause interprets the first clause. "But deliver us from the evil-one" interprets "lead us not into temptation."
And what is the "interpretation?" This: the evil-one seeks to turn tests into temptations!
In this petition Jesus reveals one of the most fundamental truths of life. Which is why I said earlier that the sixth petition is the most critical petition to pray. Jesus' enemy turns tests into temptations. Events or experiences in life, which the Father intends to prove and improve our character and faith, the evil one sneaks in on and intends to destroy our character and faith. The very same event or experience whether a difficulty or a success, which the Father intends to be a peirasmos-test, the evil-one enters and tries to turn it into a peirasmos-temptation. It is very subtle and unrelenting. What the Father of Jesus means as a test the evil-one seeks to turn into a temptation.
How then should we word the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer? What is Jesus teaching us to pray? I think it is this: "Father, as you lead us into the test, do not let the test become a temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one." Or, "Father, you know that we cannot stand up under very much pressure. As you lead us to the test — all of life is a test! — as you seek to prove and improve our faith, do not let the test become a temptation, a seduction to sin, but deliver us from the subtle wiles of the deceiver against whom we are no match. Father, rescue us from the evil one!"
Let us go deeper.
Let me ask, why does God test? God does not tempt anyone, but he does test everyone. Why? Why does God test us? For one basic reason. Life with a capital "L" is found in trusting God. Do you agree? Indeed, life with a capital "L" is found only in trusting God. The quality of Life is, therefore, a function of the quality of our trust. So, to make sure our trust is, in fact, in God, and God alone, God puts us to the test. The word peirasmos, says New Testament scholar William Barclay, "is regularly used of the divine placing of a man in a situation which is a test, a situation in which he may fall, but in which he is not meant to fall, a situation which may be his ruin, but out of which he is meant to emerge spiritually strengthened and enriched."
The word peirasmos is used of the process of refining gold. A goldsmith takes a piece of ore from the ground, both to reveal and to refine to reveal that it really is gold. And to refine it into pure gold. To prove that it is gold and to improve the quality of the gold. So God with us. God puts us to the test to reveal and to refine, to reveal whether we are trusting God or not and to refine our trust in him. Just about every event or experience in life serves as a test! The very situation intended by "Our Father" for good, the evil-one seeks to turn for bad. He seeks to turn the Father's peirasmos from a test into a temptation.
How? How does the evil-one attempt this?
Well, ask why? Why would the evil-one even bother? Because he does not like the Father of the Lord Jesus. That is putting it mildly. He does not like Jesus. That is an understatement. He does not want anyone to like Jesus and his Father. He does not want anyone to trust Jesus and his Father. And so he seeks to get us to doubt the goodness of God. That is his major goal. Yes, he seeks to engender violence and hostility and addiction. Yes, he seeks to wreak all kinds of havoc and chaos. But his one major goal is to get us to doubt that Jesus' Father is good and faithful. Once he has done that the rest is easy.
We see this at work in the two major temptation stories in the Bible, or as I should put it, in the two major "testing-being-made-temptation" stories in the Bible. Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve faced the subtlety and fell. And Matthew 4, where Jesus, the second Adam, faced the subtleties and won.
In the two stories we discover five strategies the evil-one uses to turn a test into a temptation.
Strategy one: sow seeds of suspicion. The evil-one begins by raising suspicion that the Living God is not wholly disposed toward our good. In the Genesis story he does this by conveniently leaving out key words of God's command. He says to Eve, "Has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?" (Genesis 3:1). Is that what God said? No. God said, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good an evil you shall not eat…" (Genesis 2:16-17). See what the evil-one has done? Turned God's positive into a negative. God said, "from any tree you may eat freely"; the evil-one says, "you shall not eat from any tree." And he left out the adverb "freely."
When Eve quotes God's words back to the evil-one, she, having begun to become suspicious of God, leaves out "freely," and says we are not to eat or "touch" the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and says that it is "in the middle." Not so. The tree of life is in the middle, not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She "moves it" to the middle, making it problematic. The implication being she is becoming suspicious that God is withholding something she and Adam need in order to be fully human.
I often experience this twisting of God's word in the direction of suspicion. For example in Luke 12:32, "Do not be afraid little flock, the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom." Is that what Jesus says? No. I keep forgetting two key words, "your" and "gladly." "Do not be afraid little flock, your Father has chosen gladly to give you the Kingdom." Matthew 6:33, "Seek first his Kingdom and righteousness; and these things will be added to you." Is that what Jesus says? No. I keep forgetting the key word "all." "Seek first his Kingdom and righteousness; and all these things will be added to you." I keep forgetting little words like "your," "gladly," and "all," because someone wants me to forget them. Someone wants me to think that the Living God is holding back, that he is not generously disposed toward me. Sow suspicion.
Strategy two: focus on the negative. The evil-one seeks to get us to focus on the negative circumstances of our lives. In the desert, in the Matthew story, the evil-one comes to Jesus, and says, "if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread" (4:3). "Stones, Jesus. Stones. Just stones. That's all there is out here, Jesus. Stones. Hot, hard, stones. No trees. No grass. No water. No sagebrush. Just stones. Nothing but stones. Pretty barren, Jesus. Just stones." Ever heard that in your head? All the time! Someone has said that Satan is the original "negative thinker." Always focusing on the negative.
Strategy three: make deductions from the negative. The evil-one seeks to help us make deductions from the negative circumstances, false deductions. Again, in the desert, in the Matthew story, he says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." "If you are." The evil-one is not questioning the fact, nor getting Jesus to question it. That would not have worked. The evil-one is simply raising a question about the quality of Jesus' relationship with his Father. "Son, huh? The Son. The Beloved Son, as the Voice said at your baptism. I don't want to be disrespectful Jesus, but these are pretty crummy circumstances for the Son of the Father. I mean, it seems to me that if you are the Son of God, if the Father loves you as he claimed at your baptism, he would not let this happen to you. It seems to me, Jesus, that you have been deserted." Ever heard that in your head? All the time! The evil-one, first getting us to focus on the negative dimensions of our broken circumstances, then wants us to conclude we are in this difficult place because the Father does not care as much as Jesus says he does. Why would a child of God ever be in a desert-kind of place? The Father must have let us down. Not realizing that the desert just may be the place of great redemption, when, having been stripped of all that is not God, we are left with God alone, and are, therefore, in a most blessed state. Sow suspicion. Focus on the negative. Make false deductions about the quality of our relationship with the Father.
And then strategy four: force the Father's hand. "The Father does not seem to be doing anything about your circumstances, Jesus. Why not throw his words at him, Jesus? Stand on the pinnacle of the Temple, and throw yourself off the edge. Jesus, here is God's word, Psalm 91:11-12, 'He will give his angels charge concerning you' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against the stone.' Jesus, are you listening to me? Something is wrong with your circumstances. The Father seems so passive, so inactive. Do this Jesus. Say to your Father, who claims to love you, 'You said you will send angels to keep me from hurting myself. So here I go. I am going to jump and give you an opportunity to prove your love for me. If you love me you will catch me.'" Ever heard that in your head? You bet! The evil-one is always suggesting to us ways we can get God to prove his love. But it never works. For one thing God will not play the game. For another, if God did what we suggested we would not be satisfied. It would not prove his love. It would mean God is not God because he, like us, can be manipulated.
So since God does not play the game, strategy five: take things into our own hands. The evil-one seeks to get us to take our lives into our own hands. "Look Jesus, I am only here to help you. Since God has abandoned you out here — and I am really sorry about that — and since he does not seem to be lifting a finger to help you — and I am really sorry about that too — you simply need to take things into your own hands. See all the kingdoms of the world? See all their glory? They are supposed to be given to you. Psalm 2, the nations of the world are to be given to the Beloved Son. Well, I have an offer for you. Fall down and worship me and they are all yours. I will give them all to you. I will release my grip and they will be yours. You can avoid the ridiculously naive plan of your Father whereby you win the nations by dying for the sin of the world. Now Jesus, you can have it all now, without all that suffering. No one needs to know what you have done. I'll let it be our little secret. Here, out in the desert where no one sees, you bow down and worship me just for a moment and everything is yours. Jesus, does it matter how you get what you want just so long as you get it? Does it matter what means you use as long as you get the desired end?"
Ever heard anything like that in your head? Often! Once the seeds of suspicion have been sown and begin to grow; once we begin to dwell on the negative dimensions of life and begin to deduce that something is wrong between us and the Father; once we have tried to force God's hand and found it does not work; we are vulnerable to the subtle push to take charge of our lives and meet our needs anyway we can. And thus, we end up no longer trusting God. And thus, no longer experiencing life with a capital "L."
And that is why Jesus teaches us to pray, "Our Father, we cannot stand up under very much pressure. We are not wise enough to recognize and then counter the work of the evil-one. When you lead us to the test, when life itself brings us to the test, do not let the test become a temptation, but rescue us… rescue us from the subtle strategies of the evil-one, and help us trust you."
This prayer God is more than pleased to answer. And my wife Sharon and I are testimonies to his answering it. Four days before Christmas of 2000, on December 20, our then eighteen-year-old son Alex, whom we had adopted six years earlier from an orphanage in Moscow, went hiking with a group of friends in the mountains just north of Los Angeles. They were making their way along a loose rock slope when the rocks gave way, and Alex slid down the slope and then over a 120-foot cliff. When the rescue team helicoptered into the canyon some 40 minutes later, the helicopter pilot said he was sure Alex was dead — too much blood had flowed from his head to be alive. But when two of the paramedics got to him they found a pulse, and quickly evacuated him to the trauma center in Pasadena. By the time Sharon and I made it to the hospital, Alex was already in a coma and attached to life-support systems. The neurosurgeons could not say whether Alex would live. If he made it until Christmas Eve then there was hope he would recover. Even then the doctors would not say what kind of life he would live if he lived.
On the night before Christmas Eve, as I drove home from having spent the day in the ICU, I heard the following words, which I keep in my journal. "Things are not as they seem. In your life. In your son's life. In your wife's life. In the lives of your other children. In the lives of other patients in ICU. Things are not as they seem. There is more going on than meets the un-aided senses. There is a God. A Living God. A good God. A faithful God. A powerful God. A reigning God. An ever-present God. There is never a time when this God is not good. There is never a time when this God is not faithful. There is never a time when this God is not powerful. There is never a time when the God of the Bible is not on the throne of the universe. There is never a time when the God we meet in Jesus is not present. It is a promise: 'I will never leave you or forsake you.' Things are not as they seem." In one of the most frightening experiences of our lives the Father did it. The Father rescued us from the evil-one's attempt to destroy our faith.
(Alex, I am grateful to report, lived and is making a remarkable recovery. And he loves the Father. That is the miracle.)
"Our Father in heaven, as you lead us to the test, do not let the test become a temptation, but rescue us from the one who seeks to destroy our faith, and work in us the same confidence in you that Jesus has. Amen."
This article is chapter seven of a book Darrell Johnson has written on the Lord's Prayer. It will be published in January, 2005. It will be called, Fifty-Seven Words that Changed the World. Contact the Regent College bookstore for more information: