Thursday 22 February 2018

‘Lead us not into Temptation’: The Pope and the Lord’s Prayer

Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed (James 1:13-14).

Pope Francis caused some controversy recently by unofficially approving a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer. The new translation changes ‘lead us not into temptation to ‘do not let us fall into temptation’. The BBC reported as follows

The pontiff said France's Roman Catholic Church was now using the new wording "do not let us fall into temptation" as an alternative, and something similar should be used worldwide. "Do not let me fall into temptation because it is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell," he told TV2000, an Italian Catholic TV channel. “A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately." 

Obviously, whichever translation the Pope wishes to use is up to him – it is not really any of our business. Nevertheless, the issues that he raises are worth exploring to make sure that we understand the Orthodox Church’s teaching on the Lord’s Prayer correctly.


The Pope is a modernizer, but this particular change in translation seems harmless enough; he is only trying to make the prayer easier to understand. However, the problem with modernizing Christianity is that eventually we run out of road. There is only so far Christianity can be simplified before the result turns into a parody of the faith.

The Pope is right when he says that people are confused by the phrase ‘lead us not into temptation’. We would suggest, however, that the answer is not to change the prayer itself but to educate people as to its true meaning.

Removing ‘difficult’ parts of church services does not actually achieve anything. The Church of England has removed all reference to the devil from its new baptism service. No wonder that only 25% of British Christians believe that the devil exists! The Roman Catholic Church has not modernized as much, but is following a similar road. Below, a Roman Catholic journalist describes the new baptism service:

The modern version is more joy-filled, but it’s also vaguer and, in a way, babyish by comparison. It begins like this: ‘The celebrant greets all present, and especially the parents and godparents, reminding them briefly of the joy with which the parents welcomed this child as a gift from God, the source of life, who now wishes to bestow his own life on this little one.’

The reason we use ‘lead us not into temptation’ is because it is an accurate translation and the traditional one. We do not needlessly modernize our traditional Orthodox services because the Church is always up to date. The Church is a living, breathing theanthropic organism that is constantly being renewed by the Holy Spirit ­­– She is not a theological museum or a fossilized institution unable to change. It is vital though that changes or additions must be made by the Church and in accordance with traditional Orthodox teachings.

Temptations and Trials

The Greek word peirasmos, which is traditionally translated as ‘temptation’, has two meanings in modern English. The first meaning is that of a test or trial sent by God to help us spiritually. The second meaning is a suggestion from the devil that is pleasurable and results in sin if we consent to it. Below, Saint Maximus the Confessor explains the difference between the two meanings of the word ‘temptation’:

Temptation willingly accepted creates distress in the soul, but clearly produces pleasure in the senses. A trial undergone contrary to our wishes produces pleasure in the soul but distress in the flesh. I think that when Our Lord and God was teaching his disciples how to pray and said, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ (Matt. 6:13), He was teaching them to pray that they should reject the kind of temptation which we accept willingly, that is, to pray that they should not be abandoned to the experience of temptations which, when willingly accepted, lead to intended pleasures.[1]
Tests and trials from God are the temptations that Saint James the Brother of God says we should suffer gladly: ‘Rejoice when we fall into divers temptations” (Jas. 1:2). Moreover, these temptations bring their own reward: ‘Blessed is the man that endureth temptations: for he shall receive the crown of life” (cf. Jas. 1:12). Saint Paul also refers to these temptations or trials when he says:
For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons (Heb. 12: 6-8).

The trials that Saint Paul refers to above lead to heavenly crowns. However, in bearing these trials patiently we are not alone. Saint Paul also says: ‘Christ, in that He himself has suffered being tempted, is able to help them that are tempted’ (cf. Heb. 2:18). The chastening that the Apostle Paul speaks of can be very difficult to endure especially when children are suffering. Having said this, our first recourse when enduring some form of trial should be to repent of the sins that we have committed; by doing this we will, as Saint Gregory Palamas explains, be delivered from sorrows and trials:

Yet if we sorrow over our sins rather than over the harm we suffer, we shall not only gain salvation and eternal redemption, but also deliverance from fleeting temptations. Why has our life become painful, sorrowful, violent and fraught with disorder? Surely because we have transgressed the commandment and thrown ourselves into the forbidden temptation, sin. If now we cleanse ourselves from all iniquity by repenting, we shall need more moderate temptations here, and in time we shall return to the life free from sorrows and trials. [2]

Suggestions from the devil that result in sin, if we consent to them, are not sent from God. These demonic temptations are those of which the Apostle James speaks: ‘Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man’ (Jas. 1:13).  

To summarize, the problem with the Pope’s new translation is that it implies that all temptations are falls into sin and takes no account of the other meanings of the word peirasmos. Spiritual trials can be saving – we see this in the lives of the saints.

Most of us will never be called to suffer physically for the faith, but we are all called to resist the temptations caused by the demons. This spiritual struggle, in which we work in synergy with God, will bring us a heavenly reward as Saint Gregory Palamas explains:

Those who have a right faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who show their faith through works and are prudent, or else cleanse themselves through repentance and confession from the stains of the sins we have mentioned and perform their opposite virtues, self-control, chastity, love, almsgiving, justice and truth, will all rise again to hear from the heavenly King Himself, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ [3]

Does God tempt us?

God does not entice us into sin. We can choose to agree to the suggestions of the demons or reject them. God allows us to do this because stopping us from falling into temptation would deny us our free will. We would no longer be children of God but would be slaves.

We fall into sin when we choose not to follow the Gospel commandments. God does not, as the Pope says, ‘throw us into temptations’ or tempt us in such a way that we can lose the salvation that we are striving to work out with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12). This confusion that the Pope expresses is not new. Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain addresses it below:

Many unlearned and insecure people fall into various thoughts concerning God: that God supposedly throws us into temptations. For this reason, the Apostle James solved the problem for us, saying: Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempts He any man. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. [4]

It is true that the devil seeks to devour us (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). God sometimes permits him to subject us to trials as we hear in the Gospel: ‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat (Lk. 22:31).

These trials lead the righteous to greater glory so that they might shine even more brightly acting, at the same time, as a beacon of light for us. But trials are not just profitable for the saints. Below, Saint Gregory Palamas describes how everyone was spiritually profited when Christ calmed the storm by His word alone (Matt. 14: 24-33):

Trials are not only profitable for those such as Job, Peter, Paul and their like, whose faith is perfect, but when they overtake those who are imperfect they make them perfect. Here not only Peter, not only the other disciples, who were still imperfect, but everyone in the boat found such great benefit for their faith from this temptation, that they came and worshipped Jesus, saying, ‘Of a truth Thou art the Son of God.’ [5]

There are many reasons that we suffer trials and temptations, and it is not easy to distinguish between them. Judas and the Apostle Peter fell into temptations for very different reasons: Judas because of greed, and Peter because of presumption. Nevertheless in these temptations, the disposition of their hearts was manifest. The Apostle Peter wept tears of repentance, but Judas went and hanged himself.

Saint Theodore the Ascetic attributes St. Peter’s denial of Christ due to his lack of help from God even though he was willing and ready to die for Christ. This temporary abandonment by God brought St. Peter to even greater faith. Judas, on the other hand, was not abandoned by God but chose to ignore this help.

Trials, therefore, occur for a number of reasons according to the providence of God as Saint Maximus the Confessor explains below:

Trials are sent to some so as to take away past sins, to others so as to eradicate sins now being committed, and to yet others so as to forestall sins which may be committed in the future. These are distinct from the trials that arise in order to test men in the way that Job was tested. [6]

‘As we forgive our debtors'
It is impossible to resist temptations by prayer and asceticism if we harbour hatred in our hearts for our neighbour. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer to not be led into temptation we have previously asked to be forgiven our debts. If we fail to forgive others, God will not forgive our sins (cf. Matt. 6:15). In fact, as Saint Maximus the Confessor explains below, we shall actually be delivered to temptations if we do not show forgiveness to our neighbour:

Scripture makes us see how the one who does not perfectly forgive those who offend him and who does not present to God a heart purified of rancour and shining with the light of reconciliation with one’s neighbour will lose the grace of the blessings for which he prays. Moreover, by a just judgment, he will be delivered over to temptation and to evil in order to learn how to cleanse himself of his fault by cancelling his complaints against another. [7]

We can see this link clearly between forgiveness and a successful endurance of temptations in the life of the Martyr Nicephorus. Saint Nicephorus lived in the Antioch in the third century. He was a great friend of the priest Sapricius, but due to some disagreement their friendship turned into hatred. After a while, Saint Nicephorus repented and asked Sapricius’ forgiveness, but the latter refused to forgive him. Some time later, during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian, the priest Sapricius was brought before the judges and tortured to make him deny his Christian faith. Sapricius, however, remained steadfast. On his way to martyrdom he was greeted by Nicephorus who again asked his forgiveness by saying with tears: ‘O martyr of Christ, forgive me if I have sinned against you in any way.’ The priest, however, remained unmoved. Seeing his hardness of heart, the Grace of God withdrew from Sapricius and he agreed to offer sacrifice to the idols. Saint Nicephorus then said to the executioner: ‘I am a Christian, and I believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. Execute me in place of Sapricius.’ The governor decided to free Sapricius and behead Nicephorus instead. Saint Nicephorus therefore received a martyr’s crown and is commemorated on the 9th February.

Lead’ or ‘fall’?

We have seen that temptations can only be resisted if we do not have hatred in our hearts of our neighbour. However, we still need to explain why the Orthodox Church accurately translates the Greek or Latin as ‘lead as not into temptation’ rather than ‘let us not fall into temptation’.

The word ‘lead’ is used instead of ‘fall’ for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we have already discussed, temptations are not necessarily ‘falls’. Temptations when endured for love of God and neighbour result in heavenly crowns. ‘Falls’ on the other hand are quite different. The word ‘fall’ in Orthodoxy is most often used to describe sins of a sexual nature in but it can refer to any temptation that generates sins.

These falls are the result of our own failings, in succumbing to the desires of our fallen human nature. Falls are not saving but temptations can be. God does not, as the Pope describes, ‘throw us into these temptations’ to see how we fall and then leave us there. We place ourselves in these situations that are not unto salvation. God is a loving God, but we need to repent in order to be able to reach the hand that God is stretching out to help us.

We use the word 'lead' because we  Christ is  both our Shepherd and our Leader. Saint Maximus the Confessor explains the benefits we receive when we accept Christ as our Leader and Shepherd and fulfil the Father’s will:

Christ, who has overcome the world, is our Leader. He arms us with the laws of the commandments, and by enabling us to reject the passions He unites us in pure love with nature itself. Being the bread of life, of wisdom, spiritual knowledge and righteousness, He arouses in us an insatiable desire for Himself. If we fulfil the Father’s will He makes us co-worshippers with the angels, when in our conduct we imitate them as we should and so conform to the heavenly state. He then leads us up still further on the supreme ascent of divine truth to the Father of lights, and makes us share in the divine nature through participation by grace in the Holy Spirit.[8] 
Even though we are members of Christ's little flock and confess Christ as our Leader, temptations are still inevitable in life.  In the Old Testament, God led the Israelites through the wilderness with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He saved them in the Red Sea and fed them with manna in the wilderness for forty years. Even though they were miraculously led by God, the Israelites still underwent temptations.
When we suffer temptations or trials we need to recall the words of Christ: ‘He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Matt. 24:13). Christ Himself was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil (Matt. 4:1). If we truly believe Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) then we must journey through this earthly wilderness of life with certain faith that although Christ is our Leader and we have to follow Him through temptations, although these may cause us to stumble, they will not cause us to lose our salvation if we have faith and show love for God and neighbour.

But deliver us from the evil one

Blessed Augustine explains that ‘God Himself does not lead, but permits men to be led into temptation whom He has deprived of His assistance’. When we pray the Father to ‘lead us not into temptation’ we are asking for his assistance in temptations. St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain explains:

This only should we ask: that He might give us the strength to conquer the tempter until the very end. For this is what lead us not into temptation means, that God might not let us fall defeated into the throat of the noetic dragon. In the same way, in another place the Lord tells us: Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation, namely, be alert and constantly praying, so as not to fall into temptation; that is, so as not to be conquered by temptation, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.[9]

Our need for God’s assistance is made clear in the next clause of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Orthodox version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say ‘deliver us from the evil one’ rather than simply ‘deliver us from evil’ as the Roman Catholic Church uses. Why is this? The Fathers are quite clear that phrase ‘evil one’ refers to the devil and does not refer to evil in general. Saint Cyril of Alexandria says that the phrases ‘lead us not into temptation’ and ‘deliver us from the evil one’ are connected:

With these words Luke concludes the prayer; but Matthew is found to add ‘but deliver us from the evil one’. There is a certain close connection in the clauses for it plainly follows that if men are not led into temptation, they are also delivered from the evil one. Quite possibly, if someone were to say that ‘not being led into it’ is, in fact, the same as ‘being delivered from it’ he would not be in error.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa goes a step further, when he says that the word ‘temptation’ could be used to refer to the evil one:

It seems to me that the Lord calls the evil one by many names according to the distinctions between the evil actions. He names him variously: devil, Beelzebub, Mammon, prince of this world, murderer of man, father of lies, and other such things. Perhaps, therefore, here again one of the names devised for is him is ‘temptation’, and the juxtaposition of clauses confirms this assertion. For after saying, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, He adds that we should be delivered from evil, as if both words meant the same. For if a man who does not enter into temptation is quite removed from evil, and if one who has fallen into temptation is necessarily mixed up with evil, then temptation and the evil one mean one and the same thing. [10]

Both these saints are speaking of the temptations that damage our souls rather than the physical afflictions and trials. Regarding those bodily temptations and trials, we pray that God will deliver us from them. If they do come, we pray that we may be pleasing unto Him in the midst of these trials, accepting them with thanksgiving and treat blessings recalling the words of the Apostle Peter:

For even to this were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously: Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed (I Pet. 2: 21-24).

We must not cause temptations

Finally, we should strive to ensure that we are not the cause of temptations. Christ says: ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh' (Matt. 18:7). Saint Cyril of Alexandria classifies these kinds of offences into two groups: those caused by heretics and those we cause by our passionate actions.

In order to combat the temptations caused by heretics who seek to draw us away from the Orthodox Faith and the exactness of sacred doctrines we should learn as much as we can about Orthodoxy. Doing this will not only help us resist the temptations caused by heretics but it will also ensure that we are not, unknowingly, promoting some heresy ourselves thereby wounding the conscience of our fellow Christians (cf. 1. Cor. 8:12).

The second type of offences to which Saint Cyril refers consists of mean and annoying actions, fits of anger (whether on good grounds or without justification), insults, slanders and other similar actions. Often we hurt those who love us most by our careless actions and thoughtless behaviour. We must be careful not to be the cause of temptations to our neighbour by placing stumbling blocks in their way (cf. Rom. 14:13).

Being Orthodox is about struggling to live our lives in repentance and love for our neighbour. If we strive to do this, and preserve our Orthodox Faith, no temptation can separate us from God unless we choose to separate ourselves from God. St. Paul teaches: ‘God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it’ (1. Cor. 10:13).

[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth Vol. 2 (trans. G.E.H. Palmer, P. Sherrard, K. Ware) (London: Faber and Faber, 1981) p. 232-233
[2] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies (trans. C. Veniamin) (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p.257
[3] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies pp. 210-211
[4] Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (trans. G. Dokos) (Thessalonika, Uncut Mountain Press, 2006) p.74
[5] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies pp. 255-256
[6] The Philokalia Vol. 2 p.73
[7] Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings (trans. G. C. Berthold) (London: SPCK, 1985) p.116-117
[8] The Philokalia Vol.2 pp. 303-304
[9] Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (trans. G. Dokos) (Thessalonika, Uncut Mountain Press, 2006) p.78
[10] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer (trans. H.C. Graef) (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) pp.82-83

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