“lead us not into temptation”: ancient, holy struggle

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, followers of Jesus ask him to teach them how to pray. Jesus then teaches them a prayer.[1] A slightly elaborated version of that prayer has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father {Pater Noster}. That prayer has Christians pray to God to “lead us not into temptation.” Such a prayer makes some today feel uncomfortable. Would God lead persons into temptation, rightly understood as a test or trial?

Widespread aversion to struggle is an unusual cultural development. Struggle fundamentally shapes the ancient Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hebrew scripture chronicles the struggles of God’s chosen people to be faithful to their God. The biblical Book of Job represents personally bewildering aspects of the struggle to be faithful. So too does God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only child Isaac. Cultures around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years after the birth of Jesus supported intense competition among elite men to show superiority in learning and eloquence. The apostle Paul declared, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[2] In common experience, progress in most endeavors requires trials, tests, and struggle.

The ancient Greek text of the gospels of Matthew and Luke record Jesus instructing his followers to pray “lead us not into trial / test / temptation {μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν}.” The ancient Greek phrase “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς” consist of the negative particle μὴ and the compound verb εἰσφέρω formed from the preposition “into {εἰς}” and the verb “carry / bear {φέρω}.” Thus the inflected form “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς” means “do not carry us / do not lead us.” Tertullian, writing about 200 GC, translated “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” into Latin as “do not lead us into temptation {ne nos inducas in temptationem}.”[3] Other early church fathers, including the influential, faithful translator Saint Jerome, translated “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” into Latin in the same way. Tertullian himself apparently was troubled by the sense of God leading us into a trial. Nonetheless, that’s what the gospels say.

Lord's prayer written in Syriac

Christians might take some comfort from the gospels telling of God leading Jesus into trials. Before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. According to Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan, the sky opened, a dove descended and alighted on Jesus, and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son.” The dove became a symbol of the Holy Spirit, an aspect of God. But this father-God then immediately put his beloved Son to a difficult test:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

{ τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου. καὶ νηστεύσας ἡμέρας τεσσεράκοντα καὶ νύκτας τεσσεράκοντα ὕστερον ἐπείνασεν. }[4]

The Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness was the Holy Spirit, an aspect of God. The struggle of Jesus in the desert with the devil / tempter seems to have been necessary to strength him to perform his mission. Perhaps Christians might understand their trials and temptations as leading them likewise.

Trails, tests, temptations, and other struggles aren’t pleasant. Moreover, success in any real struggle isn’t guaranteed. One would prefer to be delivered from the evil of having to struggle. Jesus advised his followers to pray, “lead us not into temptation.” The need for that prayer suggests that God might lead persons into temptations or trials. Christians led into trials should pray that they will prevail as Christ did when the Spirit led him into the wilderness.

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[1] Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4. For various textual forms, see the Wikipedia article on the Lord’s Prayer.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:7. Psalm 26:2 declares:

Prove me, O Lord, and try me.
Test my heart and my mind.

{ בְּחָנֵנִי יְהוָה וְנַסֵּנִי צרופה כִלְיֹותַי וְלִבִּי׃ }

See similarly Psalm 139:23.

[3] Tertullian, On prayer {De oratione} 8, Latin text of Evans (1953a), my English translation. For a full English translation of De oratione, Evans (1953b). Jerome also translated Matthew 6:13 / Luke 11:4, as “ne nos inducas in temptationem {lead us not into temptation}.” On early Latin variants of “lead us not into temptation,” Higgins (1945).

Tertullian himself was uncomfortable with the language of Matthew 6:13 / Luke 11:4, as he understood it. He thus added an interpretive gloss:

“Lead us not into temptation,” that is, suffer us not to be led, surely by him who tempts.

{ NE NOS INDUCAS IN TEMPTATIONEM, id est, ne nos pariaris induci, ab eo utique qui temptat. }

Tertullian, On prayer {De oratione} 8, Latin text of Evans (1953a), my English translation.

While translating “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς” accurately into Latin, Tertullian argued that God shouldn’t be supposed to tempt. Such concern perhaps was felt even earlier:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.

{ μηδεὶς πειραζόμενος λεγέτω ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ πειράζομαι ὁ γὰρ θεὸς ἀπείραστός ἐστιν κακῶν πειράζει δὲ αὐτὸς οὐδένα, ἕκαστος δὲ πειράζεται ὑπὸ τῆς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας ἐξελκόμενος καὶ δελεαζόμενος }

James 1:13-14. James surely wrote with knowledge of the gospel tradition of the Lord’s Prayer. Paul in Corinthians teaches more obliquely about God’s relation to temptation:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

{ θεός ὃς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε ἀλλὰ ποιήσει σὺν τῷ πειρασμῷ καὶ τὴν ἔκβασιν τοῦ δύνασθαι ὑπενεγκεῖν }

1 Corinthians 10:13.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2846 states about the received, ancient Greek text of Matthew 6:13 / Luke 11:4, “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν”:

It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation.”

That seems to be factually incorrect. Similarly, Doyle (2018) and Doyle (2022).

In accordance with the arguments of Tertullian, De oratione 8, Pope Francis in 2019 approved a change in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Italian Roman Missal: “e non ci indurre in tentazione {and lead us not into temptation}” was changed to “e non abbandonarci alla tentazione {and do not abandon us to temptation}.” The process of making that change encouraged careful study and discussion of the original Greek text of the gospels. See, e.g. Grimbilas (2017), Williams (2019). Pope Francis hasn’t attempted to decree that Christians faithful to the Catholic church magisterium cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer in the best translation into their ordinary language, as they judge the best translation based on their study and reason. For a somewhat related controversy, consider the attempt to ban the prayer “Ave Marie” in sixteenth-century England.

[4] Matthew 4:1-2.

[image] The Lord’s Prayer written in Syriac. Source image thanks to Ranbar and Wikimedia Commons.


Doyle, Father Kenneth. 2018. “‘Lead us not’ into sausage on Ash Wednesday.” CatholicPhilly. Online. Posted May 23, 2018.

Doyle, Father Kenneth. 2022. “Father Kenneth Doyle: Why ‘Lead us not into temptation?’ Can you bring up the collection basket to the altar?” Hawaii Catholic Herald. Online. Posted March, 2, 2022.

Grimbilas, George. 2017. “Lead us not into mistranslation.” Dispatch, New Criterion. Posted Dec. 19, 2017.

Higgins, A. J. B. 1945. “‘Lead us not into temptation’: Some Latin Variants.” The Journal of Theological Studies. 46 (183-184): 179-183.

Williams, Peter D. 2019. “Where Pope Francis went wrong with his new translation of the Lord’s Prayer.” Premier Christianity. Posted June 11, 2019.

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