And lead us not into temptation.
This part of the Lord’s prayer deals with the realm of the spirit. In the unseen war of the spirit, the greatest needs of our life are deliverance and protection. But an immediate problem arises here, for Scripture reveals that temptation is necessary to us, a very real part of our life in this fallen, flawed world. No one escapes it in the Christian life. Furthermore, though God himself never tempts us to sin, yet he does test us in these difficult and discouraging circumstances, and these things become the instruments of God to strengthen us, to build us up and thus to give us victory. When we read this prayer, then we are confronted with this question: Are we really expected to pray that God will not do what he must do to accomplish his work within us? After all, even Jesus, we are told, was led of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. What then does he mean?
I confess I have puzzled and prayed and read about this, and I am convinced that what he means here is that this is a prayer to be kept from unrecognized temptation. When temptation is recognized as such, it can be resisted, and when we resist, it is always a source of strength and growth in our life. If I am filling out my income tax and I find that some income has come to me through other than ordinary channels and there is no way of anyone checking it, I am confronted with a temptation to omit it, but I know it is wrong. No one has to tell me; I know it is wrong. When I resist that, I find I am stronger the next time when a larger amount is involved. You see, when we recognize lust as lust and hate as hate and cowardice as a temptation to be a coward, this is one thing. It is a rather simple matter to resist obvious evil, if we really mean to walk with God. But temptation is not always so simple. There are times when I think I am right, and with utmost sincerity and integrity of heart I do what I believe is the right thing, and, later, look back upon it and see that I was tragically wrong.
Peter is an example on this. In the Upper Room, with brashness and confidence and utter naiveté, Peter said to the Lord, Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will (Matthew 26:33). They walked out of the Upper Room with the words of our Lord ringing in his ears, Truly I tell you, Jesus answered, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times (Matthew 26:34). Still confident, Jesus said to him there in the Garden, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matthew 26:41). But Peter did not heed that word. Instead he slept, and our Lord came and woke him again and asked him to pray. But Peter did not pray, and when he came into the court of the High Priest and was standing before the fire, Satan took him and wrung his courage out like a dish rag and hung him up limp, to dry in the presence of a little girl. There, with cursing and swearing, he found himself trapped, denying his Lord, and in the awful realization of what he had done he went out into the blackness of the night and wept bitterly.
This is what our Lord refers to in this phrase. This prayer is the recognition of our foolish weakness and our tendency to stumble on into blind folly. It is what we desperately need to pray.
Lord, I confess my utter helplessness apart from you. Lead me not into unrecognized temptation.
Are we self-confident about our own ability to recognize the subtleties of temptation? Do we follow our own instincts or do we honestly, consistently pray for the discernment of God’s Holy Spirit?