Does God Lead His Children Into Temptation?

Matthew 6:13

“And lead us not into temptation.” Matthew 6:13a

Before we begin: What is the difference between temptation and testing? How can a temptation to sin become an avenue for spiritual growth?

Does God lead his children into temptation? This is not an easy question to answer. We know what the word “lead” means-or at least we think we do. And we know what “temptation"-or at least we know what it is when we yield to it. If we are to pray “Lead us not into temptation,” does that mean God might lead us into temptation under some circumstances? If so, what kind of temptation are we talking about? And why would God deliberately lead his children into something he warns them to stay away from? 

As I sometimes do when I’m unable to answer a heavy question like this, I convened my own theological committee to help me discuss the matter. The committee met during a family trip to Benton Harbor, Michigan. After we finished picking peaches (a basket for about $7.50), we got in the minivan and headed back to Chicago. At that point I convened the committee and raised the question posed by the title of this message. 

“Do you think,” I asked, “that God would ever lead his children into temptation?” Our middle son Mark, who is our resident theologian, answered immediately. “No, because that‘s what God is trying to keep us away from.” That’s a very astute observation. So the answer is no, God does not lead us into temptation. Then I asked my mother-in-law who was traveling with us. “Mom, do you think that God leads us into temptation?” She thought for a minute and then replied, “Maybe. I’m not sure. Sometimes I think he does and sometimes I think that he doesn’t.” So the answer is no and then it’s maybe. So I asked my wife for her opinion:"Do you think that God leads his children into temptation?” She answered without hesitation, “Yes, of course he does.  He leads us into temptations, testings, and trials in order to make us stronger.”

Well, there you have it. The answer is no, maybe and yes. In order to break the tie, I asked my oldest son the same question: “Joshua, do you think that God leads his children into temptation?” His answer was, “I asked you first.” That wasn’t true, of course. He was just stalling for time.  And he eventually came in on his mother’s side-always a safe thing for a son to do. He said, “Yes,” but would give no reason. We asked our youngest son Nick and he chimed in on the side of Mark, “No, God does not lead us into temptation.”

Walking And Talking

Thus fortified with the answer to my question, I pondered the answer myself. We got home and a couple of hours later I took a long walk. I usually walk down Greenfield across Oak Park and Harlem and Lathrop and down to Park Avenue in River Forest and back again. It’s about 4 miles.  Normally I walk alone. I was walking down Greenfield when a car came by. I took a look at it and I thought I recognized the person but just waved and the car went on and then stopped.  It turned out to be my friend Gary. He ended up walking with me about a mile and a half down Greenfield and then back again. And while we walking, we discussed the question, “Does God lead his children into temptation?” Our eventual conclusion was that we didn’t know the answer to the question. We parted company on Monday not having solved the problem. And it just happened that I was already scheduled to have lunch with him on Friday of that same week. When we sat down in the restaurant, his first words to me were, “Pastor, have you figured out the answer to the question yet?” I said, “Sure. It’s Yes, No and Maybe.” He smiled and shook his head.

Because the first Christians held the Lord’s Prayer in high esteem, they debated the meaning of this petition over and over and over again.

It is a good question. Does God lead his children into temptation? It is possible to answer Yes, or No, or Maybe, depending on how you define your terms. As I studied the matter further, I discovered that the early church was very concerned about this issue. Because the first Christians held the Lord’s Prayer in high esteem, they debated the meaning of this petition over and over and over again. A quick survey of the commentaries revealed that there is a tremendous amount of disagreement about this question or at least there are many different answers given to the question: Does God lead his children into temptation?  At one point I had 35 different books on my desk all opened trying to find the answers to that question. I didn’t find thirty-five different answers but I found more than two or three.

A Prayer For Spiritual Protection

On one level this petition appears to be very simple. Seen from one angle, it appears to mean something like, “Lord, keep us from trouble. Don’t let anything really bad happens to us.” As a matter of fact, all the commentators agree that this petition is essentially a request to God for spiritual protection. But that still does not answer the central question the text raises:  Does God lead his children into temptation?  Let me give you my answer. It all depends on how you define the word “temptation”. The Greek word for “temptation” has two basic meanings. By itself it is a neutral term.  It can mean something positive or it can mean something negative. In its positive meaning it can be, and often is, translated by such words as “trial” or “testing.” In those cases it refers to a difficult circumstance in your life brought about by God in order to improve the quality of your faith and trust in him. In its negative meaning it refers to temptation in the usual English sense of the word-to seduce or lure or solicit to do evil.  So this one Greek word can have two very different meanings. It can mean a difficult trial or it can mean a solicitation to do evil.

It all depends on how you define the word “temptation”. 

Your answer to the question, “Does God lead his children into temptation?” is going to be radically affected according to which one of those meanings you think is predominant in Matthew 6.  To make matters just a bit more complicated, this word was sometimes used with both meanings present in the same passage of Scripture. For instance James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers when you face trials of many kinds." The Greek word for “trials” is the same word used in Matthew 6. The meaning is something like this: “Rejoice when you face trials and hardships and difficulties of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking in anything.” In this sense the word is very positive. James is telling us that God uses trials and difficulties to produce spiritual maturity in your life. Now, drop on down to verse 13 of the same chapter, "When you are tempted to do evil no one should say ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." Here the word translated “tempt” or “tempted” or “tempting” is the verb form of the same word used James 1:2. The same word is used in a positive sense in verse 2 and a negative sense in verse 13. Here we have one Greek word with two different meanings used without any contradiction at all by the same biblical writer in the same passage. He assumed his readers would be able to pick it up and would clearly understand the difference.

God will never lead you to a place where you are forced to do evil.

One point is crucial for to understand: God does not solicit his children to do evil. God will not lure you into evil. He will not seduce you into evil. In that sense God will never tempt you to do that which is wrong. James 1:13 says that very clearly. God will not deliberately bring you into evil. He will never lead you to a place where you are forced to do evil.You may find yourself in a tough spot and under pressure you may choose to do evil. In your mind, you feel “forced” by the circumstances to do wrong, but even in those cases the choice is yours, not God’s. Said another way, God never sets us up to fail. To do that would contradict both his holiness and his love.

So, if the question is, Does God lead his children into temptation-in the sense of directly and personally seducing them to do wrong, the answer to that question must always be no.

Crucial Questions

But, I’ve already said that the Greek word also contains the idea of trials or testings. I think this is probably the primary meaning of the word in Matthew 6:13. Please notice I said the primary meaning-perhaps not the exclusive meaning. I think it probably means trials and testings. The negative meaning may also be present to some degree.  But to say that raises a couple of questions. Number one-If it means solicitation to do evil and if we know that God does not solicit us to do evil, when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” are we not asking God not to do that which he said he would never do?   That would seem to be rather nonsensical. Number two-If we know that trials and testings are good for us, and if they necessary for our spiritual growth, and we should rejoice in them, and if they build us up in the faith, then when we pray, “Lead us not into trials and testings,” are we not asking God to exempt us from that which is necessary for our own spiritual maturity? How can we ask God to lead us away from that which is ultimately in our own best interest?

What God gives to us as a trial or a test is almost always used by Satan as a temptation. 

What’s the answer to this conundrum?  What’s the solution to this curious petition of the Lord’s Prayer? The key is the double meaning of the Greek word translated “temptation.” These meanings–which seem to be entirely opposite to us–are perhaps not really so far apart, which is why the biblical writers could use the word in both senses in the same passage. That fact gives us a clue to the interpretation of this passage of Scripture. 

Tested By God, Tempted By Satan

Here is a key statement for understanding this part of the Lord’s Prayer. What God gives to us as a trial or a test is almost always used by Satan as a temptation. The very same event may be both a trial and test to you and also a temptation from Satan. Or if you will, God uses it to accomplish one thing in your life and Satan at the very same time is working through that event to try to accomplish something diametrically opposite. Very often God allows a trial to come for a positive purpose, but Satan tries to co-opt it for his own evil reasons. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness offers a clear example of this principle. We know that the devil came to Jesus in the wilderness on three different occasions, tempting him to turn away from the path of obedience to his Heavenly Father. Matthew 4:1 tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” Who did the leading?  The Holy Spirit.  Who did the tempting?  The devil. Is there a contradiction here? Not at all. Did God know what was going to happen when he sent his Son into the desert?  Yes, he did. He intended from the beginning to demonstrate that his Son would not yield to Satan’s blandishments. Was God tempting his own Son?  No, he wasn’t. Was God putting his son in a place where his Son could be tempted by the Devil?  The answer to that must be yes.

God sends a trial and Satan turns it into a temptation.

That is an amazing thought. At this point we need to think carefully and clearly. I do not believe that God ever directly solicits his children to sin. I don’t believe that because the Bible specifically denies it. But it is also true that from time to time God allows his children to go into a place where they will face severe temptations from Satan. Is God responsible for the severe temptation?  No, he’s not.  He does the leading; Satan does the tempting. From God’s point of view it’s a test. From Satan’s point of view it’s a temptation.

We see this pattern occurring in every area of life. God sends a trial and Satan turns it into a temptation. Let’s suppose a child of God contracts a deadly sickness. Could that sickness be a testing from God?  Yes, it could. It almost always is a testing from God to purify motives, to cause the child of God to look away from the things of earth to the things of heaven, and to turn the eyes of the child of God back to the Lord.  Many good things are accomplished through sickness in the life of the believer. Does Satan work through sickness? Yes, he does. And through that very same sickness Satan will be working to tempt you to despair, to anger, to bitterness, and ultimately to turn away from the Lord. What God intends for your spiritual good is the avenue Satan uses to pull you down.

Or suppose you lose your job.  You say, “Could that be from God?” Yes, it could. If you lose your job, could God have a better purpose in mind for you?  Yes, and he often does. He may have a better job for you.  He certainly wants to build some spiritual character in your life. You may have fallen in love with the things of the world to the point where those good things have become an idol to you. In that case, it is good for you to lose a good job. And during that trial from God, Satan will tempt you to anger, despair and discouragement.

It works the other just as well. Let’s suppose you get a promotion and a nice raise in salary. Now you are better off financially than you’ve ever been. Can a promotion be a trial from God?  Absolutely.  Prosperity is often a trial or testing from God to see how you will handle his blessings. Prosperity ought to make us more generous toward the needy. Having more ought to open our eyes to those who have less than we do. But that same prosperity often makes us greedy, selfish, and blind to the less fortunate.

Let’s take the case of a businessman on the 7th day of a long trip. He checks into his motel room, tired and lonely. . On top of the television is one of those boxes where they bring in those movies rated X or XX or XXX.  The man knows that he has no business pushing that button. But when he’s alone and spiritually disoriented, he feels a strong urge to watch one of those movies. Does God know the box is there?  Yes, he does.  Did God allow his servant to go into that room?  Yes, he did.  Is it a test?  Yes, it is.  And if the man passes the test he will be stronger spiritually because he said no.  Is it a temptation?  Yes, it is.  It’s a temptation to reach over and touch that box and give in to lust.

Two Conclusions

Those are just a few examples of how something God intends as a means of building you up is also used by Satan as a means of temptation to pull you down.  I draw two conclusions from that fact.  Conclusion number one is this: Testings and trials are a normal part of the Christian life.  They are part of God’s curriculum for you.  He puts difficult choices in front of you every day so that by following him and by trusting him in those circumstances you become stronger. Your faith becomes confirmed and you become an example to other people of victory over the world, the flesh and the devil. There’s nothing you can do to escape the trials of life-nothing at all.  In the School of Grace, God doesn’t offer a “No Trials” degree program. All of us will be tested many times in many ways.

A trial becomes a temptation when we respond wrongly.  

Conclusion number two: A trial becomes a temptation when we respond wrongly.  hat which was sent into our life in order to make us stronger is that which actually tears us down and makes us weaker when we respond in the power of the flesh. What God means for good, Satan means for evil.  The Christian hangs in the balance between the tests and the trials from the Heavenly Father and the perversions of Satan as he twists that which God gives us and whispers in our ear, “Go ahead.  Go ahead.  Go ahead.”

Could this be the reason why the biblical writers did not sharply distinguish what we want to keep separate?  We separate trials and temptations as if they are far, far apart. The biblical writers had no problem using the same word to mean trials in one verse and then using the very same word to mean temptations just a few verses later. They understood what we have forgotten. Everything good comes from God, and everything he gives us is ultimately for our good and his glory. He does not sin nor does he solicit us to sin. But hidden inside every trial is the seed of a temptation that Satan uses to harvest a crop of evil in our lives.

William Barclay points out that this petition is the most natural and instinctive part of the Lord’s prayer. Since all of us are put to the test in one way or another all the time, we all understand what it means to pray for deliverance, for “help in the time of need.” Hebrews 4:15 points us to the Lord Jesus as the one who can help us when we cry out to him because he was “tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin." The King James Version tells us that he is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” Jesus is “touched” by the weakness of our feeble flesh. Whatever touches us, touches him. To say “I feel your pain” has become a cliché today but in Jesus’ case it is true. He is moved by our sorrow, aware of our tears, and touched by our failure. He knows what we are going through.

Sometimes when we are in the middle of a hard time people who mean well will say to us, “I know what you are going through.” That is often a cruel thing to say. How can you be sure you know what another person is thinking or feeling? It is better never to say that because if you really do know what another person is going through, your heart will make that clear to them. And if you don’t, it’s better not to say anything at all. As I was thinking about this, an incident came to mind that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. The story starts with a good friend from my growing-up years in a small Alabama town. We used to wrestle in his front yard and then we would go inside his house and watch television. In my mind’s eye I can still see the room where we would play games and read comic books by the hour. When we were in the seventh grade, our class went on a trip up the Natchez Trace with our youth group. Evidently he got some kind of infection or virus. The next day he died suddenly. It was the first time I had ever been that close to death. I remember going to his funeral and being too frightened to walk by the casket.

When we pray we don’t have to worry that we will somehow shock Jesus. He’s heard it all and seen it all.

Now fast-forward the story almost ten years to the time when my father died after a brief illness. Because he was a beloved physician, it seemed as if everyone in town came to pay their respects. People I didn’t know told me stories about my father. Men and women wept openly at the funeral home. After all these years the events surrounding my father’s death are a blur in my memory. I recall hundreds of people stopping by to express their sympathy but I don’t remember what anyone said. Except for one person. The scene is etched clearly in my mind although it could not have lasted more than 20 seconds. I was sitting in a bedroom at home talking with some friends. In came the father of my friend who had died a decade earlier. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Ray, we’re so sorry to hear about your father. He was a good man. If there is anything we can do, let us know.” That was it. A few words and he was gone. But what a message those few words conveyed. Because I knew that he knew what it meant to lose someone you love, his words are the only ones that have stayed with me since my father’s death over a quarter-century ago.

That’s what Hebrews 4:15 means when it says that Jesus is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He knows our pain, he sees our weakness, he understands what we are going through. Because he was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” he truly knows what we are going through.

C. S. Lewis on Temptation

And how good it is to know that he was tempted just as we are. Jesus faced every kind of temptation we can face. Basically every temptation falls into one of three categories: the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (cf. 1 John 2:14-17). Jesus defeated the devil in those three areas. Where we failed, he succeeded. Where we gave in, he stood strong. Where we collapsed under pressure, Jesus obeyed his Father. He was tempted, yet he never sinned by giving in. I find great comfort in these words of C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity (p. 122):

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in....Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.

This has enormous implications for our spiritual life. Because Christ was tempted and never gave in, we may be sure that he is never surprised by anything we say or do. We gave in too early so we never felt the full force of temptation. But Jesus let the waves of temptation rush over him and stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. When we pray we don’t have to worry that we will somehow shock him. He’s heard it all and seen it all. We can go ahead and be totally honest about our failures. He knows about it even before we tell him.

Ron Dunn and Jesus

And we don’t have to prove ourselves worthy when we pray. Ron Dunn learned this lesson at the end of a very bad day. When he got up, he didn’t spend time praying. As the day wore on, he was churlish in the way he treated people. When the day finally ended, he knelt to pray and began by saying, “Lord, I’ve made a mess of my life today and I confess I’m not worthy to come into your presence.” At that point he felt the Lord interrupt his prayer. “Ron, do you think having a quiet time this morning would have made you worthy to talk to me? Do you think doing good and treating people right would have somehow made you qualified to come into the presence of God? If that’s what you think, you don’t know yourself, you don’t know me, and you don’t understand the grace of God." I can relate to that story because most of the time that’s exactly how I think. It’s so easy for all of us to believe that our good works somehow commend us to God, that if we’ll just “be good,” God is more likely to hear our prayers.

But to think like that is to deny the gospel itself. We are accepted by God only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. How dare we wave the tattered rags of a quiet time and think that somehow that makes a difference in heaven. I’m all for having a quiet time and all for treating people right and totally on the side of living for the Lord, but all of that cannot add even a tiny sliver to our acceptance before God. It is either all by grace or not by grace at all. Because Jesus knows how sinful we really are, we don’t have to play games when we pray. We can come to God just the way we are, clinging only to the cross and claiming nothing but the blood of Jesus as our own hope of being accepted when we pray.

Because Jesus knows how sinful we really are, we don’t have to play games when we pray.

When a noted pastor came through Chicago to speak at a pastors’ conference, one of his messages dealt with the need to depend wholly on the Lord and not on our own resources. As he came to the close, he told the story of how King Jehoshaphat prayed in II Chronicles 20. The Ammonites and the Moabites were moving in a vast army toward Jerusalem. There were so many of them, and they were so well armed, that the men of Israel would never be able to defeat them. As the invaders came closer and closer, the situation looked increasingly hopeless. The king called for a nationwide fast. Men from every town and village gathered in Jerusalem to seek the Lord. Jehoshaphat stood before them and offered one of the greatest prayers in the Bible (II Chronicles 20:6-12). He begins by declaring God’s greatness: “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you”(verse 6). Then he reminds God of the promises he made to take care of his people when they were in trouble. Then he tells God, “We’re in big trouble now!” He freely admits, “we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us” (verse 12). And he concludes with this simple confession: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (verse 12). God’s answer came through a prophet who told the people to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” The next day Jehoshaphat put the male singers at the head of the army and sent them out to do battle. They literally stood still and watched as the Lord sent confusion into the enemy ranks. The Moabites and Ammonites started killing each other by mistake. There was a great slaughter followed by the plundering of the supplies left behind by the enemy soldiers. The story ends with the army gathering for a praise celebration, giving thanks to God for the victory he provided.

That’s a good name for a church: “The Church of the Pathetic Losers.” You would never run out of prospects.

After telling that story, the pastor commented that when Jehoshaphat prayed, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you," he was really saying, “Lord, we’re just a bunch of pathetic losers. And if you don’t help us, we’re sunk.” He went on to say that he had discovered that this was the true mission statement of the church he pastors: “We’re just a bunch of pathetic losers and if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk.” That’s a good name for a church: “The Church of the Pathetic Losers.” You would never run out of prospects.

Blunder Forward

I think he’s absolutely right. Apart from God’s grace, that’s all we are-just a bunch of pathetic losers. Without God, we don’t have a chance, we don’t have a thing to offer, and we don’t even know what to do next. Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him. A friend told me about a pastor at another church in the Chicago area who preached something similar. He came up with a phrase that he printed at the top of their church bulletins even though some of the leaders didn’t feel comfortable with it: “Blunder Forward.” Having been a pastor for nearly a quarter of a century, I can testify how true that is. Even on our best days, we struggle as God’s people to simply “blunder forward.” And some days we can’t even do that.

The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is meant for Pathetic Losers. But that should not discourage us in the least. God does his best work with pathetic losers who will cast themselves wholly on His grace. Jesus told us how to live when he declared, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). In the Kingdom of God, all the values of the world are reversed. The way up is down. The last shall be first. The least will be the greatest. The servants will be the leaders.

When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are admitting that we have no power and no clue how to face the problems of life. God delights to help those who have nowhere else to go but to the Lord.

Loving Lord, we truly believe that all things work together for good to those who love you.  When we are tempted to sin, give us wisdom to choose the way of escape while we have the chance. May we not trifle with sin and so be brought down in shame and disgrace. Give us a strong desire to do the right thing no matter what it costs. Help us to see your fingerprints even in the hard experiences of life. May our trials make us more like Jesus day by day. Amen.

A Truth to Remember: Satan wants something from us in the moment of temptation, and so does God!

Going Deeper

1. Why is it important to remember that God never solicits us to do evil? What happens when we forget this truth?

2. What are the biggest temptations you face on a daily basis?

3. Can you think of a time when a trial became a temptation to sin because you responded wrongly? What did you learn from that experience?

4. Consider the C. S. Lewis quote regarding the temptations Christ experienced. What encouragement do you take from the fact that though Christ was severely tempted, he never sinned?

5. Do you agree that apart from the grace of God we are “pathetic losers?” How do we square that truth with the reality that in Christ we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3)? Is there a contradiction here? In what sense are both perspectives important in maintaining a proper spiritual balance?

6. Read the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39. How did the temptation arise and how did Joseph respond? How was this incident both a temptation to evil and a testing from the Lord?

An Action Step

Memorize 1 Corinthians 10:13 this week. Ask God for spiritual sensitivity so that you will quickly take the “way of escape” when you tempted to sin.

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