Of Trials and Temptations: Earnest Petition in the Lord’s Prayer

EDITORIAL: The coming of the Christ Child should inspire us to reflect on his mission and the deeper meaning of a petition we recite by heart as we pray the Our Father.

Our Father mosaic at Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem
Our Father mosaic at Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem (photo: Pixabay)

This month, Pope Francis suggested that a translation of a passage from the Lord’s Prayer — “Lead us not into temptation” — sowed confusion because it implied that God actively sought to tempt us to do evil. A better translation would read, “Let us not fall into temptation,” said Pope Francis, during an appearance on a television show hosted by the Italian bishops’ conference.

The headlines sparked by the Pope’s comments gave the impression that a new English translation of the Lord’s Prayer was imminent, though analysts said this was unlikely. Still, the dustup provides a teaching moment for U.S. Catholics at a pivotal time in our nation’s history.

For as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child — “the Word became flesh” — our joy is muted by a sense of spiritual exhaustion as 2017 draws to a close.

The year has been marked by a multitude of trials, from the disturbing spectacle of sex scandals involving powerful men to mass killings and natural disasters. 

In the wake of past challenges that rocked the nation, such as 9/11, the country unified against a common enemy. Today, a shared vision of the common good is proving elusive.

Amid the cacophony of bad news, we struggle to hear God’s voice and may come to doubt the power of prayer.

The joy of the Christmas season offers a reprieve. But the coming of the Christ Child should also inspire us to reflect on his mission and the deeper meaning of a petition we recite by heart as we pray the Our Father.

“Lead us not into temptation” is one of seven petitions contained in the Lord’s Prayer. And Jesus, whose entire earthly ministry is fulfilled in prayerful communion with the Father, gives us these words so that we may be united, both individually and collectively, to God’s will for our holiness.

In a fractured culture, the Lord’s Prayer draws men and women, Republicans and Democrats, black and white Americans, together into one body. This prayer also incorporates those who have not yet heard the word of God. And as we recite the Our Father, we embrace a common vocation to eternal life that inspires us to live in truth and to promote peace and justice in the world.

But we cannot accomplish this mission on our own, as we know too well. In fact, the petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” conveys a sense of dread that we will fail utterly to fulfill the vocation we have been given and may even turn from God in despair.

The early Christians also sought reassurance and clarity on the problem of evil in the world and man’s responsibility for withstanding temptation.

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am 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,” writes St. James (1:13-14).

Still, the questions persist to this day, as evidenced by Pope Francis’ recent comments. And when the Church explains why a loving God allows us to be tested by trials, her teaching is grounded in the full sweep of salvation history.

Most importantly, she reminds the faithful that the suffering and death of Jesus Christ defeated Satan’s power. Jesus, who underwent temptation by the devil, accompanies us in the field of spiritual battle.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin,” writes Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews (4:15). 

Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been sent to teach us how to “discern” the presence of good and evil in confusing times. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Paraclete helps us “discern between trials, which are necessary for the growth of the inner man, and temptation, which leads to sin and death. We must also discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation” (2847).

Among the most powerful temptations is the seductive lie that we are already good and thus require no further purification. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI elucidates this point in his three-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, where he reflects on the Lord’s Prayer and the Book of Job. Satan contends that Job is only good because he is rich and has not been tested, writes Benedict. And in belittling Job, Satan effectively challenges the inherent goodness of the human person, “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, 24).

This truth reminds us of the high stakes that accompany grave temptations: The spiritual effects of our fall will be felt by everyone in our orbit. In every choice we make, we can be a source of inspiration or despair.

Still, the Lord permits the devil to prove his calumny against Job, and the Lord’s faithful servant “restores man’s honor,” in anticipation of Jesus Christ, who makes all things new.

But Job’s story could have ended in disaster, and so Pope Benedict reminds us of the mysterious and complex nature of purifications that “present an opportunity for [man] to fall and yet they are indispensable as paths on which he comes to himself and to God.”

When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” he concludes, our earnest petition admits our need for transformation, even as we beseech the Father “not to mete out more than we can bear, not to let us slip from his hands.”

Amid great trials and temptations, our salvation seems balanced on a knife edge, and we cling to the cross as Jesus did. He is the Christ Child who lived among us and knew our fears. He was betrayed by his friends, yet forgave them, and he gave up his life for the salvation of the world.

Today, the Christ Child reminds his anxious brothers and sisters that the trials we face are designed not so much to test and strengthen our power to endure, but our power to love more perfectly and to be united with the Father’s beating heart.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).