Question: Why are we are instructed to pray: “lead us not into temptation”? Does God ever lead people into temptation so that we need to ask Him not to?
“Lead us not into temptation” is part of the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 (a shorter version). The answer to the question is found both in the word translated “temptation” and in the remainder of the sentence in Matthew 6:13—“but deliver us from evil.”
The word peirasmos in the Greek New Testament translated into English as “temptation” actually means “testing,” or “trial”—in the sense of difficult circumstances.[i] This unfortunate error in translation shows up in the earliest English translations of the Bible, and seems to be perpetuated now mostly because of its familiarity. This is a classic example of the truth that God’s Word is inerrant; translators and translations are not.
Nevertheless, the practice of sound biblical interpretation makes Jesus’ meaning clear even where the translation muddies the waters a bit. We know from the clear teaching of Scripture as a whole that God never tempts anyone to sin:
James 1:13-14 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
James uses the same word translated “tempted” as Jesus does in the Lord’s Prayer. James, however, qualifies the word to indicate trials arising from one’s own “evil desires.”
From beginning to end, the Lord’s Prayer is a brief and practical guideline on how to pray effectively. “Lead us not into testing” recognizes on the one hand that life is full of difficult circumstances that God will use to test our spiritual development:
1Cor. 10:13 No temptation [trial / testing] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted [tried / tested] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted [tried / tested], he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
On the other hand, while such trials in life are to be accepted when they come with a joy in knowing that God will strengthen us through them (James 1:2), we do not need to seek them out. Asking God, “lead me not into temptation [testing]” is tantamount to praying, “Lord, please teach me what You want me to learn through some other means, if possible.”
The remainder of the sentence in Matthew 6:13—“but deliver us from evil”—likewise recognizes that evil surrounds us and is often thrust upon us. Praying for God’s deliverance at such times is not only acceptable; it is God’s will!
Eph. 6:16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
[i] “The word peirasmos (“temptation”) and its cognate noun rarely if ever before the NT mean “temptation” in the sense of “enticement to sin” (whether from inward lust or outward circumstances) but rather “testing” (cf. also on 4:1-12).” —Comment on Matthew 6:13: EBC, In Loc.