Why Does the Lord’s Prayer Ask God not to Lead us into Temptation – Why Would God do Such a Thing?

101514Most of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor. And every now and then it is good to bring these works of mine together. An interesting question came in today (actually it is asked quite frequently) and I’d like to give my answer and add just a few things more that wouldn’t fit into the column. First the question, then the answer and a brief elaboration.

Q: Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God not to lead us in temptation? Why would God do that? I have also read texts in the Bible about God hardening people’s hearts. Again why would God do that? 

A: Part of the problem in understanding biblical texts like these comes down to the philosophical distinction between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality refers to God’s action in creating, sustaining, and setting into motion all things. From this perspective, God is the first (or primary) cause of all things, even things contrary to His stated and revealed will.

Thus, if I hit you over the head with a bat, I am actually the secondary cause of this painful experience. God is the primary cause because He has made and sustains all things that are involved: me, the wood of the bat, and the firm resistance of your skull.

As such, God is the first or underlying cause, without which nothing at all would be happening or existing. God is surely opposed to my action and even has Commandments against it. However, given His establishment of physical laws and respect for human freedom, He seldom intervenes by suspending these.

So to be clear, in my horrific little example, God is the primary cause since He is the cause of both me and the bat; I am the secondary cause of my shameful act of violence.

The biblical world was more conversant with and accepting of primary causality. Biblical texts often more freely associate things with God because He is the first cause of all things (without excluding the human agency that is the secondary cause). The Catechism speaks to this reality in Scripture:

The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” And so it is with Christ, “who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” As the book of Proverbs states: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (Catechism 303-304).

So the biblical world was more comfortable with primary causality. However, with the rise of the empirical sciences and secularism, we moderns are far less comfortable in speaking to primary causality (God’s world) and tend to focus more on secondary causes (our world).

When the Lord’s Prayer says lead us not into temptation, it is not asserting that God would directly and intentionally lead us into temptation, or tempt us himself (see James 1:13), but rather is alluding to the fact that God is the first cause of all things. We are thus asking that God’s providence allow fewer opportunities for us to be led into temptation by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and give us the grace to escape the temptations that inevitably do come our way.

Likewise, texts that refer to God hardening hearts employ similar thinking. God hardens hearts only insofar as He is the first cause of all things. But it is usually we who harden our own hearts. God merely permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality); it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our own hearts.

Primary causality is ultimately a confession of the fact that God is at the center of and above all things. God is existence itself and He sustains all things. It is not an untroubling doctrine in that it tends to intensify the questions surrounding the problems of suffering and evil. But even in permitted evils there is the mystery of providence at work. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. He is at all times and in all things provident in ways beyond our telling. Scripture says of the Lord Jesus as the King and sustainer of all creation,

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb 1:1-3).

And again,

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).

Yes, Lord:

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

18 Replies to “Why Does the Lord’s Prayer Ask God not to Lead us into Temptation – Why Would God do Such a Thing?”

  1. Thanks so much for this! I have asked this question before but never received such a clear explanation. This I can remember and understand. And you answered with such ease! God bless you, Monsignor.

  2. The problem of evil and suffering is a continuing challenge for me, I think I understand why it must be this way and I trust in Him. However God is so much more patient and tolerant of us that we deserve; we have flooded this world with evil and He still let’s us live in hope of our conversion.

  3. Than you Rev.Msgr ., for the good reflection , which seems to be a theme that is also in healing ministry

    books who allude to the hidden resentments and hatred towards God that persons can carry , for things that

    happened to them , thus unable to trust and accept even the mustard seed of faith and love !

    Seems this is one reason the enemy might esp. target children inorder thus to plant in them seeds of disbelief and hatred towards God and others !

    Such hatred then can easily manifest as fear of God , which is what the enemy too holds onto – fear of lose of its power , whereas The Lord invites us to trust that He would give us the grace and strenght , to deliver ourselves and even others, esp. through forgiveness , by asking for God’s love and mercy to seep into sitautions and moments in the lives of oneself and others , without hatred for them or us.

    True, not easily done by our often idolatrous minds that love to look at creatures, to hold in blame and contempt , even when calling out ( ? with split tongues ) , ‘ In Name of Jesus ‘ – may the Lord keep us all from such blasphemy of rejecting His love and power after having called on Him !

    The system wide hatred againt life or towards persons who do not believe in such and such manner possibly might have reached a boling over point as is seen by the still ongoing violence , esp. in the MIddle East and would it be that The Church is being tended on by The Spirit , to counter , by outpouring of mercy and invitation for inclusivity , for the purpose of healing , as many as need same , recognising that the role of The Spirit is now even more powerful . we are blessed with two Holy Fathers even , to tend the ship , even if one is hidden in the wounds , thus doing the role of serving The Church , with the ‘gift of wounded love ‘ – a theme mentioned in the book , Freedom through Deliverance by Rev.Fr..Carl Schmidt ; it seems to be same as in the divine mercy theme , of ‘bring all to Me ‘ , thus , there is also continuity , with St.John Paul 11 , who was selected to the Papacy, on oCt 16th .

    ‘In the Name of Jesus , I take authority over each and every spirit ( name person ) and bind you away ‘ is a prayer recommended in the book mentioned above , as he also mentions how the enemy can choose to target when one might be low in prayer power .

    Again, thank you for the reflection on a topic that is often mentioned in the Old Testament when the enemy claims are mentioned as ‘My wrath ‘ ; the Book of Job also has the same pervasive theme , in which Job as well as his friends attribute all of the calamities to God , a belief that can lead anyone to despair and God Himself comes to tell Job about His Fatherly care and providence of creation , which is all that Job needed ; would it be that in our times too , there are many Jobs crying out and The Church wants to comfort that no one is hated by Her but wants to bring them closer in to The Heart of mercy !

    Praise and glory be to The Triune God and Father !

  4. Isn’t there some ambiguity about how the original Greek is most precisely translated? Both as to the “lead us not into” part, and the “temptation/trial” part.

  5. Just spoke to a priest the other day who told me that if God plans everything, then He planned for Jesus to be crucified.

    I said yes, God foresees everything and uses secondary causes to carry out His plans; He could have created a different universe if He wanted to. Since He knows everything including all the free actions of the agents He has created, then He must have planned for the crucifixion.

    The priest told me that I was confusing ‘foreknown’ and ‘foreplanned.’ He also objected that my reading of the Bible must be over-literal.

    Help me out here, if you would, Msgr. Is this priest correct in some way that I am missing? I am trying to understand his position.

  6. When praying the Our Father in Spanish. The phrase “Lead us not into temptation.” It’s interpet as ” Do not let us fall into temptation.” So it may be that somewhere along the translation it was interpreted as Lead us vs. Do not.?

  7. Thank you, Msgr., for this explanation. It has helped me understand “hardening of heart”.

  8. I think the similar distinction between proximate and remote cause is also helpful. Same point, different, and I think clearer, language. Thanks, Monsignor.

  9. I was raised speaking Portuguese and had to learn some Latin. I think that the word “lead” its not a correct translation, doesn’t translate to what I am used to pray, but this is my humble opinion!! I speak 3 other languages but find it difficult to pray in English…don’t feel a thing….sorry!! miss the mass in Latin

    1. Liz, I miss the Mass in Latin also, and I attend Tridentine Masses and Novus Ordo Latin Masses whenever I can.

  10. Msgr. Pope,

    You wrote, “Primary causality refers to God’s action in creating, sustaining, and setting into motion all things. From this perspective, God is the first (or primary) cause of all things, **even things contrary to His stated and revealed will**.” (my emphasis)

    And, “So to be clear, in my horrific little example, God is the primary cause since He is the cause of both me and the bat; I am the secondary cause of my shameful act of violence.”

    And, “God merely permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality); it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our own hearts.”

    Your statements seem to me to be at odds with CCC #311, which states, “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil.”

    If “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil,” then we cannot say He is the primary cause of you hitting me with the bat (or hardening of hearts, or anything contrary to His will). God is in no way a cause of sin.

    Please clarify.

    God bless,

    1. The use of the word “moral” in the catechism quote is significant. God is not the cause of “moral evil.” In other words, God does not choose or will to do evil wherein he would be the direct cause of a moral evil on his part. As for physical evil or existing evil,as well as physical and existing good, he must be the primary cause otherwise nothing would be.

      You might also wish to study a bit on different types of causality: formal, final, efficient, and material. A short article like mine cannot wholly set forth a treatise on causality, which would fill volumes. But your question relates to many subtle distinctions between material and to some degree efficient causality on the one hand, and formal and final causality on the other.

  11. Oct. 16th, I could be wrong but I think St. John Paul II was asked this and he said that it was not a correct translation…when I say the Lord’s prayer, I substitute this way: “and let us not be led into temptation”…

  12. If I may add my two cents worth….I’ve read translations of very early copies which were translated “lead us not into the time of temptation, and deliver us from the evil one”.

  13. Msgr. Pope:
    From somewhere – maybe a bible study – I got the idea that the actual Greek words give the idea of a severe test or trial; such as being forced to choose between torture and death or renouncing the Faith. There are some – St. Ignatius of Antioch, e.g., who may welcome martyrdom. Most of us do not, and fear that we would not have the strength to resist such a trial, or “temptation”.
    Does this comment make sense for “Lead us not into temptation” ?

  14. The Catechism says the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation”. CCC 2846
    I was told years ago that this petition meant “Save us from trials (especially martyrdom) but if that is not possible then give us the strength to endure the trial.”

    1. “Allow” still refers to the will and causation of of God. The second explanation evades too much. It is the kind of thin a nun tells a kid to avoid the deeper issues a kid can’t really grasp or handle

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