Does God lead humans into temptation? If not, why pray that God won't? This question has perplexed many, including theologians.
IN JAMES 1:13 we read: "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man." But in Genesis 22:1 we also read, "And it came to pass... that God did tempt Abraham.... " Here is certainly an apparent contradiction! Does God ever tempt one to do evil? If not, why pray, "Lead us not into temptation"? And what about the verse that says, "... count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations"? (James 1:2). How are these apparently contradictory scriptures to be understood?
The word temptation is a most unfortunate translation in most English versions of the Bible. In modern usage, it has the meaning of enticement to do evil. But that is not the primary intent of either the Hebrew or Greek words. In most instances a better translation of this word is "hard test" or "sore trial." We see this, for example, in Revelation 3:10, where the same word appears. Speaking of the coming period of worldwide distress, Jesus makes a promise to those who obey him: "I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." Here the word temptation is better translated "sore trial" or "tribulation." Likewise, the request, "Lead us not into temptation" should be rendered, "Lead [or bring] us not into sore trial." But what did Christ mean by that? Jesus himself, the night before his crucifixion, gave us an example of what he meant by "lead us not into sore trial." He was aware of the intense suffering he " was about to undergo. He could see it coming. He realized that if he failed during the trials of the next twelve hours or so, God's whole plan for the redemption of mankind would fail also. Jesus was deeply troubled. He prayed: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me [in other words, 'Lead me not into sore trial!']: nevertheless," he added, "not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39). This agrees with what Jesus said in Matthew 6:10, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Maybe there was some other way of working out God's plan of redemption. He asked, if so, to be spared being brought into the grievously sore test just ahead - but only if it was God's will. It was not. It is not always God's will to keep us out of sore trial either. Sometimes we become lax in doing our part to develop righteous character and we need a hard test to bring us to our senses. God may allow us to experience trials to get us back "on the track."
A Christian is one who asks to be led by God each day, for the Eternal says, "I am the Lord thy God which... leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go" (Isaiah 48: 17). When we see a trial looming on the horizon, rather than being overcome with anxiety about it, we can ask God, if it is his will, to lead us past it, around it, over it, any other direction but into it! If we are "alert and close to God, we may be delivered from the trial before we become completely involved in it. "Watch [be alert!] and pray," Jesus urged his disciples, "that ye enter not into temptation [sore trial]" (Matthew 26:41). Jesus' entire prayer outline as given in Matthew 6:9-13 is based on the premise that those praying are doing their part to fulfill God's plan. The request, "Give us this day our daily bread" (verse 11), assumes the requester is doing what he can to produce and earn his daily bread. He is not just sitting still, waiting for the bread to somehow be handed to him. Receiving forgiveness of sins (verse 12) also depends upon whether we do our part — forgiving others. Similarly, the petition, "Lead us not into sore trial," assumes the person praying is diligently straightening out his own life so God might not have to straighten it out for him. When God allows sore trials to come upon us it is for our own good — to wake us up, to teach us lessons. If we are learning those lessons by ourselves, we are much further ahead. Notice how the verb form of the same word we are translating "sore trial" is used in II Corinthians 13:5: "Examine [test! try!] yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves." Then God won't have to do it for you! Jeremiah recognized that God does find it necessary to try his people. He prayed, "O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing" (Jeremiah 10:24). In other words, he asked to be corrected, but preferably without being brought into overly severe trial. The Bible refers to hard trials as "fiery trials" (I Peter 4:12). Being sorely tried is not naturally enjoyable. As Peter wrote to Christians: "... now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations [sore trials]" (I Peter 1:6). However, he points out in the next verse, the results of being so tried are "more precious than of gold." Though we may be severely tried, we have the promise that "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted [tried] above that ye are able; but will with the temptation [sore trial] also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (I Corinthians 10:13). "All things work together for good to them that love God," the Bible asserts (Romans 8:28). Realizing that God's will is always best, James exhorted: "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [sore trials]" (James 1:2).
When Trials Involve Temptations
Many have wondered about Genesis 22:1, which says, "And it came to pass... that God did tempt Abraham." What follows is the familiar account of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar in obedience to God's instructions. God wanted to test Abraham's faith. There was no question of lust here, for we have already seen that "God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man [with evil]" (James 1:13). A better rendering of Genesis 22:1 is, "And it came to pass... that God did prove [or sorely try] Abraham." Sometimes, however, temptation to do evil does become a part of sore trial. This is illustrated by what happened to ancient Israel. God had told them to "remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove ["sorely try" — same word wrongly translated "tempt" in, Genesis 22:1] thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no" (Deuteronomy 8:2). Here again God was doing the testing. By this time sin was involved, for the Israelites rebelled against their Creator. They yielded to temptation to sin. Where did the temptation come from? From God? No. God does not tempt to do evil. Where then? From their own lusts, because "every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin..." (James 1:14-15). God did not test them with more than they could have withstood — if they had been willing to do their part. To make matters worse, human lusts are constantly stirred up by Satan and his influence. He is called the "tempter" (Matthew 4:3). He tempts to do evil (Mark 1:13). This brings us to another facet of the meaning of Jesus' teaching. "Lead us not into sore trial" is immediately followed by "but deliver us from evil," or as it can be translated, "but deliver us from the evil one." As Jesus was instructing his disciples how to pray, the occasion was fresh in his mind when he himself had been led into hard testing when the devil tried, literally, to tempt him to do evil. "Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted [sorely tried] of the devil" (Matthew 4:1). Here again sore trial included temptation to do evil. But the temptation was of the devil, not of God. In this fateful encounter with Satan, the ruler of the present world, Jesus prevailed. He overcame Satan, thus qualifying to be King over the earth. We must overcome Satan too, though God does not permit the devil to try us as severely as he tried Jesus. Whenever we do not resist Satan (James 4:7), we provide opportunity for him to tempt us (I Corinthians 7:5). It is even possible for a church member to so neglect putting sin out of his life that, to wake him up, God will give him over to Satan for some sore trying. That's what the apostle Paul referred to when he instructed the church at Corinth under his charge to "deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 5:5). We should pray that we do not have to be tried in that way. God is working out his purpose in our lives. He tests and tries us as needed to develop righteous character in us. The more perfect God's Spirit in us enables us to become, the fewer trials will be necessary. When we pray, "Lead us not into sore trial, but deliver us from evil," we are asking God to perfect us and bring us to the place where such trials are not needed.