You may have heard that in a recent interview Pope Francis suggested that there should be a change in how we translate the words of the Lord’s Prayer. What troubles Francis is the expression “lead us not into temptation.” He has suggested it could better be expressed and translated as something like “do not let us fall into temptation.”
As Lutherans, there are a number of thoughts and responses we have to a change as big as this. First, we can simply be dismissive. A suggestion by the Pope does not carry authority in the churches of the Lutheran Reformation. For that matter, the Pope’s comment on this issue doesn’t carry any authority in the Catholic Church either – changing the language of the Lord’s Prayer would require a lot more than just the Pope’s opinion. And that response is well and good. However, we do recognize that what our brethren in other confessions and denominations do has an effect on us too. So it’s worth considering this issue.
I think we can appreciate Pope Francis’ concern. “Lead us not into temptation” is a jarring, discomforting expression. The words can suggest that God Himself is sending temptations our way as though he is trying to cause us to fall into sin. But that understanding doesn’t accord with what God Himself says in Holy Scripture. James 1:13-14 says, “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.” We can empathize with Francis’ concern that Christians not imagine God as someone who is orchestrating their downfall. God tempts no one.
Yet, Jesus told us to pray these words. They do not belong to us. They are the Lord’s. They may be jarring, they may strike us as odd, but they are the words that Jesus gave us to pray. In fact I would argue that the oddity of the petition “lead us not into temptation” is a good thing. When reading Scripture, the strange, jarring, and discomforting expressions and ideas we see there are a good thing. They lead us to seek further clarification about meaning, which only leads us further into Scripture, where we see and savor the beautiful and true words of God.
When our Lord commanded us to pray, “let us not into temptation” he meant it. God tempts no one, for temptation is a test that the devil and our sinful nature set before us with the hope that we will fail. God tempts no one. But he does sometimes allow times of testing, so that the “tested genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).
In our weakness, we pray that we might be spared temptation we cannot bear, even as we know that temptation will finally come. In the same way, our Lord prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39) even as he knew that he would soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and crucified. And for that, “lead us not into temptation” also is a prayer that, though we feel the power of the temptations given by the devil and our sinful flesh, we may resist and overcome them. If we overcome temptation by resisting it, it ceases to really be temptation, thus fulfilling the prayer Jesus told us to pray.
I doubt the Lord’s Prayer will be changed by the Catholic Church or any other church, especially the Lutheran Church. You’ve heard about Lutherans and change, haven’t you? And it shouldn’t be changed. The strange language of the Scripture leads us to meditate on the Lord’s Word that we might draw comfort from his promises all the more, so that we may say with the Psalmist, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130).