When I was growing up, we were taught that God would be periodically testing us to check up on the strength of our faith and willpower: putting various temptations in front of us to see if we were strong enough to resist them and hold firm. I suspect some of the logic behind this comes from the Our Father, where we pray the words: “lead us not into temptation”. As someone who is perhaps well described by Oscar Wilde’s quip: “I can resist anything but temptation”, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Does God really lead us into temptation?
In the life of Jesus, as depicted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we see that after He was baptized in the Jordan River, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where He fasts for 40 days. At the end of the fasting, at His weakest, Jesus is tempted by the devil in three different ways, all of which He resists. It’s worthwhile to note that there is no mention that God the Father gives a heads up to the devil, to check up on the moral fiber of His son; to make sure that His son has what it takes to complete His mission in this world. Instead, being fully human (as well as divine), Jesus is subject, like all of us, to temptations from the devil. While the Father does not intervene, it does say in Matthew 4, that angels ministered to Jesus after the temptations.
As in pretty much every aspect of Jesus life, there’s a message for us in what’s actually going on here.
For us humans I believe, it’s the actual temptation and our concomitant struggle to be faithful that are really important. God loves us and doesn’t tempt us to try and catch us in sin. Would a loving parent tempt their child? But instead He blesses our efforts to be faithful. Jesus told us that He came into this world for sinners! And given none of us know our role in God’s plan, we need faith in God’s mercy and love. Moreover, for all of us grappling with our various forms of sinfulness, whether it be our pettiness, selfishness, anger, addictions, impatience and so on, God uses those struggles and our often weak resistance to bring us closer to Him. Jesus tells us, God is constantly looking for the “lost sheep”. Note: He doesn’t expect the sheep to find Him……. But only to listen for His voice.
So for what then are we asking when we pray the Our Father if it’s not to be led into temptation? Interestingly in both the gospels of Luke 11 and Matthew 6, when Jesus is teaching the apostles how to pray, He tells them to pray “Not to be put to the final test” . What Jesus may be telling the apostles is to not pray for what you personally think you need, that which might well make your ego bigger and distance you from God, but to pray with confidence to the Father, knowing you will be given what you actually need. And that should your prayers appear not to be answered, not to give up, to give in “to the test” and lose faith; believing that it’s all up to you. This was Judas’ great sin, that he lost faith and believed he could not be forgiven. Unlike Peter who “wept bitterly” and was reconciled with Jesus.
So when you do make a poor choice, exercising the free will that our loving God has given us, be confident that He did not put that temptation in front of us. But instead, that regardless of our weaknesses, God will continue to call to us, patiently waiting like the father of the prodigal son, for us to respond to His call, and be re-united with Him in a joyful reconciliation.