‘Do not put us to the test’ Reflections on a difficult petition in the Lord’s Prayer
The most influential Church Fathers and countless scriptural commentators throughout the centuries have commended the Our Father for its theological richness, extolling it as the perfect prayer, especially since the Divine Master himself taught it to us. There are those who maintain that the Our Father is the culmination of every prayer contained in the Old Testament. Others define it as a synthesis of Christian catechesis presented in the form of an invocation. Underlying the prayer’s exalted status is the fact that believers, whenever they recite it, repeat the very words of Jesus, making his prayer their own (cf. Luke 11:1). The perfection of Christian faith is thus given witness in the very way that the Christian community turns to God in prayer.
Prayer and desire
Without wishing to contradict this perspective, we can say that the Our Father is actually nothing more than a supplication. We are dealing neither with a form of thanksgiving or praise, nor with an explicit expression of trustful abandonment to God. The prayer is neither an explicit act of adoration nor a meditative listening to God’s Word. What Jesus asserted as essential to his teaching on prayer was the orientation of desire, so that his disciples might be aware and accept wholeheartedly what was truly good; that which the Father will undoubtedly do for them, since this human request, taught by Christ, adequately expresses precisely what God wants.The Our Father, in fact, presents a series of seven petitions, introduced by an appeal to the Father that clearly constitutes the foundation of trust underlying the supplicant’s petitions. The first three invocations manifest the obedience of God’s children. Through them, the supplicant asks that what the Father desires be fulfilled, that his will come to pass, and that his Kingdom be realized in human history. The four petitions that follow, even though they express human desires, are nonetheless structured in full conformity with God’s will. They essentially ask that what the Lord has already fulfilled in heaven come to pass on earth.
On the other hand, with this prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask (“ask,” “seek,” “knock,” in Matt 7:7), because asking is the defining characteristic of a child in need, something that the believer must never forget. This condition of needfulness serves to exalt the goodness of the One who has stooped down to the poor in order to make them rich (Ps 113:5-9; Luke 1:51-54).
It is nevertheless necessary to note that the very act of turning to God in supplication is marked by elements of ambiguity that are not easily perceived. We must draw attention not only to the ways in which we mistakenly understand these petitions, even if they are held sacrosanct by the one praying them, but also the fact that the invocation is presented as an imperative to God, as if the creature were dictating to the Creator how he should behave; as if the Lord needed to be reminded to fulfill his duty. Now, as Scripture reminds us, our Father in heaven already knows perfectly the needs of his children (Matt 6:8, 32); he is always ready to give (Isa 30:19), and he hears the calls of the supplicants even before their requests emerge from their mouths (Isa 65:24). To ask and insist might therefore seem offensive and inappropriate. It might even suggest a lack of faith. Are we trying to wake up God because he is asleep (1 Kgs 18:27)? Are we trying to draw his attention to something he has not yet noticed? Do we need to persuade him to do good, overlooking the fact that he exists for that very purpose?
The only way to justify the utterance of a petition, especially when it is made with such persistence, is to regard it as an act of faith in God: to understand it as an expression of a prayerful, progressive discovery of what the Lord wants to give. This also requires a lot of time in prayer, so that the prayer may blossom into a peaceful recognition that the Father infallibly gives anything to the one who knows how to humbly appreciate the gift (1 John 5:14-15). After the healing of the sick man, Jesus says to him, “Your faith has saved you” (Matt 9:22; 15:28, etc.), making us understand that God heeds the prayer of the one in need because the supplicant opened himself to the certitude of the Lord’s infinitely generous and powerful love at work in history.
Thus the one who offers prayers of petition shows special reverence to God with sentiments aligned to the linguistic formulas in the Our Father, which necessarily must be interpreted. Whoever takes up the words of the Psalmist and addresses the Most High in the following terms: “do this or that, don’t forget, hurry up, don’t turn your face away,” and so on, interjects a slight tone of criticism against the Lord. In the Psalms of supplication, the speaker often assumes a tone of reproof, like “Why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2); “How long will you continue to forget me?” (Ps 13:1); “Why do you hide in times of danger?” (Ps 10:1). Such expressions should obviously not be taken literally because they are borrowed from a literary genre derived from human experience where the person suffering desperately pleads for help, fearing that he will otherwise die (cf. Ps 22:16; 28:1). The supplicant feels alone (Ps 22:12; 25:16), he feels that he must cry aloud to make himself heard, and that he should never stop calling out so that the rescuer will take swift action. It is therefore necessary to decipher such formulations so that we may understand their true meaning. Actually, an invocation, precisely when it assumes a dramatic tone, allows the believer to appreciate more deeply the surprising grace of salvation. In truth, a person who prays authentically – even without recognizing it – proclaims the gifts received from God in the very form of a request.
A problematic petition: ‘and lead us not into temptation’
The requests expressed in the second part of the Our Father clearly refer to a “we” that represents the Lord’s disciples: a community of pilgrims in the desert, vulnerable to dangers, deprivation and spiritual misery. But it should be noted that the invocations asking for the name of God to be made holy, the realization of his Kingdom, and the fulfillment of his will on earth, are for the benefit of those who are still “in the world” (John 17:13). Jesus the Teacher, in fact, expresses a single desire even though it is broken down into various petitions, because it constitutes the aspiration to the true life that the Father wants to give and the child discovers that he has received.
But the loving convergence of divine and human desire promoted by the Our Father is suddenly interrupted by the penultimate petition, expressed in Latin in this way: et ne nos inducas in tentationem (and lead us not into temptation). Here, in fact, for the first and last time, the supplicant asks God not to do something, as if the intention and the plans of the Father are stopped by what the son desires. Moreover, this inclination attributed to the Lord seems entirely unsatisfactory, because, at first sight, he is taken to be the author of an action that is dangerous – if not outright harmful – to the supplicant.
It is precisely this last aspect that has generated pastoral discomfort and has led exegetes and Church leaders – among whom we now include Pope Francis – to ask for a modification of the centuries-old formula of the liturgical prayer that would respond to sentiments now widely shared and promote a more accurate and respectful conception of God.
Such a difficulty is not new in the history of the Church. Already in the first centuries of the Christian era there was a Latin version of the Scriptures in which Matthew 6:13 was rendered in a way different from what would become known through the Vulgate: “et ne passus nos fueris induci in tentationem,” which largely corresponds to: “do not consent to us being led into temptation.” The interpretation of authoritative Western Fathers including Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, has consistently inspired commentators down through the centuries to our own day to explain the text in a way that conforms to sound biblical theology, thus giving it the sense of: “do not permit that we enter into (or succumb to) temptation;” or “do not abandon us to/in temptation.” It seems that modern translations are accordingly oriented in this direction.
I therefore intend to follow this perspective in my own analysis. But I would like to do so in a somewhat innovative way: on the one hand, I will try to hold strictly to the letter of the Gospel text, and on the other, I will try to look more deeply into the sense of this difficult petition which, in my view, is more than merely a request for divine help in the spiritual battle.
Analysis of the biblical text
The problematic petition appears in the parallel passages of Matthew (Matt 6:13) and Luke (Luke 11:4), as well as in the Didache (8:2). Although there are important differences between the longer version of the Our Father in Matthew 6:9-13 and the shorter version in Luke 11:1-4, as far as regards the phrase we are interested in, the manuscript traditions perfectly coincide (this is also true for the Didache). As for the content, the petition does not seem to have parallels in the Old Testament. We should therefore consider it to be an original, fresh element of teaching from Jesus himself.
The Greek text (kai m? eisenenk?s h?mas eis peirasmon) – which I believe should be considered normative for purposes of interpretation – comprises four grammatical elements (not including the conjunction kai which simply connects this petition to the previous ones).
1) First of all, we have a verb (eispherein) in the form of an aorist subjunctive with imperative force. The verb itself means: to interject, to introduce, to place (something or someone) within a certain reality. Hence modern versions (like “do not abandon us,” “do not allow us to fall,” and so on) do not generally respect the original Greek text in that they weaken the force of the active voice contained in the Greek verb. The Latin translation used in the ancient Western liturgy (et ne nos inducas) is a literal rendering of the Greek expression, because the verb inducere, strictly speaking, means “to lead into.” The translation used in the Italian liturgy (indurre) – virtually a transliteration of the Latin – is similarly inadequate in that this lexeme expresses intentionality more than a precise action within three-dimensional space.
2) The second element is a pronoun (h?mas), which constitutes the direct object of the preceding verb. The specification of “us” as those who are praying is common to all the requests in the second part of the Our Father. The use of this pronoun also makes it clear that this prayer is being made by a community.
3) The preposition eis (“in”), already present in the compound verb eispherein, reemphasizes the idea of movement “toward” something, perhaps with a more precise overtone of the placement “within” a certain reality.
4) The substantive peirasmos is the determining semantic element for the interpretation I am now suggesting. An understanding (and therefore a translation) of this term is important for a correct view of Jesus’ prayer. Both the verb peirazein and its derivative substantive peirasmos have a wide range of meanings, which range from “an attempt” (Acts 9:26; 16:7; 24:6) to a “demonstration” (2 Cor 13:5), and from “test” (understood as a difficult, painful and dangerous situation) to “temptation” (which introduces an overtone of an ethical or religious evil). The context, and therefore the agent and his or her specific intentions, will determine one meaning over another. In translating the Our Father, ancient Latin versions and modern vernacular versions seem generally to adopt the term “temptation.”
My proposal is to render the phrase as “and do not lead us to the test,” or rather, with the dynamic equivalent, “do not put us to the test.” In fact, the basic meaning of the Greek root is to “test” or “to put to the test,” and this is the way that the verb and the noun are normally translated in other loci in the New Testament (cf. Luke 8:13; 22:28; Acts 5:9; 20:19; Gal 4:14; 2 Cor 13:5; Heb 2:18; 4:15; 11:17; Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 1:6; 4:12; 2 Pet 2:9; Rev 2:2). Only when the subject performing the action is evil and desirous of placing another person into some kind of difficulty – as when, for example, Satan or another wicked agent intervenes (Matt 4:1, 3 and parallels; 1 Cor 7:5) – only in these few cases is it opportune to express the verb “to tempt” as an action directed toward making the other fall by means of seduction or deception.
Hence it is clear that the action of “tempting” a person can never be attributed to God, because this would contradict his very nature as a loving Father. This is explicitly stated in James 1:12-15: “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation (peirasmon). Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one experiencing temptation (peirazomenos) should say, ‘I am being tempted (peirazomai) by God’; for God is not subject to temptation (apeirastos) to evil, and he himself tempts (peirazei) no one. But one is tempted (peirazetai) by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”
Rather – and this is something that the biblical tradition emphasizes on many occasions – God “puts us to the test” in various ways. So what sense is there to ask God: “do not put us to the test”?
In what sense does God ‘put to the test’?
According to the pagan way of thinking, divinities exercise power by granting privileges and favors to those who honor them. Hence the pagans attributed the misfortunes and calamities suffered by human beings (think of Ulysses and his return to Ithaca) either to forces (be they human or divine) battling against one another, or to the decrees of the Fates, who had ultimate sovereignty over the chance occurrences of human experience. But the tradition of Israel speaks of a God who presides over every event, and in whose hands are the life and death of every creature. Nothing escapes his power. To the contrary: everything that happens is, in some mysterious way, an expression of his goodness and providential care as the divine Father.
But this does not mean that human beings are deprived of freedom or relieved of their responsibility for the outcomes of their actions. It is not true that biblical revelation is conceptually cut off from so-called “secondary causes.” On the contrary, it recognizes them and promotes them. But it also asserts that, even when we act badly and cause others pain and suffering, God is so supremely powerful and good that he can make everything work toward some good end. This is beautifully expressed in the story of Joseph who, sold into slavery by his brothers, becomes the very source of their life (Gen 45:4-8). Joseph is a figure of Christ, who was put to death because of the hard-heartedness and wickedness of his countrymen, but then made – by the power of God – the mediator of universal salvation (Acts 2:23-24; 3:17-18; 4:27-28).
Just how the inspired word explains the unfortunate and disastrous events of history needs considerable development. The enigma of suffering and death, subject to different interpretive approaches in the Bible, remains an area of perpetual questioning and debate. At the risk of oversimplifying, we could say that some of the sad aspects of human existence are interpreted by scripture as the consequence of sin (cf. Gen 3:16-19; Deut 29:21-27). In this case, the effects of human suffering that take place in history are desired and brought about by God, not only as a way of enacting justice against the perpetrated crime, but more importantly as a medicinal remedy and as a corrective and instructive measure that helps the sinner to abandon his wicked ways and to adhere to the good (Prov 3:11-12).
Quite often, however, experiences of suffering are unconnected with sin, but are rather preordained by the Lord’s wisdom to favor a good decision on our part. Here is where the biblical tradition introduces the idea of a “test”: perhaps not an entirely satisfactory concept, but still useful for providing the believer with an interpretive key to understanding and accepting the dark drama of evil that inflicts the “just man” without his losing faith in God’s justice. The first figure who comes to mind is, of course, Job. There was no one on earth – the text tells us – as honest and devout as he (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). But, as Satan notes, his righteousness may be oriented merely toward receiving recompense and gifts from the Lord rather than as an expression of pure reverence toward God. This is why only the experience of deprivation (of his goods, his children and his health) will ultimately demonstrate the purity of his intentions and the authenticity of his religious devotion.
God’s willingness to let Job be tested is not without risks. People tend to rebel when they are affected by some loss (be it real or perceived). The history of Israel will in fact show the difficulties of being put to the test, which is symbolically expressed through the experience of the desert (Deut 8:2). On the one hand, God determines to lead his people into this land of desolation – a symbol of privation – because it is bereft of food and water and there is no clear path to follow in the desert (Jer 2:6). Moreover, besides having to endure the grueling arid climate of the desert, the people have to undergo attacks by insidious forces (Deut 8:15) and vicious enemies (Deut 25:17-18). On the other hand, it was in the desert that the Israelites received the Law so that they might understand and recognize that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3). Israel’s wandering in the desert is a symbol of human history, which Scripture in fact presents as a never-ending series of trials or tests. Even the chosen one – the beloved of God – is not spared. Rather, the Servant of the Lord voluntarily submits himself to the test with a greater awareness and a more explicit understanding of what martyrdom means. Hence justice and happiness assume a mysterious form that requires – in order to be accepted – the testimony of prophets and figures with inspired wisdom. As Judith said to her fellow Israelites, “In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our ancestors. Remember what he did with Abraham, and how he tested Isaac, and what happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia, while he was tending the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother. For he has not tried us with fire, as he did them, to search their hearts, nor has he taken vengeance on us; but the Lord scourges those who are close to him in order to admonish them” (Jdt 8:25-27).
Not only does the ancient wisdom of Israel move in the same line (Job 23:10; Prov 17:3; Wis 3:5), but also the tradition of the early Church, as we see in James 1:12, 1 Peter 1:6-7 and especially James 1:2-4, where the Apostle, speaking about the diaspora of the tribes of Israel, writes: “My brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Jesus himself declares that the persecuted are blessed (Matt 5:10-12). In light of his teaching, we can better understand why the Son of Man was also led by the Spirit into the desert in order to show his perfect obedience to the Father, rejecting the deceitful promises of the Tempter (Matt 4:1-11): a symbolic anticipation of his willing acceptance of the supreme test of his Passion (Heb 2:10, 18; 4:15; 5:7-10).
Do not put us to the test
If human life, as the Scriptures tell us, is constantly subjected to tests, and if this represents the wisdom of divine providence in purifying the intentions of our hearts and refining the spiritual qualities of those who are just, how can we understand the petition of the Our Father that seems to ask the opposite?
First of all, let us return to what I proposed at the beginning of these reflections regarding the need to interpret correctly the meaning of the petitions addressed to God. Taught by Christ, the supplicant intends to ask only what God wants. “Let your will be done” remains the one true desire of the one asking God for help.
The various petitions in the second part of the Lord’s prayer express to the Father the various needs and sufferings of the community in prayer without any presumption that God is unaware of them and does not wish to help. Rather, the intent of the prayer is to recall the aspects and circumstances in which the Father expresses his benevolent and compassionate action. That said, a difficult area of human existence is the experience of pain, provoked by the absence of some important or indispensable good. It is not only right and dutiful for the supplicant to present his sufferings to God, but to express how much they might distort his attitude of faith and hope. If asking in prayer for the grace of being exposed to the storms of evil is a prideful act of presumption, it is no less arrogant to think that we are capable of overcoming difficulties on our own. On the contrary, to ask the Father – on the basis of a humble acknowledgement of our human fragility – to be spared from the fire of tests is a petition that God approves and heeds. Whoever prays the Lord’s Prayer asks the Father to be spared from the furnace of pain, acknowledging that this would be a “temptation,” a dangerous occasion of losing faith in Providence, besides being a lost opportunity to praise the Creator of life.
Those who unite themselves to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by acknowledging the terrifying immanence of death, and so experiencing the deep anxiety that accompanies such an acknowledgment (Matt 26:38), are called to enter into prayer and to repeat with Christ – “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me!” (Matt 26:39) – because only by asking not to experience death does the supplicant recognize that life is a good to be desired, and because only by asking to live does the believer accept God’s will and the certainty that God will heed that petition (Heb 5:7).
The dramatic moment of the test presents itself to human conscience in certain particular circumstances: when the threat of death is more immanent and when it seems to take on frightening aspects. This is when the moment of darkness really sets in. It may involve a natural catastrophe, economic instability, serious illness, or enmity foreboding multiple and unspeakable sufferings. When we look closely at our spontaneous prayers, and if we consider carefully what we ask God for whenever we open our hearts to him, we see that we are constantly asking him not to be put to the test. Indeed, as Jesus invites us to say in the last petition (according to Matthew’s text), the prayer to the Father asks that we be “delivered from evil,” meaning that we be given a way out of every threatening reality opposed to life and consequently to God himself.
Therefore, it is not only a matter of asking the Father for the grace to overcome the temptations and seductions of the Evil One – as necessary as that may be – but also of asking the God of all goodness to help us because we are small and fragile – as Scripture says, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41) – so that we can pass through dark night without losing our way. We can think of those who have asked the Lord for healing. We can think of the things we ask for repeatedly every day using the formulaic prayers of the Psalms and the Liturgy. Finally, we can think of the hidden pleas in our hearts whenever we feel danger coming on, whenever we are anxious about the future, or whenever we are plagued by some evil. Hence these multifaceted requests are summed up and condensed into a single petition: “do not put us to the test.”
It is a generic request expressed in a negative way, since, though it asks for help, it does not specify the exact means of assistance. Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer, by confessing their weaknesses and fears, and indirectly the frailty of their own belief, express their trust in the merciful will of the Father who will know how to lead his sons and daughters to the place that will be best for them. The supplicants therefore entrust themselves to a plan that only God knows, thus praising the wisdom and goodness of the Father. We entrust ourselves to God in our very appeal to him, expressing at the same time our love for life. We entrust ourselves trustfully, knowing that we have already been heard in a way that surpasses even what our hearts desire.
The Gospel – and indeed all of Scripture – teaches us that falling into temptation is equivalent to losing our trust in God, instead adhering to other realities and values that we foolishly think are a better guarantee of life. Overcoming temptation, therefore, is equivalent to renewing our faith in the Lord. This happens not only once the test is over – that is, when we have recognized that we have been saved – rather, the temptation is already overcome at the moment the invocation is made. It is the prayer itself that makes it possible for the test – rather than being an occasion for evil – to become paradoxically the kairos of a spiritual event: because the prayer that asks not to be put to the test is a request for life made with humility and courage, trusting in the benevolent intervention of the Father who desires, in his inscrutable wisdom, that which is useful, opportune and favorable for the good of his children.
This final petition of the Our Father is a cry full of love, most of all because it is addressed to the Father in trust, and it therefore expresses a faith in love and manifests, at the same time, love for the One to whom the believer entrusts his or her very life. It is a cry of love also because it is not only the supplication of a single individual driven to God because of personal needs. Rather, it is the prayer of the entire community, or rather of every believer insofar as his or her voice expresses the desires of the entire praying assembly, the Church. Indeed, it is the voice of everyone in every land who waits for signs of divine goodness (Ps 86:17). And insofar as it is a real manifestation of solidarity with the poor and the suffering in the world, it is the prayer most favored by the Father, a prayer he heeds the very moment it emerges from our lips. In this way, the name of God is sanctified and glorified, because love has pervaded every corner of the earth.
.In the ancient Church, together with the traditio Symboli and the teaching of the Creed, there was also a traditio orationis dominicae (the handing on of the Lord’s Prayer), including a specific catechesis on the Our Father (cf. V. Grossi, Il Padre nostro: Per un rinnovamento della catechesi sulla preghiera. Tertulliano, Cipriano, Agostino, Rome, Borla, 1983, 23-28). Saint Augustine wrote, “You first grasped what you are to believe in. Today, however, you have learned to call upon the one in whom you have believed” (Serm. 57, I, 1). Tertullian, for his part, praised the Our Father by affirming that “all of the Gospel is contained in it as a sort of synthesis” (De oratione, I, 6; IX, 1), while Cyprian defined it as a “compendium of heavenly teaching” and “a magnificent synthesis of the precepts of salvation” (De oratione dominica, 9, 28).
.Saint Augustine rightly notes that in the Our Father we have “the rules of every holy desire” (De perf. inst. hom., 8, 18).
.“The Lord wants us to pray so that he gives to the one who desires, and so that what he has given to us may not be undervalued” (Augustine, Serm. 56, III, 4).
.For Luke 11:4, however, it seems that the ancient Latin editions consistently say “et ne nos inducas in tentationem” (cf. A. Jülicher, Itala. Das Neue Testament in altlateinischer Überlieferung, Berlin-New York, W. De Gruyter, 1972, 128).
.Cf. P. Sabatier, Bibliorum sacrorum latinae versiones antiquae, seu Vetus Itala, et Caeterae quaecumque in Codicibus Mss. & antiquorum libris reperiri potuerunt, III, Parisiis, Reginaldi Florentain Typographia, 1751, 34.
.The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes this interpretation in No. 2846.
.In fact, in the new translation published by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) in 2008, both Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 read: “E non abbandonarci alla tentazione” (“do not abandon us to temptation”). But this change has not yet entered into the liturgy in Italian. At a meeting in Rome, the Executive Committee of the CEI decided to convene an Extraordinary Assembly of the bishops from November 12 to 14 in 2018 to discuss and approve the third edition of the Roman Missal that will contain the new translation of the prayer.
.There have been several proposals to retrace a translation from Greek back into Aramaic, based on the supposition that Jesus taught the Our Father using the Semitic language spoken in his region at that time. But besides the difficulty of opting for this or another conjecture, I believe it is more methodologically correct to base our interpretations on the Greek text since it has been accepted by the Church as canonical.
.There are some linguistic experts who maintain that rather than favoring a causal force to this expression (“make us enter”), we should give a permissive force to this expression (“do not allow that we should enter”) based on a similar subtleness of meaning presumably found in the original Aramaic.
.This interpretive approach is not usual in studies on the Our Father. We find an exception in M. Philonenko, Il Padre nostro: Dalla preghiera di Gesù alla preghiera dei discepoli, Turin, Einaudi, 2003, 105.
.Hence the inadequacy of the expression “to tempt God” (often used in vernacular versions of the Bible), which should rather be rendered as “to put God to the test” (as an expression of a lack of trust).