LEAD (Our Father, Word by Word)

September 28, 2011 | 4 comments

Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth As it Is in Heaven. Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those
Who Have Trespassed Against Us. Lead….

by Sally Thomas

Lead us not into temptation? For years this has struck me as a strange request to make of God, in the prayer at the heart of all our prayer.

Syntactically speaking, in English at any rate, we ask God to lead us, even as we ask him not to lead us there. I don’t know how the jazzier modern translations have it, but to me it seems important that our petition doesn’t begin with don’t. To say lead us not, we first have to say lead us. Our yes ends in a no; our no begins with a yes. In the very language, as it’s rendered in the most familiar English formulation, the gears crunch, the machinery seems to stall a little. Lead us — we can’t lead ourselves — but wait a minute. Not that.

Am I alone in finding this at least momentarily disorienting? Why does Jesus exhort the disciples, and us, to pray this way? Well, for one thing, it occurs to me that He speaks from personal experience. The Gospel narrative is structured so that the Our Father reverberates with echoes of earlier events. If ever there were anyone led by God, it’s God Himself. As St. Matthew tells us, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He isn’t merely allowed to go up into the desert; He isn’t sent, or ordered, or instructed, or advised. He is led there, as a good dog is led on a leash, as a sheep is led by the bellwether’s bell, as the children of Israel were led by the pillar of fire. Like His own people, submitting Himself to walk in their way, God goes to the desert following God.

He goes, as we know, to be tempted. The Gospel narratives fast-forward through those forty long days of fasting and prayer to arrive at the entrance of the devil — stage left — come to speak his lines and make his empty offers. Of course, this trial, like our prayer, turns on a paradox. Fully human, Jesus has put on our own susceptibility to temptation. At the same time, whatever the devil considers Jesus to lack — food, faith, power — He supplies Himself, being Himself the inexhaustible supply.

Manifestly God does lead, and go Himself, into temptation. Still, a question niggles at my mind. If God did take us deliberately to the edge of our capacity to resist, and I’m not saying that He doesn’t, this would be nowhere that He hadn’t been before, nowhere that He would not revisit with us, nowhere that His grace would not be sufficient. Every time we pray, we say lead us. Yet we’re unwilling, and on Jesus’ orders, to take the desert road. Why?

Possibly the same thought strikes the disciples. We presume that they know the story of the desert; after all, someone had to hand it down to us. We might presume as well that, having just cast down their nets and leapt up from their tax records, they are as eager as any new recruits to hurl themselves into the fray. Like the short guy on the varsity football squad, they might well be pacing up and down the sidelines saying, Put me in, coach! Put me in! Let me show you what I can do! Bring it on! Yet Jesus’ prayer primer seems to suggest that this is precisely the attitude not to have.

An explanation obvious to us — well, it should be obvious to us — is as yet unavailable to them: that they, and we, aren’t God. Or to put it another way, that He is. The disciples simply don’t know this, not fully or with the implications made clear. If they’re willing to go wherever Jesus leads, it’s in ignorance: of who He is, of who they are beside Him. They have no idea where His road really leads. So two of them can walk along arguing over who gets to sit next to Him; when He asks them whether they can drink the cup prepared for Him, naively they answer that they can. When their attempts at casting out demons fail, they’re bewildered. What’s wrong? It worked for that guy. Why isn’t it working for us?

From the disciples’ perspective, as from ours, the journey looks like a series of stops, any one of which could be a destination: a healing here, a demon-ectomy there, a raising from the dead. Are we there yet? This is all pretty exciting. You mean there’s more? A stumble, a quarrel, a denial.

The exhortation to beg God to lead us, but not into temptation, is a double-whammy reminder of our frailty and our capacity for presumption. Even as we acknowledge our need to be led, we also confess our unfitness for the road. To ask God to lead us into trial, as we might be — ha ha! — tempted to do, to prove our love and our worth, would be tantamount to taking that first step off the pinnacle of the Temple, trusting the hair-trigger reflexes of the angels and, worse, our own imperviousness to the laws of metaphysical gravity. Don’t ask to go there, guys, Jesus effectively warns the disciples. Because the minute you do, you’re following somebody else, not Me.

The way is straight, but it often doesn’t seem so. It takes us past alluring exits, tantalizing detours, the adult superstores and factory outlet malls of the soul. Paradoxically again, though we’ve boarded the bus with the all-sufficient driver, He makes it clear that all the options are ours. Though we’ve surrendered ourselves into His hands, having confessed that we’re in no shape to drive ourselves, still He gives us some say in the itinerary – as long as we understand that to get where we’re going, we must always tell the driver, Not that exit. Don’t turn here. Ignore the detour. Keep going.

Ultimately Jesus reminds us that our song, always, is this:

Lead me, Lord. Lead me in Thy righteousness.
Make Thy way plain before my face.
For it is Thou, Lord, Thou Lord only
Who makest me dwell in safety.

Lead me, Lord. Lead me not. Lead me.

Sally Thomas is a poet, essayist, and homeschooling mother of four. She blogs at Castle in the Sea.


  1. Tricia

    In Spanish, and in Latin probably, this prayer reads: and do not let me fall into temptation – there is no implication that God would try to lead us into temptation.

    This is unfortunately a case of a bad translation from the Latin that then gets over analyzed and may lead to an unintended result.

    • Gilbert

      The Latin is “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.”, pretty much same as in English. The German version is “Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung”, also the same. I don’t read ancient Greek but Google led me to this lexicon entry for the original/biblical Greek word.

      So I’ll say in that case it’s the Spanish that has it wrong.

      • Caravelle

        But “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem” starts off with the negation, unlike “Lead us not” which, as the author pointed out, deliberately de-emphasises the negation compared to the more natural formulation “Do not lead us”. Unless one considers that emphasis isn’t in the beginning of the sentence but in its unusual structure, in which case the negation IS emphasized in the English version after all.

        Of course the author seems conscious that this is a feature of the English translation, and a specific translation at that. If she hadn’t followed that by pointing out that Jesus exhorted us to pray this way I probably wouldn’t have been bothered at all.

        I agree with Tricia that some of the language points made in the article are an over-interpretation of the English translation but those are still some very interesting insights.

        (for what it’s worth, i.e. not much, in French it’s even worse : it’s “Do not submit us to temptation”)

        • Gilbert

          True, and I hadn’t been thinking of that point.

          The idea of God (not) leading us into temptation is there but the contrast between leading us into temptation vs. somewhere else isn’t.

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