James the brother of Jesus writes this concerning temptations that we face.
James 1:13-14 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.
God never tempts us, nor is he ever the one who drags us into sin. It’s our own evil desires that do that. So why would Jesus ask us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil?” Isn’t that the one thing God wouldn’t do anyway?
I believe that the key to unlocking this mystery lies in the stories of Jesus. Jesus loved to tell farming stories to describe how the kingdom of God grows within us. In one of these stories recorded in Matthew 13:1-8, a farmer goes out and sows seed on the ground. Some of the seeds fall on the path, some on rocky soil, others fall among thorns, but the final group of seeds falls in good soil. The seeds that fall on the path are snatched away by the birds and never germinate. The seeds that fall in the rocky soil spring up quickly, but because the soil is too shallow, the plant lacks the roots to survive the summer sun. The seeds among the thorns also sprout, but the thorns quickly choke the life out of the young plant. Only the seeds planted in good soil grow to maturity and produce a hundred fold harvest.
Later in Matthew 13, Jesus explains this parable when he is alone with his disciples. The seeds snatched by the birds are those who hear the gospel but never respond. Their faith never takes root because it is stolen by Satan. The next two obstacles, the rocks and the thorns, are of particular interest to us because they represent the two great temptations that followers of Christ will face throughout their lives.
The rocks represent hard times; persecution and trouble. If our roots are too shallow, the heartbreaks of life will be sufficient to undo our faith. The thorns are the opposite. They represent the dangers lurking in the good times. We all know what comes with great wealth and possessions. We worry about losing them. They consume our time maintaining and enjoying them. They dominate our lives choking out thoughts of the eternal. They own us as we depend on them for our security and if we are not careful, they will destroy our faith and kill the gospel seedling that was planted in our hearts.
In other words, Jesus sees two great threats to the Christian soul. Heartache and success. Great wealth and excessive poverty. Too much and too little. These are the rocks and thorns, the two great temptations, which seek to destroy our faith in God. The book of Proverbs captures this idea with this simple prayer:
Proverbs 30:8-9 … Give me poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.
Interesting. Isn’t this what Christ asked us to pray two lines earlier in the Lord’s Prayer? Avoiding the two great temptations, riches and poverty, is linked to the request “give us this day our daily bread. “Lead us not into temptation” complements “give us this day our daily bread.” They are two sides of the same coin. By asking God for “our daily bread”, we are also pleading with him to “lead us not into temptation.” If he were to give us more than our daily bread, if he were to drown us in wealth, the conditions would be right for our hearts to be led into the sins of pride and self-reliance. If God were to give us less than our daily bread, we would be brought to the brink of starvation and tempted to steal.
This is not to minimize the threats that we face from outside ourselves. We do live in a world with real enemies, real spiritual forces and terrorists. We are to pray, “deliver us from evil.” With that said, James reminds us that our own evil desires pose an even greater threat. It is our evil desires that drag us into sin and if we are not careful will “give birth to death.” (James 1:15) Enemies may kill our bodies, but lurking within our own hearts are threats with the power to destroy our own souls.
In this life we walk a narrow ridge line between the chasms of pride on the one hand and despair on the other. It is our task to plead with God to steer our lives between them, to clear the rocks and thorns and allow the gospel to grow to full maturity in the fertile soil of our hearts. May we never stop praying for ourselves and each other, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”