Temptation vs Trial: What’s the Difference?
The petition “Give us today our daily bread” (v. 11) deals with our physical, natural needs. But when Jesus introduced forgiveness, He brought in the spiritual dimension. This petition, “And lead us not into temptation,” continues with our spiritual state. If we meant what we said when we prayed, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (v. 12), a wonderful fellowship with the Father is in existence. It means the Holy Spirit in us is un-grieved. But there is more than one way to grieve the Holy Spirit. When Paul said, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30), ), he used a Greek word that means to get one’s feelings hurt.
We hurt the Holy Spirit’s feelings chiefly by bitterness. This is why Paul followed this admonition with, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32). When we grieve the Holy Spirit, He does not desert us, but we do lose an anointing of peace, clear thinking, and a sense of His presence and fellowship.
The petition we now unpack is the most difficult to understand: “Lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). Many volumes have been written on this petition. We are dealing with the mystery of an unusual petition. This mystery turns generally on two matters: (1) the translation of the Greek peirasmon, which means either temptation, testing, or trial, or all three; and (2) the strange request that God should not lead us into temptation or trial, which implies He may well so lead us. This is strange considering also this verse: “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” (Jas. 1:13–14). So if God cannot tempt us, is not Jesus implying otherwise in this petition?
But if peirasmon means “testing” or “trial,” James also said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (Jas. 1:2–3). This verse sounds like it is a good thing when you face trials of many kinds! If this is “pure joy,” why pray to avoid it?
The problem is further complicated by two more verses: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come” (Luke 17:1); and “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This means that testing and temptation will always be around; they are unavoidable. Why, then, would Jesus have us pray, “Lead us not into temptation”? The implication is that God could keep us away from temptation or bring us out of temptation, trial, or testing.
The buck stops with the Father. He has the power to keep us from a condition conducive to testing. Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). But in the Lord’s Prayer we are told to ask that the Father will not lead us, which, as I said, implies He might do so. That, then, is where we begin: we are dealing with the mystery of an unusual petition. How do we make sense of it?
This petition points to the misery of what may be an unnecessary pitfall. A pitfall is unsuspected danger or difficulty. We must keep Luke 17:1 and John 16:33 in mind, along with these verses: “There is something else meaning-less that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Eccles. 8:14); and “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccles. 9:11).
The heart of the Father is revealed in the Lord’s Prayer. And this petition shows that He does not want us to suffer. He also knows the pain we will feel if we fall into sin. This is the essential reason for this petition. Our heavenly Father does not want us to suffer as a result of falling into sexual sin or unbelief. Falling into sexual sin brings pain sooner or later; falling into unbelief leads to grumbling, which grieves the Holy Spirit. Our Father is looking out for us in this petition.
It is a wicked world we live in. The Father knows this; Jesus knows this. Our gracious God wants His own people to avoid the misery of a needless pitfall. Therefore He shares with His family what is on His heart, namely, that we might avoid temptation. You don’t sin without temptation preceding it. The best way to avoid sin is to avoid temptation. That is, I believe, our Lord’s rationale in giving us this petition.