This is the recent change made by Pope Francis to the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer. A similar alteration has also been made in French: ‘Do not let us fall into temptation’. On the face of it, both changes remove an uncomfortable implication in the traditional words—that God leads us into temptation as a matter of course, unless we ask him not to. Pope Francis appears to think that a good God would not lead us into temptation (despite the traditional words corresponding pretty much exactly to the Latin and original Greek). No doubt many will have sympathy with the pope on this, but I wonder if it is based on a confusion of the concepts behind the words ‘lead’ and ‘temptation’.
What do we mean when we talk of God leading us? Is this not a statement of fact about the proper alignment of natural law, conscience and human will? We either cooperate or we rebel—indeed, we all do both at various times. When we cooperate we are allowing God to lead us, by living righteously. When we rebel, it is by our own will in refusing to conform to natural law or to obey the murmurings of conscience. In other words, we refuse God’s leadership and we sin.
But, unlike sin, temptation doesn’t come from us; it comes from without. Although we are more inclined to sin when tempted, sin itself is the evil here because it is a product of our own will. Temptation is not an evil per se—it’s at most a venial consequence of the Fall (however, to tempt someone deliberately is an evil precisely because it’s a sin). The world was made such that if humanity fell, we would be susceptible to temptation. So yes, God does lead us into and through temptation—just not as a destination. It is simply the nature of the fallen world that we have no choice but to contend with. Perhaps it’s best to say that God leads us on a path to righteousness which necessarily goes through areas of temptation. In this context ‘lead us not into temptation’ is essentially a request to deviate.
Temptation is like those points on the uncertain path of life where we might trip up. It isn’t some evil pit we’re trying not to fall into; it’s the natural human predicament that we face daily. Christ himself endured temptation. The true measure of us as human beings comes from our actions when faced with temptation. To give in leads to sin; to resist leads to virtue. Temptation provides the opportunity for both. The greatest saints demonstrate their saintliness in the face of strong temptation. But most of us weaklings recognise that if we could avoid those occasions of temptation, we are less likely to sin. And wouldn’t that be nice? That is what we are asking for. We invoke God’s mercy that this day, along with giving us food, forgiveness, and help to forgive, he lead us not into temptation. Or, in effect, we are asking first, that our route to salvation avoid natural hazards (lead us not into temptation) and secondly, that we don’t go off course or be adversely affected by others going off course (deliver us from evil). The first request will help with the second—it’ll make our journey to salvation a little easier.
Pope Francis’s change appears to make a theological error. ‘Do not abandon us to (or let us fall into) sin’ might make more sense but it would be slightly redundant, since it precedes ‘deliver us from evil’. It’s almost as if the pope understands the original line as if it meant ‘lead us not into sin’. But this would be nonsense because the idea that God leads us into sin is inherently contradictory—to sin is not to be led by God; to be led by God is not to sin. The pope made his case for changing the text in 2017, explaining, ‘it is Satan who leads us into temptation’. But is this quite right? Maybe indirectly. It seems to me that Satan really had to do this only once, with the temptation before the Fall (an entirely other, more radical kind of temptation, which we can know only by analogy), and his success effected the corruption of nature. Satan leads us fallen creatures into sin—he uses temptation to get us there. God leads us into righteousness, but he can use temptation also. A lifetime of temptation needn’t result in any sins, and this doesn’t help Satan any. It’s like a tug-of-war between good and evil and the playing field is the deranged and plentiful land of temptation. This might appear to give Satan the advantage, but maybe that’s why we have the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is like a miraculous weapon.
The significance of this change goes beyond simple misunderstanding. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ reveals the fallen world to be what it in fact is. ‘Do not abandon us to temptation’ or ‘do not let us fall into temptation’ implies that temptation isn’t the norm— that temptation itself is an evil we must avoid rather than what life is actually like. In short, it denies the reality of the Fall. And if there was no Fall, the Incarnation need not have occurred and we have no use for Christianity whatsoever. But I’m sure the Holy Father doesn’t intend to imply this.
If we must think of temptation as a pit then our whole lives are spent in that pit. We can’t fall into it—we were born in it. Asking not to be abandoned there isn’t so much wrong as it is irrelevant. It’s certainly not what Christ was getting at when he taught us how to pray. He taught us to pray that today, the Father might give us an easier way out of this predicament, not that he might not abandon us to (or let us fall into) the predicament we’re already in. We are asking for unmerited mercy. This might seem to be an impossibility because it would appear to require that the facts of the nature of fallen creation be altered for us. And yet Christ instructed us to pray it, which must mean it can be answered. That’s some serious mercy.
The original Christ-given words are exquisite because they pithily convey both the reality of the Fall and the abundance of God’s mercy. Pope Francis’s revised versions, at the very least, de-emphasise both. No doubt my ruminations here are far from conclusive—I’m no theologian. But isn’t it at least worth trying to understand why Jesus chose the words he did rather than alter them just because we don’t understand? Jesus’s own disciples often failed to understand what he was talking about. Then, as now, the problem wasn’t with the speaker. Pope Francis ought to know better.