Why did Jesus say we should pray specifically — that God will not lead us into temptation?
Outside of Christianity, this isn't an issue. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it even says this isn't possible. Yet Jesus implied it in 'The Lord's Prayer, his model example of how his followers should pray: "... lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Were we intended to limit that prayer to ceremonial use in church services? Elsewhere, Jesus suggested praying for anything we truly wished, which implies we should be honest to God about that. But he thought we should include the wish not to be tested or suffer harm.
Is it an idle question, to ask why? No, that line looks to be one of the few unique elements of Christianity, something I'm coming to see as a crucial feature. Where encouraging good behavior is a typical feature of religions, the tacit message here is that it isn't all about us.
Jesus certainly does say we should avoid sin like the very Devil; but evidently doesn't assume we can do that on our very own, nor expect we can accomplish it without help. Such help should always be forthcoming; but we're supposed to ask. "For You are the true ruler; all power and all glory belongs to You." It's not about us!
In most Christian traditions, that stance is only implicit, a hidden concept only visible through our customary exposure to this prayer. It is an element in some strains of Quaker tradition, and via a later pious church movement, became a key inspiration of Alcoholics Anonymous.
People criticise AA for that: "They shouldn't be making people wallow in humility, shouln't be telling them they need rely on any 'supernatural' influence, or saying anything that makes people feel helpless." But that's the situation of anyone trying to escape an addictive habit.
One's talents get enlisted on both sides of an addictive conflict. Me-in-the-morning gets overruled by me-an-hour-later, Each time I weaken, the habit gives me a feeling of relief. It's enough to confuse people about sin; people may even feel that pleasure is sinful and sinfulness pleasure. Truly, a pleasant habit can make a trap feel like a comfort — until cruel jaws close.
Among the many paths to folly, wrongdoing and harm, there are multi-step programs to prevent recurrences, but only for those few paths people consider "addictions". Jesus was speaking in a different context about other temptations, but the process of enticement involved is as basic to humanity as pain, fear, and desire.
George Fox, in the early 17th Century, also saw how often people's habitual pleasures (what were called 'addictions', in his day) can work to their detriment: "Whatever you are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you..."
But addiction (as we think of the word) is only one of myriad causes of wrongdoing & mishap. We know we should avoid those, but can't necessarily recognize the temptations that can lead us that direction. Since wrongdoing & mishap are all too familiar, I wish to be spared these, and can quite honestly ask God not to let me go there. The Lord's prayer implies it's a wise thing to ask.
If we didn't ask, would God then subject us to temptations and harm? -- Why? Does God make life an entrance exam for Heaven? Are there better explanations?
Raymond Smullyan found a more likely reason: That people need to experience enough evil to realize that it's overrated. Any advantage from doing harm is strictly short-term and harmful to the perpetrator; anyone should be able to learn this, given enough lifetimes. Why would God arrange life this way? Because, Smullyan says, it was logically impossible to make sentient beings without free will, which implied that they would sometimes choose evil and needed to learn not to.
But most of the time people are not "choosing evil"; we stumble into it -- perhaps from a moment of carelessness, perhaps from a long elusive chain of choices that seemed harmless at the time. People can be trapped by a personal weakness that may be no fault of their own, nor of anybody else's. A susceptible person might start to drink like a normal person, and only later learn they can't do that.
Or a mother's well-intentioned, probably necessary decision can impact a child's life with subtly disabling effects that likewise muddle his sense of what, for him, can be dangerous temptations. My own life is likely an example.
Gabor Mate mentions his early childhood separation from his mother, during WW II. Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest, they'd been staying in a dangerously crowded embassy compound where his health was deteriorating dangerously; so she'd given him over to the care of a complete stranger. When she was able to retrieve him three weeks later, she tells him he shunned her. That's a normal reaction in a young child, he says; but their emotional bond was broken and they were alienated from each other for years afterwards.
I can remember missing my parents only once. It was late at night; I was in a hospital bed, too young to know why I was there, or which stay that was. (Hospitals at the time made little concession to the emotional needs of young children.) There are scars on the back of my knees where cysts were removed; I've had these as long as I can remember. Or maybe it happened the time (I'm told) I turned blue. Whenever it was, I missed them intensely. After I came out, my aunt tells me, I'd changed. "You just kept wringing your hands." In a photo from that time, today I can see myself doing that.
Ever since, as long as I can remember, I've distrusted my mother and been wary of her health concerns.
One common effect of early childhood trauma is a feeling of being unloved, unloveable. And as Joni Mitchell sings in 'Trouble Child': "You really can't give love in this condition/ Still you know... you need it." That opens myriad occasions for misunderstanding and strife with the very people who matter most to you. Temptations? — certainly.
That's probably how I got my ADD traits. Gabor Mate says there's a critical period when babies normally learn control of their attention and their emotions. If their closest parent is absent or persistently unresponsive though that period, they can miss that timing. The child continues to develop, but is hampered by lack of the earlier skill. He might learn to read — might not — or like Mate and me, might read compulsively ("afraid to be left alone with my own mind", as he said.)
What you get are typical human tendencies taken to extremes. At different times, the same person can be intensely emotional or numb, can have an attention span of seconds, but can focus obsessively on whatever does interest them.
I didn't know why I was a weird kid, but I was. The kindergarten had neat toys — and threw me out because I'd rather play with them than with the other kids. I never said "Hello" first when I'd see someone; I'd struggle for an answer to "How are you!" I liked to snuggle with my parents. But sometimes my mother would ask, "Do you love me?" And that was another question I didn't know the answer to.
Without my high IQ & general compliance, the local school might well have considered me "Emotionally Disturbed." A compulsive class clown, a magnet for fights, continually frustrated that nobody taught us anything I didn't know... and always fighting off parental efforts to control me, to tidy my room until everything was 'put away' where I'd never expect to find it, to make me put my book down and play outdoors. This wasn't the stereotype picture of 'ADD' — but another way the same traits can manifest.
The Lord's Prayer? My parents had sent me to a Methodist church nearby; my atheist father had enjoyed singing in church when he was a boy; and we all hoped I'd find friends, maybe girls there. So I must have recited the prayer with the group many times. The part about "temptation" didn't mean much. The heros of the stories I liked to read were generally brave, smart, and good enough to avoid foolishness and evil; when that failed them I'd be painfully embarrased — and was even more so when the person being wrong or inept was me.
In short, nobody said we were "sinners." We really weren't, in any terms that made sense to us; and neither did Jesus call people "sinners." The prayer he suggested simply implies that there's that potential in us. Among the disciples there to listen, Peter later pretended not to know him when the Romans & their clients cracked down — And look what happened to Judas? Had he ever expected to be tempted, and come to grief?
In any case, by high school I'd read enough Bertrand Russell and Mark Twain [on the absurdities of American hellfire Christianity] to reluctantly conclude that God was a figment. I'd think, "I really wish You existed — but it wouldn't be right to put people in Hell for not believing ridiculous things! If You turned out to be that way, I'd never forgive You!"
I tried going to Unitarian church, where people might believe anything or nothing — but all I found there was intelligent young company. Then my high school best friend invited me to his Quaker meeting, where I figured God at least could have an hour to speak for himself, bypassing all the silly doctrines people attributed to him. But there'd been no epiphany, only a chance to look more deeply at myself than I'd managed on my own. I'd liked that, but not believing in God, didn't think I belonged there.
But then I did start noticing elusive patterns in events around me, 'coincidences' I had no 'rational' way to account for. The thought that God was at work in these somehow appealed to me. As time went on, such coincidences became too striking to dismiss; and I had increasingly less credence for the "Skeptical" explanations I thought "Objectivity" required. (By now I've found it far more reasonable to simply observe that life sometimes comes out intricately choreographed!)
If God was producing these, they did not seem to be entirely on my side, at least not if God was at all interested in my GPA. Mate, a doctor, says Something "loves us so much it can even give people terminal diseases," when that's what it takes to wake us up.
I didn't get mortally sick; but I still had illusions about myself, kept desperately holding on to them, kept getting repeatedly clobbered!
That was a problem, going to college on a scholarship that required high grades on a full load of courses. I managed one successful semester, and after that my habitual ways all worked against me: procrastination, disorganization, frequent breaks from any subject that wasn't attracting me. I spaced out toward the end of classes, lost track of any assignments not given in writing.
Though I'd never heard of it, these were characteristic features of ADD. So were the new habits I took up, including some minor addictions appealing to anyone trying to focus on mental tasks. Smoking had became habitual with my first summer job — as an alternative to compulsively eating candy bars there. (Chewing up pencils, as I'd once done to keep focused on homework assignments, was too embarrassing in a shared dorm room!) Coffee with milk and sugar proved highly addictive. [My father's diabetes, like my mother's, had not yet developed — but my own "sweet tooth" was evident, waiting only for opportunity to grow excessive. Sugar, it's been said, is not a drug; but people respond to it as if it were.]
I could set up a comfortable study-space, park myself there with coffee and cigarettes and pencils to chew — but everything I tried to read became tedious and unintelligible. I was repelled by the second-semester English readings, I didn't even like thr math, the class having gone from pedantic rehashing of what calculus I knew already, to suddenly moving ahead on unfamiliar material. The hard physics course I'd looked forward to — was assigning hard homework problems, with half the grade based on turning all that in!
"Temptations"? Certainly I wasn't tempted to actual wrongdoing, but I wasn't meeting expectations, not even my own. Any given day, by the time I'd had a couple cups and a cigarette or two, had found an abandoned newspaper and seen what was happening to the world, I was already late to my early-morning class. I might or might not make it to classes that afternoon.
Outside of class, I read, had friends who recognized and respected my intelligence. I seldom mentioned what was happening to me; I didn't understand it myself. I certainly couldn't tell the woman I was going with.
What the school was offering turned out to be mostly outside my range of interests; but the fact is, I was in no condition to work at learning anything.
What I wanted to think about: whether my loving friend would finally give in on our next romantic walk, and why she kept fending me off, while the old sexual mores were collapsing all around us? My underlying fear: that she didn't love me "enough." It made sense, later, to learn that's a typical reaction among people traumatived by early childhood "abandonment". I knew I was being unreasonable, & still felt that way, still obsessed over it!
To all appearances I was a wastrel college student, living comfortably on my parents' largess. In truth, I was busy fending off endless anxiety.
"Temptation?" "Sin?" Is it a sin to impersonate oneself? It must be: What I impersonated was a self-image that had outgrown anything I was actually able to accomplish. For decades afterwards I'd still occasionally wake up from college dreams. It would be finals week; and I'd be terrified, unable to remember which classes I was supposed to be taking, let alone where they met.
The breaking point came when she finally did say "Yes." That accomplished — I suddenly realized how very much else I'd neglected; there was no hope of me possibly keeping the scholarship.
The temptation, the sin, was that I blamed her. There was a great deal to blame by this point; it had been my own doing, not hers — but I was panicked by the thought of ending up like my parents, two people who continually misunderstood each other and fought incessantly. I broke up with her the day after her birthday party; and when she threw her present at me I finally realized what a horrible mistake I'd made. But I stayed cold, and stubborn, feeling I shouldn't marry a woman I'd become afraid to speak openly to. That too was my fault, me stifling my own voice. When in a poem years later I mentioned "the woman you fled out of cowardice," I knew how very apt that was.
Afterwards she told me: "I forgive you — but I won't forget." Neither could I. By so skillfully concealing my pre-nuptual panic, I had spared her nothing — but had made it all to clear, to both of us, that my feelings could not be trusted.
God, that Being who'd graciously made his presence known, when I'd been an atheist, had now given me a new, unwelcome piece of self-knowledge. I wasn't in Eden anymore.
Since then, I've done things I could feel good about, and some things I couldn't. I intended the good things, but it's been God that instigated and enabled them. I wish all the bad had been unintentional; but these have always seemed to be things I needed to do. So I know that I can self-deceive, can make myself inhumanly cold when I imagine I should, can't always be sure my good intentions will come out harmless.
I need to remember that prayer, because only God can keep us safe from harm.