The story is told of a London boy who could never understand why it was that, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “And lead us not into Thames Station”. Of course, as you know, what it really says is, “And lead us not into temptation”.
The words tempt and temptation are connected with the word to attempt or try; and so a temptation is a try-out or test to see where someone is strong or weak. In fact, it is rather like what a test pilot does. When a new plane has been designed and made, it is taken up by a test pilot, and his or her job is to throw it about the sky by diving and looping and rolling it in order to find out all its strong and weak points. If the plane fails to pass the test with full marks, then alterations are made until it does.
The meaning of temptation
A temptation is anything which tries out our strength or weakness when it comes to choosing between right and wrong. The Devil, and the people he makes use of, tempt us in the hope that we will choose what is wrong. God allows them to do so in the hope that we will choose what is right. You mustn’t muddle temptation up with sin. We cannot help being tempted; we cannot help bad thoughts coming into our minds suggesting that we should say or do this or that. But we can help giving those thoughts a welcome, instead of turning them out. As someone once put it, “I cannot stop the birds from flying over my head, but I can stop them from perching on it”. So temptation becomes sin only when we give in to it.
The necessity of temptation
Whether we like temptation or not, it is necessary in order to make our characters strong. Athletes develop their muscles and make them strong by getting them used to hard running. They would never get into training by resting them all the time. You know how wobbly your legs feel if you have been ill in bed for even a few days. So it is temptation that makes our wills and characters strong. We learn to be patient only by having our patience tried. We learn to be brave only by facing danger or unpleasantness. We learn to be honest only by refusing to lie or steal. The more we choose what is right, the stronger our wills and characters become.
Lead us not into temptation
Of course there is always the danger that, when we are tested, we may fail. We may become impatient or cowardly, we may do wrong. So we don’t go about looking for temptation or running into it on purpose. We have quite enough temptations as it is without asking for them, and for that reason we should avoid temptation when we can. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation”. We must not be like St Peter was during the night of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
The experience of St Peter
Peter is unprepared
When Jesus arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, he told his disciples to keep awake and pray, lest they entered into temptation. But Peter and the others went off to sleep instead. The result was that Peter was completely unprepared to meet the test when it came, and when Jesus’ enemies poured into the Garden, he made a hurried cut at one of them with his sword and then ran away with the rest of the disciples, leaving Jesus alone.
Peter denies Jesus the first time
Now Peter had already been warned by Jesus that, at dawn, before the cock crowed twice, he would have denied his Master three times, that is, he would say openly three times that he did not know Jesus (Mark 14:30). But Peter had not yet learnt his lesson and so, as he followed afar off and saw Jesus being taken into the palace of the high priest, he slipped into the courtyard and there sat down with the high priest’s servants as they warmed themselves round a fire. After he had been there a little while, he saw one of the servant-girls staring at him. “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth”, she said accusingly. But Peter denied, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about” (NRSV, Mark 30:67,68). And he got up and went into the porch to get away from the firelight. And the cock crowed the first time.
Peter denies Jesus the second and third times
But the servant-girl said to those standing near, “This man is one of them” (NRSV, Mark 30:69). And Peter denied again. But he still stayed on, even though he had already been tempted twice and had given way each time. But now they were getting really suspicious of him, and they came up to him and said, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you”. And now Peter began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man!” (NRSV, Matthew 26:73,74).
The cock crowed a second time. And Jesus turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered what Jesus had told him, “…before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times” (NRSV, Mark 14:30). And Peter went out, and wept bitterly (Luke 22: 61-62).
Avoiding the occasions of sin
And that is what happens if we run into temptation on purpose. So it is very important that, if we can, we avoid the ‘occasions of sin’, that is, those situations which have in the past resulted in our committing sins.
Praying in temptation
St Paul has told us that God never allows any temptation to happen to us which we cannot overcome if we turn to him for help (1 Corinthians 10:13). In times of temptation we should say a quick prayer, “Jesus, help me”. But you must do it at once before the temptation becomes too much for you.
1. A temptation is anything which tries out the strength and weakness of our souls when it comes to choosing between right and wrong. The Devil tempts us in the hope we will choose wrong. God lets him in the hope that we may choose right and he helps us to do this.
2. Temptation strengthens our wills and characters when we choose right, but we avoid it when we can in case we give way and sin.