By now I suspect most of us have heard of the latest craze in smart-phone apps – and if you haven’t, well you may be one of the lucky ones. Pokémon Go, it’s called. Not having joined the craze myself, what I understand is that you are able to see images of Pokémon characters on your smartphone screen overlaid on your real surroundings. For example, churches are popular hiding places for these creatures, so if you have this game, you might actually find a character here at Risen Savior. This game has been wildly popular all around the world. Many are praising the game, saying that it promotes socializing and physical activity. But, like almost anything in life, there is a dark side. In the past few weeks, two men in California fell off a cliff chasing a Pokémon, two Canadian teenagers wandered across the border chasing Pokémon and were detained by the border patrol, and a military veteran crashed his car into a tree while playing the game. The message to those who play Pokémon is: be aware of your surroundings and whether you’re walking or driving, and don’t give into the temptation to play when you should be keeping your eyes on the road. That’s good advice for any kind of smartphone use, and it’s good advice for navigating your way through life, too. And in a way, that’s what we’re asking for when we pray lead us not into temptation. We’re asking the Lord to lead us to be aware of temptation, and to lead us through temptation.
A cursory reading of this petition has caused endless confusion for many Christians. Why, they ask, would we need to ask God NOT to lead us into temptation? Is that something he does? Would God normally put stumbling blocks in the path of his children? No. James made that clear: when tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. (James 1:13) So this petition is not a prayer that God would stop tempting us, because his very nature doesn’t allow it. Nor is this a prayer that God would remove all temptation from our lives, because there’s only one way to do that: death. So this petition, is first of all a request that God would make us aware of our surroundings – that is, the things around us that tempt us to sin.
James reveals that: each one tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. (James 1:14) So the first source of temptation in my life is…me. The Bible teaches it and when we look in the mirror we can see it – but are we always aware of it? Are we aware that the source of lust is not the smut on TV or the way people dress or the flirtatious glance – but the desire for forbidden fruit that resides in our hearts? Are we aware that greed is not created by the wealth of others or endless marketing campaigns but either our lack of contentment or sinful pride over what God has graciously given us? Do we realize that laziness and gluttony aren’t merely symptoms of living in an affluent society but symptoms of a sin-sick heart? Whenever we pray these words, let us realize that the first tempter we need to be aware of with is not out there, but in here.
Jesus warned his disciples about the second source of temptation, telling them: woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matthew 18:7) Being aware of our surroundings means recognizing that no matter how innocent and attractive the unbelieving world seems – it is not there to help us on our path to heaven. You’re not supposed to say this in a politically correct society, but unbelievers are incapable of pleasing God or helping us to live as disciples of God. Paul wrote: the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8) No matter how good, how nice, how helpful and compassionate the unbelieving world might appear, the truth is that nothing has changed since God gave his assessment of humanity before the Flood: every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5) So if it seems like everyone is only living for themselves, that’s because they are! If it seems like the world is going to hell, it is! The highest power an unbeliever can ever serve is himself. Don’t be deceived and don’t be unprepared – the unbelieving world only seeks to lead you away from Jesus and entangle you in the worries and concerns, the glitz and glamour, the terrors and torments of this life.
Finally, the general behind the dark forces of the world and the one who tries to rouse the passions of our sinful flesh is the devil. And his specialty is attacking Christian faith and his target is your soul. Knowing that he is doomed, he works tirelessly to lead as many people as possible down the broad road that leads to hell. He is the one responsible for tempting and leading baptized and confirmed Christians away from God’s Word and sacrament – the only means of preserving and strengthening saving faith. He is the sinister force behind every teaching and teacher who would suppress or deny the Gospel truth of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. He tempts Christians to become complacent and to believe they know all they need to go to heaven and begin to place their trust in the shaky sand of their own faith rather than the bedrock of the written Word. Satan is the fiend who leads us to sin with the promise that it’ll be fun and exciting – and when we have fallen shows his true colors – accusing us, condemning us, and leaving us to despair. Satan wants us to think that it’s no big deal to play around with temptation – that a little greed, a little lust, some hatred and some covetousness is nothing to worry about. But don’t fall for it. Remember Judas. Satan clawed his way into Judas’ heart through the ‘small’ sin of greed, greed that quietly turned into betrayal, betrayal that turned into despair, despair that turned into suicide and eternal death in hell. That’s what Satan wants for everyone. He wants us to think he’s playing around. He’s not. He’s playing for keeps. He wants as many people as possible to spend eternity with him burning in hell.
Temptation is all around us, we can’t escape ourselves, this world or Satan no matter how hard we try. What can we do? If this was the DOT trying to teach people to keep their eyes on the road, we could simply post signs saying clever things like: a steering wheel is not a hands free device, drive now, catch Pokémon later, or list the number of deaths to scare you away from those temptations. But it’s impossible to write list of things or places to avoid because literally anything can tempt us to sin. Nor should we despair if we struggle with temptation – as if only weak Christians are tempted to sin. Remember Adam and Eve, who were perfect in every way and were tempted to sin by a piece of fruit. Remember David, a man hand-picked by God to lead his people, who had all the money, power and women in the world – and yet broke the 5th and 6th commandment to get the one woman he should not have had. Or remember Peter, who listened to Jesus preach, who walked on water, who promised to die for Jesus, and yet at the probing of a servant girl denied even knowing Jesus. No one is immune to temptation. This petition is not for people who think they have conquered all sin and temptation and are deserving of heaven.
This petition is for penitent sinners. This petition is for those who are aware of the danger all around them and are aware of how weak and helpless they are to conquer temptation alone. This petition begins humbly: lead us. It’s as if we are deaf and blind, unable to walk a straight line much less march the path to heaven through a life filled with temptation. We need God not to just offer us rules and suggestions, we don’t need him to be sitting in the stands cheering us on, we need him to grab our hand and lead us through a life filled with temptation on every side.
And that’s precisely what he sent Jesus into this world to do. Do you remember the first thing Jesus did after he began his public ministry? Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1) Not only is that proof that temptation comes to the strongest believers, it is proof that Jesus was our substitute. He came to do what we could never do. To see every temptation clearly – and to pass through temptation without falling. Don’t worry that Jesus is shocked or sickened every time we fall into temptation and sin. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) And so even as we pray this petition, and even as we face temptation on all sides, Jesus reassures us that he has lead the way. He has passed through every temptation Satan and the world could throw at him – and he never fell for it. Before God, he picks you up, puts his robe of righteousness around your shoulders, and assures you, “That dangerous road you could never walk, I walked it for you. I give my perfect life to you. My blood covers you. Yes, the temptations are and will always be there, but they cannot hurt you, for you are mine.”
Armed with the confidence that Jesus’ perfect life covers us and his innocent death washes away our sins, this petition is a prayer not that God would keep temptation out of our lives, but that when it comes, he may lead us to keep our eyes on the road to heaven. Following that road means first keeping our eyes on Christ for forgiveness and salvation, but also knowing God’s unchanging will – both what he commands and what he forbids. It means knowing yourself, your strengths and vulnerabilities. It means not only praying that God would not lead you into tempting circumstances, but also consciously avoiding or at least preparing for them.
While we can use this petition in the midst of temptation, Jesus intends it to help us prepare to face temptation. “Lord, today, lead me not into temptation. But when temptation comes, lead me to know your Word so that Satan cannot lead me into false belief. Lead me to know my weaknesses and vulnerabilities and lead me out of trying situations. Lead me away from the bar, the TV show, the argument, the Facebook page, the website – or anything else that rouses my sinful wants and desires. And Lord, when I fall, lead me back to your grace. Lead me to the forgiveness you graciously offer in Word and Sacrament that I might be stronger next time. Let me see temptation for what it is and use it to lead me ever closer to you.”
I don’t understand the temptation of chasing cartoon characters on a phone. But the best advice for those who do is to be aware of your surroundings and keep your eyes on the road when you’re walking or driving. Thankfully Jesus has something better for all of us as we navigate our way through this sinful world. Prayer. Lead us not into temptation he teaches. Lead us to be aware of the sinful desires living within us, lead us to see that nothing this world offers has any eternal value, lead us to see that Satan isn’t playing around – but wants us to spend forever with him in hell. Lead us not only to see temptation, but give us the strength to avoid it when possible and give us a way out. (1 Corinthians 10:13) And Lord, when we fall, lead us to the safety of your forgiveness, confident that your perfect life covers us completely. Amen.