Probably one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament is the Lord’s Prayer, which can be found in the gospels of Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13) and Luke (Luke 11:1-4). Jesus provides his disciples with a blueprint for proper prayer, contrasting the attention grabbing prayers of those who prayed in public with the humble and private petition with which we are all familiar. But hidden within the lines of that memorable prayer is a doctrine that proves problematic for the Christian. In short, Jesus is asking God not to steer the believer into a situation where they would undergo a temptation. The problem is obvious.
Why would God actually lead anyone to be tempted to sin?
The whole thrust of the Bible is a plea for the believer to avoid sin. The notion that God, perfect in his knowledge and incapable of sinning, would actually allow someone to be tempted is understandable if you believe 1st Corinthians 10:13 which says that God will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability to resist but provides a way out for every temptation. The notion that God actually leads a person into temptation, or testing, is deplorable. As if life isn’t plagued enough with temptations to do wrong, God must actually lead people into tempting circumstances, thereby playing a part in their sin.
The first case of God tempting man comes within the first two chapters of the Bible! God creates the universe in six days (why an omnipowerful deity needed six days is beyond me), placed man in a beautiful garden and then placed within his reach a tree from which he was commanded not to eat.
Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17
8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now, here we have a utopian setup with a sinless man, a perfect world and a God who was physically communing with the man and yet God had to provide the man with an unnecessary temptation. It was unnecessary because the tree of the knowledge of good and evil didn’t serve any other purpose than to tempt the man! God, or gods if you understand that elohiym in Hebrew is the plural for god, didn’t need the tree because he already knew good from evil.
22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil;
The tree, however, did serve a purpose for the writers of the Genesis tale. It provided an easy explanation, although problematic, for why mankind died of old age. To the Genesis writers, it made perfect sense. They needed man to be banished from the garden of Eden, removing the tree of life from his grasp which then brought about the physical (not spiritual) death of mankind. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil didn’t have to be there since man could have sinned in any number of ways (murdering Eve, for example), thereby removing the fact that God actually caused man to sin by placing a restriction upon him which served no other purpose but to cause him to sin. But the authors were unable to see past the simplicity of their fiction to the theological quandary it created: God tempted man.
Now, some will say that God didn’t tempt man, Satan did. But I ask them “Who planted a tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden and made it taboo? Did Satan plant the tree?” God also, being omniscient, knowingly allowed the serpent (which, by the way, is not Satan, Lucifer, etc.) to push Eve over the line and hence Adam (who, by the way, was never named Adam since the Hebrew word for man is adam). Therefore, God is ultimately responsible for leading man into temptation.
One analogy that comes to mind is that of a father playing with his two-year old daughter in the living room. There are plenty of off-limit items for a two year old but one day, he decides to place his unloaded .45 on the coffee table, pull his daughter over and explicitly tell her not to touch it or she would get a spanking. What purpose does that gun on the coffee table serve other than to tempt the little girl? He leaves it there until the inevitable happens: natural curiosity overwhelms her and she touches it. No one would view the father as being morally just in that circumstance but isn’t that exactly what the authors of Genesis have God doing? Only they needed the forbidden tree to be in the garden so that man could violate a command of God and consequently, be expelled from paradise and eternal life, thereby giving the primitive Jews an explanation for the origin of physical death.
The meaning of the word temptation as modern culture understands it is a battle between a person’s simultaneous desires to refrain from an act which would result in a greater good and to indulge in the act for more immediate gratification. Should I eat that Twix bar and fulfill my desire to excite my tongue and add unnecessary pounds to my already bulging waistline? Or, should I refrain and meet my desire for a healthier body and mind in the long haul? One desire usually wins out but not to commit the fallacy of excluding the middle, one might eat only half the candy bar, thereby trying to please both desires. But the word as used in the Bible can be, for all practical purposes, substituted with the word test.
The end result is the same. Mankind is being tested to see if he will obey God (not sin) or disobey God (sin). This is demonstrated most clearly in Jesus’ wilderness temptations. The passages are found in Matthew and Luke and depict Jesus being tempted or, tested, by Satan.
1Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
Isn’t it interesting that the Holy Spirit was the one who “led Jesus into temptation”?
The first test appealed to Jesus’ hunger. Should Jesus use his power to make bread from the surrounding stones and satisfy his immediate desire? Or, should he refrain from it, thereby fulfilling scripture and satisfying the doctrine that he was tempted as we all are, yet without sin? Use the power (sin) or not (no sin) – it all boils down to the same thing whether you call it a test or a temptation.
James had a few things to say about temptation. Apparently, there were those during his lifetime who also noticed that God was guilty of leading people into temptation, just like Jesus acknowledged was possible in his prayer, and he gave this inspired response.
12 Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; 14 but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
A few things are worthy of noting. First, James boldly asserts that God cannot be tempted with evil. Hmm. Didn’t we just see Jesus (who most Christians believe is God) being tempted with evil? Or, does this only prove that Jesus was truly just an earthly messiah who was to rule the Jews as the descendent of David? If Jesus was really the “god-man”, fully God and fully man, then how could he have been tempted being “fully God”? He would have known far too much to be tempted with the measly offerings that Satan tossed his way. “Hey Jesus… Although you are God and created everything including me, I’ll give you a few kingdoms on Earth if you’ll worship me.” At any rate, the more interesting phrase is the very next piece: God tempts no one. Obviously, James didn’t know his Old Testament very well! We’ve already seen that God did tempt Adam and Eve with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Are there any other instances where God tempts or, tests, man? Let’s take a peek, shall we?
When God told Abraham to murder his son, Isaac, that was a test. In fact, the verse actually uses the word tempted!
1And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
James, if you’re in heaven listening now, I hope you see the danger of making dogmatic assertions that do not reflect the facts. God tempted Abraham. God tested Abraham. There is no distinction because the end result is exactly identical! Abraham is faced with the two (possibly more) desires. Does he meet the desire whereby he wants to save his son from being stabbed with a knife till he bleeds to death and then roasted or does he meet his other desire which is to obey God? Save his son (disobey God, which is sin) or kill his son (obey God, which is never a sin no matter what God tells a person to do)? Sin or not sin?
Sorry, James. God tempted Abraham.
Another instance of God tempting man to sin is the story of David being moved by God (or prompted by God) to number Israel.
2nd Samuel 24:1
1And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.
So, was numbering Israel really a sin? Let’s see what God’s word has to say.
2nd Samuel 24:10-13
10And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly. 11For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12Go and say unto David, Thus saith the LORD, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. 13So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days’ pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me.
Not only did David believe he had sinned, but so did God because he offered three different punishments to choose from. It almost sounds like the old TV show Let’s Make A Deal. The scary thing is that God moved David to sin. It could also be said that God caused David to sin for as Paul states in Romans 9, “who can resist God’s will?”
Another interesting instance where God was tempted (but not to evil) is recorded in Exodus chapter 17. Here, the Israelites are moaning and bellyaching to Moses because they are dying from thirst, being in the desert for so long without water. Seems reasonable to me. I moan and bellyache if my Internet connection suddenly disconnects so why would it be unreasonable to gripe if you haven’t had anything to drink in days? Nevertheless, the people tempted God.
1And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the LORD, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink. 2Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD? 3And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? 4And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me. 5And the LORD said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not?
What I find interesting about this little pericope is that although the people tempted God by saying “Is he among us” or in our vernacular, “If God exists, why doesn’t he do A, B or C?”, God succumbed to the temptation!!! Holy cow! Here we have an all-mighty, all-knowing God being coerced into acquiescing to the people’s griping! It is not a case of God being tempted to do something evil, but a case of God being tempted to prove his existence and giving in to the test. This isn’t the only time God worked miracles for the express purpose of proving his existence to his chosen people as well as the heathen, either. If only he would do that today, wouldn’t it allow more skeptics to be saved and give truth to the passage in 2nd Peter 3:9 which says:
9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
Unfortunately, God is willing that many should perish if we take the stories at face value. We’ve seen the evolution from the words of Jesus “lead us not into temptation” to the more refined theology of James where God “tempts no one”. The notion that God plays a part in man’s sin is abhorrent to the Christian but I’ll leave the Christian to cogitate on the implications of these famous words of their Lord and Savior.
“lead us not into temptation”