Origen on “Lead Us Not Into Temptation”

The internet (and the Pope) are discussing the Lord’s Prayer plea that God “not lead us into temptation” which brings up the obvious question: why would God lead us into temptation—is it a trap?

It’s not a new question, and, when our monthly spiritual reading bookclub picked up Tertullian, Cyprian, And Origen On The Lord’s Prayer, Origen had some fascinating meditations on this request (translated as “Do not bring us into testing”).

The utility of testing is thus something like this: through testing the things which our souls have admitted, unknown to anyone except God, unknown even to ourselves, are made manifest, so that we should know longer be unaware of what kind of people we are, but may recognize this and, should we so wish, perceive our own evil and give thanks for the good things that have been made manifest to us through the testing. It is set forth by the Lord in Job, and is written in Deuteronomy, that testing comes upon us so that our true nature may be revealed to ourselves, and so that we may discern what is hidden in our hearts. The passages are as follow: “Do you think that I should have answered you except to reveal you as righteous” (Job 40:3) and, in Deuteronomy: “He afflicted you and starved you and fed you with manna, and he led you astray in the desert, where there were biting snakes and scorpions and drought, so that what was in your heart might be made known” (Deut. 8:3,15,2).

As Origen discusses it, testing and temptation are a little like apocalypse: in the sense that they are an unveiling, with all the disruption that may accompany exposure. Earlier in the text, Origin gives a much more vivid example of this sort of revelatory testing (the story referenced is from Numbers 11):

Having desires and longings, the mixed throng among the children of Israel, and the children of Israel with them, wept. It is clear that as long as they did not possess what they desired they would have no satisfaction, and their passions would not cease. But the merciful and good God, in granting their desire, did not wish to grant it in such a way that their desire might continue in them. Therefore he says that they should eat meat not for one day only, for should they have partaken of the meat for a short while their passion would remain and the soul be kindled and inflamed by it. Nor does he grant them what they desired for two days. Since he willed that they should be surfeited with it, he utters what, to anyone who understands, is actually a threat, though it seems gratifying to them: “You shall not spend five days only eating meat, nor twice that, nor even twice that, but you shall spend a whole month eating meat, until what you though so good is coming out your nostrils, together with your loathsome passion, and your culpable and base desire. In this way I will release you from desires in your lives, so that when you emerge you may be pure from all desires, and remember the suffering that you underwent in order to be released from it.

In Origen’s writing, testing and temptation seems a little like an earthly form of Purgatory, where the faults were have kept secret even from ourselves become gross and obvious, so we can no longer avoid an explicit choice between our love of our sins and our love of God. To ask to be spared this is to ask to see and mend these errors sooner, so that God does not need to lead us into grotesqueries (meat coming out our nostrils!) to show us what we ought to be already.