In the first installment of The Lord of the Rings, there is a scene in which Frodo Baggins, who has been entrusted with the task of bearing the Ring of Power to Mount Doom in order to destroy it, has a conversation with the powerful Elven Queen Galadriel (non-fans, please bear with me). The burden of the ring weighs heavy on Frodo, and he sees how good and how powerful Galadriel is. He thinks that perhaps it would be better if she were to take the ring, and he offers it to her. She is greatly tempted, and speaks of the power she would wield as its owner. But she resists the temptation, and does not take the ring for herself. She knows that the ring can’t be used against the great enemy, Sauron, because the ring belongs to Sauron, and the power it gives is his power. To try to use it yourself to defeat him is to be defeated by him and enslaved by him. But the temptation is terrible – so desirable and attractive is the power of the ring that the story is filled with characters who start out good and noble and who end up seduced and twisted, corrupted by the ring. There is great relief on the face of Galadriel when she resists the temptation, and she accepts her fate as one whose power would diminish.
We have come to the seventh petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” It is a mysterious petition that makes us wonder about God. Would God ever lead us into temptation? Why would He do such a thing? It’s tempting to explain this petition away or to change its meaning to suit our own neat conception of God. It remains, however, an unsettling petition. What we can say for certain is that God does not tempt us to do evil. The Tempter is the devil. The petition, however, suggests that God might lead us to the place where we are left exposed and vulnerable to the power of the evil one. Could that be true?
If we look at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, immediately following His baptism in the Jordan River, the gospel tells us that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). So here we have an example of the Holy Spirit leading someone to be tempted. But Christ is unique. He is Lord, and infinitely more powerful than the Tempter. Christ suffers in the experience of temptation, but is left unscathed.
For us, however, temptation is dangerous because we suffer the effects of Original Sin. We can be seduced more easily than we realize or like to admit. We pray this petition – which is a revealed petition, one that is given to us by Christ Himself – as an acknowledgement that we are not the heroes of our story. Christ is. If we seek to overcome evil, and to attain holiness and goodness and salvation on our own, we are like the fools that pursue ownership of the Ring of Power in order to destroy the enemy. Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis says that, at the very least, this petition “is a profoundly humble admission of incapacity, the avowal of our nature as failed heroes, unable to rise on our own to the image of us God has in His Heart.” We ask the Lord not to lead us into temptation as Christ was led into temptation. Unlike Him, we are useless on our own against the power of the enemy.
That said, all of us experience temptation. Often temptation comes because we expose ourselves to it, putting ourselves in what’s called the “occasion of sin.” Sometimes it takes us by surprise. Although God doesn’t directly tempt us, He does allow us to experience it. The trials that we experience in our lives, including temptations to sin, are permitted by God so that we might grow and mature in our faith. Benedict XVI writes: “Just as the juice of the grape has to ferment in order to become a fine wine, so too man needs purifications and transformations; they are dangerous for him, because they present an opportunity for him to fall, and yet they are indispensable as paths on which he comes to himself and to God.”
As for The Lord of the Rings, its hero is not a great Elven Queen, warrior, or wizard. Rather, it is a Hobbit, a lowly creature, unsure of himself, who knows he is small and weak and that the adversary is great and powerful. Like Frodo, we accept the mission, knowing that there will be trials ahead, but also knowing that Our Father never abandons us, but remains with us along the way, even in the midst of temptation.