Does God tempt us? Or test us? What’s the difference? The distinction between testing and tempting concerns the motives of the one doing the testing.
If you want to find out what something is made of, you test it. If you test a person with the hope that he fails the test, you are tempting him. If you test a person with the hope that he succeeds, you are testing him.
In the temptations of Jesus, we find both testing and tempting because two different beings have two different purposes for the same event. Satan hopes Jesus will fail, but God intends for Jesus to succeed.
In some passages, the distinction between tempt and test is crucial. For example, Scripture tells us that God tested Abraham when He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:1). God tested the nation of Israel by surrounding them with pagan nations and foreign Gods. God tested David by giving him the opportunity to kill Saul and seize the throne, and God tests us.
But James says God does not “tempt” anyone (James 1:13). God puts us in situations which reveal the genuineness of our faith, but God never seeks our failure or pushes us into sin. The inner desire we feel toward sin is the pull of our own sinful natures. We are not innocent beings entrapped by a sin we would otherwise not commit. We are all sinful people who naturally gravitate to sin. When we flee or resist the sin, it is a gift from God. James, Peter and Paul all describe this testing of our faith as a purposeful part of God’s plan for our salvation.
So what is Jesus asking us to pray in the Lord’s prayer when he says “lead us not into temptation?” It’s unlikely that Jesus would include a request for which we know in advance the answer is guaranteed to be ‘no.’
The request in the Lord’s prayer is not: ‘Father, remember that plan that you’ve got for my life where you grow and stretch my faith, don’t do it.’ The request is: ‘Father, do not lead us into situations where we succumb to temptation to our destruction.’ We pray to be rescued from our own sinful choices.
All of us tremble on the brink of abandoning the faith. Sometimes it feels like genuine faith is a soap bubble in a storm. It will be a miracle if it survives. In the Lord’s prayer, the request is ‘God, lead my life in such a way that my faith is not destroyed by temptation.’
Satan tempts us. When he confronts us with difficult choices, he wants us to fail. He hopes that we will fall into sin, and he entices us to do the wrong thing.
God tests us. When God confronts us with difficult situations, He wants us to succeed. God places us in situations that strengthen and stretch our faith, but He never seeks to induce sin or break our faith.