“Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Jesus kneels in the garden of his agony and directs his men to pray, not just against sin, but against temptation.
On the front-end of the greatest temptation of his life, he charges his disciples — not once but twice (Luke 22:40, 46) — to pray against temptation. Forty long days of fasting in the wilderness must now feel like child’s play compared to the test he’s about to endure. His hour has come.
He faces the single greatest test in the history of the world: Will the sinless God-man suffer torture-to-death for the sins of the rebels he loves? And yet, as his own great temptation begins, bringing such agony that sweat falls from his head like drops of blood (Luke 22:44), he turns to his men twice to say, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46).
Emphatic in His Famous Prayer
This is not the first (and second) time he has instructed his disciples to pray against temptation.
When they came to him and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), he answered with the memorably powerful and brief “Lord’s Prayer,” which in Luke is a mere 36 words in our English! In such a tight, focused prayer, he not only mentions but concludes with the petition “lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4).
“The Christian most prepared to conquer temptation is the one who prays and plans against it.”
Praying against temptation is no fleeting aside, as if any words from God himself may be overlooked. Here in the garden, and in the very moment Jesus taught us to pray, he says to pray not only against sin (that’s implied), but explicitly to pray against temptation.
For those of us who heed his words, we find at least three implications of Jesus’s (perhaps surprising) command.
Pray Against Temptation
First, God really does keep us from some temptations in response to our prayers. God and his Son do not charge us to play at prayer. Prayer matters. The sovereign God chooses to rule the universe in such a way that prayer plays a role. Under his hand, some events transpire (or not) because his people prayed; others do not transpire (or do) because they did not.
When we pray not only against our sin, but against temptation to sin, we display a maturing humility. We acknowledge our weakness and the power of sin. And we remember our Father’s heart for holiness and for our good. God “himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). The blame for sin falls squarely on the sinner. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). And yet God, in his grace and mercy, delights to keep us from many temptations — countless times perhaps even when we fail to ask, and how many precious instances in direct response to our asking?
If we take seriously the depths of sin in us, and the depths of mercy in our Father, we will heed the words of Jesus, and the commentary of John Owen: “Let no man pretend to fear sin that does not fear temptation also! These two are too closely united to be separated. He does not truly hate the fruit who delights in the root.” For the sake of truth and good conscience, we distinguish temptation from sin, and for the sake of holiness and joy, we do not separate them. And so we pray not only against our sins, but our temptations.
Plan Against Temptation
Secondly, when we pray against temptation, we begin the process of seeking to avoid it and, in doing so, we become a means to God answering our prayer. God not only often keeps us from temptation because of our prayers, but in the very act of praying, we engage more deeply in the fight. We fortify our souls against sin. We become more deeply invested. We resolve, by the Spirit, to hold to the truth and not “be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). We remind our hearts that the pleasures of sin are shallow and fleeting (Hebrews 11:25), while pleasure in God is deep and enduring (Psalm 16:11).
“God really does keep us from some temptations in response to our prayers.”
Praying against temptation leads us, then, to plan against temptation in tangible ways. Knowing our patterns and proclivities to particular sins, we avoid unwise contexts. We “flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22) and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). We heed the wisdom of a loving father to his son (Proverbs 5:1) about the “forbidden woman” (Proverbs 5:3): not just to stay out of her bed but to “keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).
It is grace not only to be kept from sin but also from temptation (Revelation 3:10). Our spirit indeed may be willing to say no to sin, but the flesh can be weak (Matthew 26:41). And praying against temptation sets us on the path of planning against it as well.
Prepare for Temptation Still
Finally, when we do enter into temptation, if we have prayed against it, then we should be least taken off guard by it, and most ready for battle. God loves a heart that prays against temptation, and he often answers our plea. And yet his ways are higher than ours. He knows, in love, when to allow temptation to come. In fact, Jesus says, temptations are sure to come (Luke 17:1). Pray as we may against them, God has not promised to always answer this prayer the way we want. Not yet.
So as we pray against temptation, we prepare ourselves to not be surprised when they do come (1 Peter 4:12). And when we’ve prayed against temptation, we can feel all the more clearheaded that God has lovingly allowed this test into my life. And he has not left me without his promises for these very moments. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Like Joseph, it may mean running (Genesis 39:11–12). Like Jesus, it often will mean rehearsing the very words of God (Matthew 4:1–11) or staying silent before fools (Matthew 26:63; Mark 14:61; Acts 8:32).
“The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9), not just guard them from trials. And the Christian most prepared to conquer temptation is the one who prays and plans against it.
Kept by God in the Test
Pray against your specific besetting sins, and as you do, go a step further and pray against specific temptations as well.
“It is grace not only to be kept from sin but also from temptation.”
When we pray against temptation, we can expect two outcomes: (1) in real and tangible ways, God will be pleased to keep us from temptations we otherwise would have encountered had we not prayed. And (2) at times God may see fit to have us encounter the very temptation we have prayed (and planned!) against — and when we do, having prayed, we will be better prepared to face it and defeat it in the power of his Spirit.
God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13). Look for it and take it. And thank him, not only for the many times, unbeknownst to you, that he guarded you from temptation altogether, but also for the times he answered your prayers differently, not just keeping you from temptation but keeping you through temptation.