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Praying For Holiness

by Dr. James T Bradford

To fully appreciate the importance of Jesus’ prayer, it is helpful first to understand how temptation works. After clarifying that God himself does not tempt with evil, James describes the three distinct phases of the temptation process—the setup, the wear down, and the kill.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay can be used to supplement sermon material when teaching and preaching on living the overcoming life. This essay provides valuable insights on how your congregation can pray strategically and specifically toward living a holy life.

“I can resist everything except temptation,” confessed Oscar Wilde. We smile as we wince. With the simple prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” Jesus reminds us of what every human being knows all too well. Temptation is everywhere and we are all vulnerable. Often resistance seems futile and willpower feels inadequate. Erwin Lutzer got it right: “Temptation is not a sin; it is a call to battle.”

Temptation is a battle because sin is more than just a choice—it is a power, a preying force. God told Cain, “… sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you …” (Genesis 4:7). To live in our world is to be surrounded by flesh-enticing influences that pull at our souls, lure our affections, and seduce our wills. The simple prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” however, gives us hope that we do not have to fight this battle alone. Here Jesus invites us to depend on our hallowed, heavenly Father. By praying for personal purity, we can overcome temptation and advance the front lines of holiness in our lives.

Martin Luther insightfully connects temptation and prayer this way: “God delights in our temptations and yet hates them. He delights in them when they drive us to prayer; He hates them when they drive us to despair.”

But what does it mean to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”? Does God intentionally temp
t us unless we ask Him not to? Is Jesus asking us to pray, “Lord, please don’t set me up to be ruined”?

We find the resolving perspective in James 1:13: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” So, however we understand “Lead us not into temptation,” it cannot mean that God plays the role of tempter.

The key lies in the Greek word that both Jesus and James use for temptation—peirasmos. It can mean temptation in a specific sense, as in James 1:13, but it can also mean “testing” in a general sense. Not every “test” is a “temptation,” but every “temptation” is a “test.” And we do know that God allows tests of all kinds to strengthen our faith and work holiness into the fabric of our lives
(Hebrews 12:10).

The danger is that testings of any kind can overwhelm us. Instead of making us stronger, they may actually trip us up and trap us. If it is a given that God does not Himself tempt us to sin, then Jesus is teaching us to pray, “Protect us in those areas of testing where we are vulnerable, keep us from those sins that ensnare us, and strengthen us not to fail.” In other words, “Lead us not into temptation.”

This is a protecting, empowering prayer that acknowledges our weakness in the face of moral testing, and therefore our need for God’s greater power to prevail. Jesus is teaching us that we are always praying in the will of God when we pray for the Holy Spirit’s power to resist evil, to free us from sinful habits, and to strengthen us to make overcoming choices.

The Anatomy of Temptation
To fully appreciate the importance of Jesus’ prayer, it is helpful first to understand how temptation works. After clarifying that God himself does not tempt with evil, James describes the three distinct phases of the temptation process—the setup, the wear down, and the kill.

James states, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away [the setup] and enticed [the wear down]. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death [the
kill]” (James 1:14,15). The foolish young man of Proverbs 7:6–8 is a case study in these three steps. It begins with the setup:

“At the window of my house I looked out through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who lacked judgment. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house at twilight, as the day was fading, as the dark of night set in.”

This young man was playing fast and loose with his boundaries. He was being set up for a fall by first of all wandering into the wrong neighbourhood—“walking along in the direction of her house” (v. 8). Meanwhile, he was also allowing patterns of secrecy in his life—“at twilight…as the dark of night set in”(v. 9). He also underestimated what he was dealing with. His carelessness was no match for temptation’s aggressiveness: “Then out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent” (v. 10).

This setup phase incubates the desires by which we are “dragged away” (James 1:14). Then comes the wear down. Here our resistance to temptation is eroded and we are actively “enticed” to sin (James 1:14). Sin started with a play to the young man’s ego.

Proverbs 7:13-15 shows how sin strokes our ego: “She took hold of him and kissed him and with a brazen face she said: ‘I have fellowship offerings at home; today I fulfilled my vows. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you!”

This young man fell for the “You are someone special and you deserve this” line. What follows next is the involvement of all five of his senses, trapping him in his own “sensuality.” With her seductive voice [sound] (v. 21), she lures him
in: “I have covered my bed with colored linens from Egypt [sight]. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon [smell]. Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning [taste]; let’s enjoy ourselves with love [touch]” (vv. 16–18).

At this point, all he needs for his resistance to be completely worn down is the mental permission to do what he knows he shouldn’t. The temptress is quick to provide the rationalization: “My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon” (vv. 19-20).

No one can sin without lying to himself or herself. Temptation deceives us, causing us to rationalize that we will not get caught; that no one will know; that no one will get hurt; that it is no use resisting; that we have a right to do this; that we deserve it; that God will not care. Because this young man allows his senses to overrule his God-given judgment, he succumbs to her enticement: “With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk” (v. 21).

Then comes the kill. Temptation sets him up and wears him down. What follows is so human, yet so tragic. “All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life” (v. 22).


  • Put up boundaries (7:8).
  • Avoid secrecy (7:9).
  • Stay alert (7:10–12).

  • Pursue emotional and spiritual wholeness (7:13,14).
  • Learn the discipline of delayed gratification (7:16–18).
  • Replace rationalization with truth (7:19,20).

  • Embrace another kind of death: a crucified, resurrected life in Jesus (7:22,23).

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

“The devil tempts that he may ruin and destroy; God tests that he may crown.” — St. Ambrose

“How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing … it is irresistible.” — C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady

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“Clearly, moralistic legalism and teeth gritting willpower will not win the day when it comes to taking on this kind of battle. Paul warns us of as much in Colossians 2:21,23: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! …’ Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom … but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

Strategic Praying
Clearly, moralistic legalism and teeth gritting willpower will not win the day when it comes to taking on this kind of battle. Paul warns us of as much in Colossians 2:21,23: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! … Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom … but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

We need something beyond ourselves that can tame the “evil desires” of the human heart and give us new affections. That, in essence, is what we are praying for when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”

Thankfully, these divine spiritual resources can be ours through prayer because of Christ’s death and resurrection. To help us in our tendency to be set up or “dragged away” with wrong desires, we have the resources of the crucified life. And to counter the wear down “enticements” of temptation, we have the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. Here, therefore, are some ways to pray strategically and specifically toward a holy life.

Praying to Avoid the Setup
First, focus in prayer on the cross of Christ and, by faith, lay hold of the reality that you are dead to sin because of the cross. In Christ you are no longer a slave to the evil desires that set you up. This means having the ability to be as unresponsive as a dead person to sin’s allurements. It starts, however, with prayerful faith that might need to defy your feelings. Paul reminds you: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with. … In the same way, count yourself dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6: 6,11).

Second, seek and believe for the supernatural deliverance and protection of Christ over your life. At the cross, Satan is disarmed (Colossians 2:15) and victory over his deceptions and power is given to you.

Third, ask the Lord to help you set boundaries in life that will keep you away from areas of personal vulnerability. Seek God for the courage to avoid the patterns of secrecy that, like the foolish man of Proverbs 7, have you wandering into the wrong neighbourhoods under the cover of secrecy’s darkness.

Fourth, pray for the “fear of the Lord.” Ask for a revelation of God’s holiness that will humble you and keep your heart repentant and obedient. God said, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2b).

Last, pray as you read through Proverbs, centring on the choices you make in life. Read the verses slowly and then pray them back to God, one by one, as a personal request for a lifestyle of holiness.

Praying to Resist the Wear Down
Pray constantly to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Make it your most important personal request. The Holy Spirit brings the resurrection life of Jesus to make you alive to righteousness and to help you live obediently to Christ in your vulnerable mortal body. Paul gives you hope: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you”
(Romans 8:11).

Ask the Lord to help you to be personally disciplined. Unlike the foolish young man of Proverbs 7, trust the Lord to give you strength to say no to sensual stimuli and the courage you will need to stop giving yourself whatever you want.

Ask God to reveal to you those areas of deception and misbelief that underlie sinful patterns. How are you rationalizing sin by lying to yourself about God, about yourself, about those around you, or about sin’s consequences?

Make your prayer times more than just reciting a list of prayer requests. Practise what the Apostle Paul calls “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Take time to adore God and to encounter His presence at a heart level. Meditate on Him silently and praise Him verbally. Pray in tongues. Yield your soul and your affections to Him. Let His righteous heart fill yours. As Jude instructs, “… build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).

New Affections
It becomes clear that focusing in prayer on Christ’s death and resurrection ultimately confronts the central issue of our affections. In the words of P. T. Forsyth, “Unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is around us.”

At the heart of all our idolatries and sinful patterns is the problem of our false affections or “evil desires” (James 1:14). The Apostle John warns: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Another John, a personal friend of mine, was named Firefighter of the Year by the Los Angeles Fire Department several years ago. He is a tough guy who is a fervent follower of Jesus and who has personally led many other strong men to Jesus. He once described to me how a mentor of his had challenged him to get up every morning and pray, “Lord, help me to love what You love and hate what You hate.”

That is a prayer which foundationally shapes and reinforces us at the level of our affections. It is said of Jesus, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Hebrews 1:9). Praying “Lead us not into temptation” is ultimately praying that our affections will be conformed to His.

The Scottish preacher and writer Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) once preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” We need the expulsive power of a passion for God that consumes our hearts, pushing out those false, worldly affections that feed on lust, greed and pride. It is a question of our hearts and what we love.

So may we pray as Chalmers prayed, “O may Thy Spirit, who caused this world of beauty and order to emerge from a chaos, operate with like effect on my dark, and turbid, and ruined soul.” Or, as Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”
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JAMES T. BRADFORD, Ph.D.—is General Secretary for The General Council of The Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri. He pastored Broadway Tabernacle in Vancouver, BC and has shared at numerous Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada venues. This article was originally Published in the spring 2011 issue of Enrichment Journal. Used with permission.
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