Temptation and Holy Innocence

Temptation from Holy Innocence

Lead Us not Into Temptation

In his version of the Lord’s Prayer, the Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, talks not about avoiding temptation, but about embracing innocence. “Lead us,” he prays, “to holy innocence,” one that is “[b]eyond the evil of our days.” [1]

Albrecht Dürer's painting of Adam and Eve after eating the apple - the loss of holy innocenceThe primal couple, Adam and Eve, started life with “holy innocence.” Like protected children, they had no worries. As far as we know, God’s only rule for them was that they not eat from the Tree of Life. Everything else, He allowed. Was this because such innocents would never think to harm another being? Basking in the joy of paradise, and feeling no anger, animosity, fear, nor envy, Adam and Eve had no need to trample rights or cling or fight. In the mythical innocence of our first days, commandments were unnecessary.

After all, holy innocence is joyful and open. The innocent needs and desires nothing, because all she knows is love, and out of that love, everything she could ever want is immediately provided for her. In this perfect world, she has not been wounded, so she does not suffer. For at least a little while, Adam and Eve knew no sadness, experienced no betrayal, and therefore, they also felt no longing, anger, or hatred.

The Seed of Betrayal

When temptation enters the story, all this changes. We don’t need to succumb to temptation to be changed by it. We simply need to realize that something is missing in our life. Of course, even in Eden we have needs. Our bodies get hungry and tired. Yet in this paradise, ripe fruit and warm sleeping nooks are always available. We can eat, rest, dance, and sing at will. We are happy. To introduce dissatisfaction into this world takes an outsider.

Enter the snake. The snake is no innocent. For some reason, he wants to corrupt Adam and Eve. Perhaps his heart is broken, and he is bitter. Perhaps he himself has tasted the fruit of life, gaining more wisdom than he can handle, leaving him with a desperate longing for something he cannot even name. Does he try to fill the emptiness in his heart with wild nights and devious schemes and riotous living? Or is he lonely and thinks that by sharing the momentary ecstasy of the fruit, he will win friends? After all, he does not tell them of the misery that will follow. He only entices, and in that moment, our bliss is destroyed.

After all, it’s not temptation if the treasure is freely offered. We become stuck between succumbing to a craving we know is wrong and denying ourselves a pleasure we believe we need. If the desire is strong enough, we can lie, steal, and sometimes kill to get what we want. In this way, we betray not only our loved ones, but also ourselves.

Temptation as Change Agent

Yet even if we don’t succumb, we will be miserable. When we try to deny our cravings, we discover that the more we try not to think about it, the more we ache for what is denied us. There’s a reason the original Lord’s Prayer reads, “lead us not into” rather than “keep us from succumbing to” temptation. Some people say it’s because we’re weak and sinful, so once temptation awakens in us, we will be powerless. Others say it’s because temptations are tests, and at times God’s tests are excruciatingly painful. I think the prayer is written that way in the Bible because temptation changes us, simply by existing within our hearts. Temptation shatters our innocence and steals our childlike joy.

Of course, none of us reach adulthood without experiencing the agony of longing, the yearning for something beyond our grasp, and the shame of hurting others as we try to satisfy our desires. Whenever we feel uncomfortable, temptation strikes; whenever temptation arises, we feel uncomfortable. If we don’t notice this dynamic, we will act out our anguish by yelling, or fighting, or humiliating, or stealing. If our shame or sense of privilege run deep enough, we will not only hurt friends and family, but will then blame them for our own actions. Unable to acknowledge our failings, we are tempted once again, this time to soothe our moral pain by ascribing evil onto others.

A Holy Mess

What a mess, a holy mess. Although we may pray to be safe from temptation and to know an innocence beyond evil, Adam and Eve were not left in the garden to remain childlike forever. Temptation invited them to grow up. We need limits, and yet we also need to rebel against them. We need to experience desire, and learn to tolerate disappointment. Cravings to know, see, explore, and experience drive us to become the person we were meant to be. As Adam and Eve discovered, the consequences of experimentation, of grasping, and of rebellion can devastate us. Like the primal couple, we suffer. Suffering doesn’t appeal to us, but it is what follows when we desire, clutch and grasp, or flee from temptations that frighten us. Suffering is part of life, of growing up, of transforming our souls. We cannot avoid it.

So our goal should not be to stop temptation or squelch desire. As when God tried to keep Adam and Eve from gaining wisdom, if we try to stop our thoughts or deny our cravings, we fail. There is a middle way, a way that allows everything to arise, yet lets it go. Temptation is not evil in itself. What hurts is when we defend ourselves against it.

A Holy Innocence

In the Eden story, the snake represents the part of us that wants to learn, grow, evolve, become, and change. Holy innocence implies perfection, a static state of bliss. This may sound wonderful, and as Palmer’s prayer implies, we long for such purity. Yet perfection leads to death, and we are born with a zest for life. It is our nature to feel tempted by the sights and smells and sensations of the world, even though this temptation brings us discomfort, pain, and dissatisfaction. Because of temptation, we learn to talk, take our first steps, copy our older siblings. We may be born in a state of holy innocence, yet our task is not to stay there. Our task is to change, evolve, and grow up.

The danger is that because of temptation, because of disappointments and betrayals, we will become so battered and wounded that instead of continuing to evolve, we will choose to ignore our feelings, discount the feelings of others, deny, complain. We will become frightened and stuck.

Love As Holy Innocence

So what do we do instead?

We challenge ourselves, honestly examining the workings of our mind and heart. We transform craving, animosity, envy, and suffering into love. When we can experience love, when we can take it in, when we can feel compassion for ourselves, we can learn to spread love, to simply be love. In this way, we become real, whole, and eventually we become innocent once again. Newly innocent, we delight in wisdom and beauty, but we also feel comfortable mourning loss and loneliness. We live fully in the moment, accept the pains and joys of life with equanimity, notice without judgment, feel compassion without rescuing, and accept the world as it is.

Although we will always long for something, because that is the nature of being human and is what drives us to become our true selves, we will recognize that we need not identify with that longing. Whatever arises inside will move through us and past us without destroying us. We will live comfortably within the flow of time. We will learn to love ourselves, embrace the totality of our life, and spread joy. May that be the temptation to which we are led.

In faith and fondness,



  1. See Parker Palmer’s prayer, and others, at  http://www.standonline.org.uk/themes/stand/documents/Resource_6_Alternative-Lords-prayers.pdf.

Photo credit: Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons