Wednesday, August 09, 2006

lead us not into temptation...a reflection on the lord's prayer

We are reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the phrase “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. This portion of the Lord’s Prayer contains two crucial ideas that have given rise to questions among Christians for twenty centuries.

The first question lies in the request of God: “lead us not into temptation”. Does God tempt us? Does God test us? This would seem to be one implication of the prayer we recite each Sunday. In the Bible temptation is portrayed in a variety of ways: as a testing to prove who we are as people; as a seduction by the devil; as just one dimension of human experience; as the result of abuse or misuse of freedom.

But back to the question: does God tempt or test us? The earliest Christians reflected on this question. James writes to the first followers of Jesus:

No one, when tempted, should say,

I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted by evil,

And He himself tempts no one.

But one is tempted by one’s own desire (1. 13-14)

Temptation is related to the gift of freedom. We are not puppets and God is not a puppet master. We are all on a journey from slavery to freedom, from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to maturity, from unbelief to faith. And along the journey there are temptations. We are tempted by our own desires. Sometimes these are pretty obvious: as with the prodigal son. At other times they are more subtle: as with the serpent in the creation passages of the Bible.

Temptations always sidetrack us from our mission in life. Imagine that you are one of the elite soccer players in the world. Your team is on the verge of capturing the greatest prize in our sport, the World Cup. It is a prize you have dreamt about, trained for, obsessed about for most of your life. In the midst of the contest words are exchanged between you and your opponent. Before you know it you have responded, retaliated by “head-butting” your opponent. It is noticed by the referee and by the cameras of the world. You are removed from the match. Your team loses.

You have been sidetracked from your mission in life. The temptation is there for all of us. The temptation was there for Jesus.

You’ll remember the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the focus of the season of Lent. Those temptations—to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the temple, to bow down before Satan----were the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. But Jesus’ mission was not to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. His mission had to do with the words he taught us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

When we pray lead us not into temptation, we are asking God to keep us focused on what would be pleasing to him. The other great passage about temptation in the life of Jesus was the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus said, to his disciples,

Pray that you may not come into the time of trial

The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Jesus was tempted, he was tested, in every respect as we have been, according to the writer of Hebrews, except without sin. It helps to remember that: temptation is a natural part of being a Christian. If we are not being tempted, not being tested, it may be a sign that our spiritual life has become stale. The reality of temptation makes us aware that we are vulnerable---there but by the grace of God go I, we have heard. Or, as the bumper sticker had it, “Lead me not into temptation, I know the way already”.

There is a powerful story in Greek mythology about the Island of the Sirens, which was inhabited by beautiful women who sang such alluring songs that sailors going by the island were never heard from again. This was portrayed in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of the ship and his crew’s ears filled with wax so that, no matter how strongly they wanted to give into temptation, they would be held to the ship. Orpheus, in contrast, was a musician who played the lyre. He made such beautiful music that when he sailed by the island, he was not tempted by the sound of the Sirens.

How do you withstand temptation? It helps to remember your mission in life, to keep within your heart the song of life, to cling to the Lord of life.

It will also help to complete the phrase: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Most biblical scholars agree that a better translation than the King James (evil) is found in the NIV and the NRSV (evil one). Jesus prayed, deliver us from the evil one.

Gerald May, a Christian psychiatrist, talked about the experience of evil as an obsession or a possession. In obsession we become preoccupied with the forces of darkness. This is Satanism in our culture. In possession it is as if we become another person. Either way, with obsession or possession, there is radical evil. And it is usually understood to be in opposition to God’s will, desire, dream for us. When we pray deliver us from the evil one, we are saying in a negative way what we also express positively: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

The “evil one” can be understood in a number of ways in the life and teaching of Jesus. The evil one can refer to the devil. A common tendency among modern Christians has been captured by C.S. Lewis. We either make too much of the devil, and get caught up in the magic, or we do not believe in the devil, and become materialistic, believing only what we see. Now we do not know, from scripture, what a devil looks like, probably not something we see from the sidelines of a Duke basketball game, but the scripture teaches us that the evil one often takes personal form.

I heard it this way once. When we think of love, or grace, or beauty, we don’t often think of those qualities in the abstract—we think of a person who loves, a person of grace, a person of beauty. And when we think of evil, or hate, or harassment, we don’t think of those qualities in the abstract either---we think of a person who hates, who does evil things, who harasses.

Second, we also have a tendency to locate evil out there. If I grew up in the south, the evil ones are the northerners. If I was white, the evil ones were people of a different color. If I went to Duke, the evil ones were those people over in Chapel Hill. Evil, understood in this way, is always somewhere else! Jesus taught, just a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are all prone to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye, but not the log in our own.

We are tempted to locate evil somewhere else. But in my heart, I know that evil is not always out there. A part of the realization came when I met some folks from Chapel Hill, and they were good people. Then my daughter ended up there, and it was all over! I met people of different races, and really came to know them. I did some of my education up north. They really weren’t so evil, once I learned to appreciate their accents!

Evil is not only out there. Evil is in here. Do you know the spiritual,

It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me,

O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

The prophet Isaiah in the temple knew it when he said,

Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,

And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. (Isaiah 6)

Evil is not only out there. In the early church devout men and women went out into the desert to pray, to struggle with demons, to memorize scripture, to enter into the life of temptation. One of the desert fathers taught,

“This is the great work of a human being

Always to take the blame for his own sins

And to expect temptation to his last breath

Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the kingdom of God”.

I want you to take away two important concepts from this prayer, which I want to state in their simplest form. First, temptation is a natural part of what it means to be a Christian: you’re going to want to give up; distractions will come along; another path will look more promising. Be clear about your mission in life, be very clear about it, and you will see the temptations for what they are.

Second, there is a reality, sometimes taking personal form, called evil. You will encounter evil if you live long enough, sometimes even in the guise of something that is good. And if you live long enough, and God gives you the clarity to see it, you will discover evil within yourself.

If you know these two truths---temptation is real, evil is real---you will want to pray these words, as often as you can, as passionately as you can. You will want to boldly pray these words, as if your very life depended on it: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


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