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Here’s a question for today: Do we trust God? Is God trustworthy?
I’ll be honest. Arriving at the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer, here’s my first thought. Every one of us hearing or praying it would be totally justified in saying, “Wait. Hold on. Just a minute there. Are we actually praying with the understanding that God might lead us into temptation? And so we are just going to give God a little reminder, a little nudge, that, we’re not really so cool with that? What on earth is this all about?”
I recall learning the Lord’s Prayer as a little girl. I remember how this line in the prayer frightened me: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I remember sensing a kind of implicit threat that this request was attempting to ameliorate. It made God seem so menacing. It made God seem so unpredictable, so untrustworthy.
Do we really think that God is not trustworthy? In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin provides one possible definition of faith: “…[Faith] is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.”[i] In theory, at least, at the heart of faith is a “firm and sure knowledge of divine favor towards us.” We claim confidently that God loves us, that God wants what is best for us, that God wants us to thrive. So why on earth would God even consider “leading us into temptation?”
A peek at the language can help. You may have noticed today that I read the Authorized Version of our scripture (also known as the King James translation). Or you may not have noticed, since it is identical to the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it together week after week. The New Revised Standard Version, on the other hand, has a different slant, and a more accurate word-for-word translation: “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” To me, and I’m willing to bet, to most of us, “temptation” and “trial” may be related, but they are still two distinctly different things. The Merriam-Webster definition of “temptation” is “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil; enticement.” “Trial,” on the other hand, is “the action or process of trying or putting to the proof; test;” or even, “a test of faith, patience, or stamina through subjection to suffering or temptation.” The word “temptation” suggests a God who might be inclined to entice us to sin. The word “trial” suggests a God who wants to see what stuff we are made of.
The better translation suggests that there might be times God would try us, or test us. This is still not a palatable notion. For one thing, it comes into conflict with all sorts of other things we believe about God—that God loves us, that God wills only the good for us, that God is there encouraging us and strengthening us. It also comes into conflict with the idea that God is omniscient. The psalmist prays,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. ~Psalm 139:1-4
Why would God, having such complete understanding and intimate knowledge of our hearts, feel the need to test us anyway? Under this scenario God comes off as a kind of insecure lover, checking our emails, stealing a glance at our text messages, to make sure our hearts are true.
Still wondering about this whole notion of God “testing” us, we can turn to scripture, and see whether there are any instances of God testing God’s people. And, wow. There’s a pretty big one. I present, for your consideration, Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Not only are we pretty confident that God loved Jesus and was on Jesus’ side. Here we have the witness of scripture telling us, pretty unequivocally, that God ‘put Jesus to the test.’
But let’s look closer, to see exactly what God was up to when God handed Jesus over to be tested. Here are the exact temptations: First, Jesus is tempted to break his 40-day fast by miraculously changing stones into bread. This is a temptation to use the power of God, not fur others, but for himself, and in a showy display as well. Second, Jesus is tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, testing to see whether God would send angels to catch him. This is a temptation to put God to the test. And third, Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor in return for worshipping the tempter-devil himself. This is a temptation to gain worldly riches and power in return for abandoning worship of the one true God.
So let’s be very clear about what constituted Jesus’ testing, about the temptations God allowed to be placed in his way. God was not exposing Jesus to the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of girlie magazines, nor was God trying to get Jesus to cheat on his diet with a Bloomin’ Onion or a Sweet Frog sundae. God was permitting a test of Jesus’ most basic spiritual orientation. Had Jesus fully placed himself in God’s care and power? Was Jesus willing to use the power of God for impressive display or self-preservation or even enrichment? These are not trivial matters. When we pray, Do not lead us to the time of trial, I would suggest that we are, in effect, remembering the trial of Jesus in the wilderness, we are remembering the allure of power and wealth and the tradeoffs that put self-interest above the service of others. I would suggest that we are trembling in the face of that recollection, and praying that we might not be tested as Jesus was tested. We when pray, Do not lead us to the time of trial, I would suggest that we are reminding ourselves of Jesus’ complete and utter union with God, dependence on God, trust in God, and remembering that that is where the answer to temptation and testing can be found.
“Deliver us from evil,” we pray, or, “Rescue us from the evil one.” Oh, to have an instantaneous snapshot of the images that pop into all our heads when we pray those words. What comes into your head when you hear “evil,” or “deliver us from evil,” or “rescue us from the evil one”? As a child, I had a child’s picture of the devil—pitchfork, pointy tail, horns on his head, the whole deal. But in our age of hyperbole and fiery rhetoric, it’s open season on pretty much all well-known individuals, and the word “evil” is part of our arsenal. There are staggeringly large numbers of Americans who literally believe our President is the Anti-Christ, and therefore evil. The word “evil” has been applied to individuals, groups, and items as disparate as the Aurora and Sandy Hook shooters, Osama bin Laden, Wayne LaPierre, the members of Westboro Baptist Church, the Harry Potter books, Nancy Pelosi, and Rush Limbaugh. And the list goes on. Some of these names we can probably all agree with. Several would cause real disagreement, even here, in this loving community of faith. With the use of the word “evil” applied to such a startlingly wide array, there is a legitimate question that can be raised: Is “evil” a useful word? Or has it lost its meaning?
There are philosophers and psychologists who would argue that no person is evil; rather, actions are evil. Adolph Hitler, for example, would be described as a deeply disturbed, psychologically damaged individual who was responsible for unspeakably evil actions. But this leaves us somewhat unsatisfied, because it places our whole notion of justice in jeopardy. If people are not evil, then we are on the hook to try to help them. We can’t punish them in the way we would like if they are damaged or flawed.
What are we praying when we pray “deliver us from evil” or “rescue us from the evil one”? What if we looked again to those things used to test Jesus? Can we define evil as anything that causes us to turn away from God, or threatens to replace God as our first love? Can we recognize evil in anything that tempts us to use our power to harm others, or causes us to withhold our help to others? Is “evil” anything that stands in the way of love?
If you were to place the King James (i.e., our familiar) version of the Lord’s Prayer side by side with the version in your pew bible, you would notice a glaring omission: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” This closing doxology—this statement of praise—is something that was typically added on to the end of Christian prayers in the 17th century. It is not found in the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, because Jesus apparently didn’t say it. But, oh, he certainly implied it. From the opening words of the prayer, invoking a God in heaven and on earth; a God whose name is all holiness; a God whose kingdom is already unfolding in and all around us; a God who is the giver of all that is good; a God who forgives and forgives; a God who is trustworthy…every line of the prayer leads us to this closing ascription of praise, this closing statement of the reality of what is. We pray to God, that we will honor who God is, and that, steeped in that knowledge, we will get through this day, and our final words must recognize the deep truth. Everything that is, comes from God.
We can trust in God. This does not mean that we will not experience our own times of trial and testing. My own belief is that God does not put us to the test, but does allow life to do that. We can and do experience ourselves to be in the midst of challenges that make us wonder where we will find the strength to go on.
This afternoon a bunch of Union Presbyterians will climb into cars and trucks and vans for the trip to the Jersey Shore, to help with the effort to rebuild homes damaged by ‘Superstorm’ Sandy. Two years ago, and seven years ago, it was our own homes and basements and lives that were inundated with disastrous flooding. But the sorrows and tragedies that change our lives are not necessarily the stuff of headlines and wall-to-wall CNN coverage. We, all of us, suffer losses, some well known and some in the quiet of our own homes.
And still: we can trust in God. If all these losses and challenges are times of testing and trial, the Lord’s Prayer shows us where we find that strength to go on. We find it in God, and we find it in one another. We find it in the future hope of God’s vision—God’s great cleanup of the whole world—and we find it in the grace of God’s daily provision—weeping in one another’s arms, breaking our daily bread together, working side by side, and praying, praising, affirming that the kingdom and the power and the glory are God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen. Amen. Yes, it will be so. Amen.