PETER KREEFTPeter Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College. Dr. Kreeft’s latest work is Prayer: The Great Conversation (Servant, 1985). His other book; include Between Heaven and Hell (InterVarsity, 1982) and Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (Harper & Row, 1980).

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

My very first religious doubt was occasioned by the petition “Lead us not into temptation.”

Why? Because it sounded as if God led people into temptation. And if that were so, how could we trust him?

But I also remember the relief that came from reading a clear answer in Scripture: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one, but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13–14).

The word “temptation” is ambiguous. It can mean either (1) an attempt to inveigle someone to sin—which, of course, is the Devil’s work, not God’s; or (2) a trial, a test of faith, like Job’s—which often is God’s work. It is this second meaning of “temptation” that Jesus had in mind when he told us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” It means, “Lead us not into trials like Job’s.”

God tried Job, like gold in the fire, desiring that he should be purified. Trials strengthen faith, just as exercise strengthens muscles. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.”

But if trials strengthen faith and thus are good for us, why should we ask God to “lead us not into” them?

It is because we don’t know our limits. God does. This petition comes from humility—both intellectual and moral. Intellectual, because we do not know how much fire our gold can endure; moral, because we should not assume we are stronger than we are—or even that we are as strong as we think we are. Everyone has limits. We are all fallen creatures.

To see the rightness of this petition, consider the alternative: “Lord, please lead us into great trials, because we are confident that our faith is so strong that it will endure them, as Job’s faith did.” That would be foolish, proud, and unnatural.

We should pray to avoid trials for the same reason we should fight poverty, sickness, and death. Jesus never says that these things are blessed, but rather that those who suffer them are blessed. They are the Divine Surgeon’s instruments, the Divine Sculptor’s chisel strokes. We are to endure them in faith, but not to ask for them. The willingness to suffer is heroism; the desire to suffer is usually masochism.

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Jesus himself did not ask to suffer. He prayed, before his crucifixion: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Only then did he add: “If this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42).

Compare the following two prayers and see whether you recognize anything familiar: (1) “Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other men. I can and will endure heroic sufferings for you. Please send them my way”; and (2) “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. I am weak. I can hardly endure even a little pain for you. Therefore, please do not send me great pain.”

Self-delusion prays, “I am strong.” Self-knowledge says, “I am weak.” Self-knowledge says, “I am riddled with evils—physical, psychological, and spiritual, as with bullet holes or cancer. Therefore, I need deliverance. Deliver me from evil.”

Every religion in the world promises deliverance. It is the only thing that unites all religions. Not all religions believe in God, or life after death, or a divine law, or even the soul. Buddhism, for example, believes in none of these things. But every religion offers deliverance, because only a fool is blind to that need.

Yet Christ puts the petition for deliverance from evil last in his ideal prayer. We tend to put it first. The child’s first prayer is usually “help!” This is not wrong, but inadequate, like the fear of God, which, as Chesterton wisely says, is the beginning of wisdom but not the end. We must wrap our petition in adoration. The God we petition without adoring is a divine machine. The God we petition after adoring is a lover. When we do not get what we want from a machine, we curse it. When we do not get what we want from a lover, we do not curse or kick but trust.

Even within this petition, Christ puts “deliver us from evil” after “give us this day our daily bread.” There are two reasons for this. First, so that we give God the “blank check” in his provision of “our daily bread.” We pray, in other words, for “whatever You see we need,” and only then, within this context of trust, do we cry for help. The second reason for the petition’s order is so that we begin with the positive and then go to the negative. Good is more important than evil, receiving real goods more important than avoiding real evils.

If we had to choose between having neither good nor evil, or both, both would be preferable. (That’s what God thought when he decided to create us with free will, foreseeing all the evils that would come, but also all the goods.) Our first need is the good that is God; then, as a means to this, deliverance from the evil that keeps us from God. We first need the home at the end of the road, to make our journey worthwhile; then, we overcome the obstacles along the way.

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We are to pray for deliverance from evil—all evil, bodily, psychological, and spiritual. God’s desire is to free us completely.

Why, then, are we still bound? First of all, because we are in time, in process, in a story. Deliverance is not instantaneous because our being is not instantaneous. Religion is not an instant deliverance pill; it is a love affair.

But it is so slow. Why are we still starving, lonely sinners? Who is holding back? God or us?

That’s the wrong question: it is not either/or. Our role is not 50 percent and God’s 50 percent. His role is 100 percent and our role is 100 percent. Deliverance is a cooperative activity, like marriage. He will not deliver us without our cooperation, and we cannot deliver ourselves without his grace.

Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage, put it this way: “When a disease is hard to see, it is easy to cure, but when it becomes easy to see, it is hard to cure.” Sin is like cancer; it begins small, and if we attack it early, where it is hard to see, it is relatively easy to defeat. But if we wait until the cancer has spread and taken root, so that it is easy to see, it is very hard to cure.

Saint Paul knew this too. That is why his prescription for deliverance from evil is to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). If Eve had done that in Eden, all the problems in our world would never have started. If she had turned her thoughts to God instead of to the Tempter, we would be doing the same today.

Thoughts are like wild animals. They need tamers. The false god of “freedom of thought” has led millions into the false freedom of calling their thoughts their own and thus giving them up to the power of evil. If Christ is to be Lord of all creation, it must begin in the most interior place of all, our will, and then the second-most interior place, our thoughts, and spread out from there into our relationships and our world.

As Jesus said, it is not what goes into us that defiles us, but what comes out of us. Once our will is given to him (and if it is not, we are not his), the next gift must be our thought life. We must yield to him the very first thoughts and imaginations of sin. Hard as that seems, it is infinitely easier than anything else. Thoughts are like clouds: easy to lift to him in oblation. Once they harden into actions, they take on a gravity that makes them much harder to lift, and they fall like a deadly rain on our lives.

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It is a bloody business, deliverance. Where do we find deliverance? There, in Christ’s wounds. Remember the line of the great old (forgotten?) prayer Anima Christi: “In thy wounds hide me.” The Devil dare not come there. He cringes from the Blood. That is the safest place to be.

Israel was taught that, symbolically, at the first Passover in Egypt when they were protected from the angel of death only by the blood of the sacrificial lamb sprinkled on the doorposts of their houses. Our lives are the houses that we build to live in. The door is our openness to God. The blood of Christ must be there because that is the only way the all-holy God can come in to us and be the guest of our soul. Our deliverance is to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” The Lord’s Prayer ends with the gospel.

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