April 4, 2004

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, but Deliver Us From the Evil One
Matthew 6:13

I’ve led many groups of students to Israel over the years, and each time I do my best to plan out a broad and meaningful itinerary well in advance. With the volatile and often unpredictable political situation in Israel, however, I can’t always plan trips the way I might here in the states. Things sometimes change there from day to day, and a place that might be safe to visit one day could be filled with unrest the next. When that happens, I change the schedule and redirect the bus. That’s what I do. I can’t leave it up to the students to coordinate our itinerary on their own. They don’t know what’s happening in this city or that. They don’t have the experience or the contacts to discern which roads are safe and which are not. It is my responsibility to make those decisions. I—and the people who work with me—navigate the trip. The students, knowing that I have a reasonably good sense of where I am going, follow.

In this final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus articulates a similar principle. Having asked our heavenly Father to care for our present, physical needs—“give us our daily bread”—and having sought his forgiveness for our past sins—“forgive us our debts”—we are now encouraged to entrust our future welfare into God’s hands—“do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” We don’t know, Jesus clearly implies, what lies around every corner or behind closed doors. We don’t always know what is good for us and what might be harmful. We don’t know, but our heavenly Father does. And so we ask him—all of us—to lead us away from trials or tests and to protect us from the wiles of the devil.

In addition to the many trials and temptations that often come our way simply because we are sinful people living in a broken world?temptation is a part of life, isn’t it??the Bible knows of two broad types of tests that, from time to time, confront members of the human race. There are those tests, first of all, which have their source in God himself. Such tests have as their focus or purpose the examination and strengthening of our faith. Abraham, for example, was “tested” to see if his faith in God surpassed his affection for his only son (Deut. 13:3). The Canaanites were allowed to remain in the land in order to “test” Israel to see if they would walk in the way of the Lord (Judges 2). Job was “tested” to confirm that his allegiance to God superseded his attachment to worldly possessions and bodily comforts (23:10). And Paul was “tested” in order to bring him to the place where he could say, “Your grace is sufficient for me, and your power is made perfect in my weakness.” These and similar tests are intended for the ultimate well-being of those being tested – test a professor might give to measure understanding, push students to work harder, etc.

As a professor, I give tests to my students from time to time. Such tests help me to evaluate what the students know, but they serve other purposes as well. Tests help motivate students, and they often push the students to grow and develop. When I give tests in my classes, I certainly do not hope to harm or punish my students nor do I want them to fail. On the contrary, I have their best in mind.

So it is with God. His tests are never to entice us to do evil, nor do they have our destruction as their desired goal. No. God does not tempt us to do evil, nor does he seduce us to do that which will genuinely harm us (1 Pet. 1:6-7). God’s tests, whether they take the form of rigorous challenges, or persecution, or suffering, or loss, or setbacks, or feelings of intense loneliness and abandonment, seek our improvement and his glory. They are intended, either to provide an arena in which our confidence in him can be displayed, or else to stretch our minds, expand our horizons, enlarge our sense of compassion, and deepen our faith. “My brothers and sisters, “ James wrote,
whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
God doesn’t want us to be what James Earl Massey refers to as “pygmy Christians.” He wants us to be strong, committed, and unwavering in our faith. For that type of growth to occur in our lives, tests are sometimes necessary. “When he has tested me,” Job said, “I will come out as gold.”

But this clearly is not the type of testing that Jesus has in mind here in the Lord’s Prayer. The context certainly prohibits it. Rather, we find here a second type of testing, a testing that ultimately comes from the tempter or evil one himself. Tests of this variety are intended to trick, seduce and destroy, like the sirens wooing Odysseus to the rocks. Think of it this way. Sometime ago, I saw a mouse run across my kitchen floor. Shortly thereafter, I saw another one scamper behind a table in my garage where I was doing some painting. He—or she!—and his associates had eaten through some of the bags containing fruits and vegetables that we store in the garage, and they had also gotten into our birdseed. So I set some traps. I covered the release of each of these traps with sticky peanut butter, and I placed each one in a strategic place. My objective in setting these traps, of course, was not to encourage these rapidly rampaging rodents, nor did I seek to make them better mice. On the contrary, I knew their vulnerable points, so I smeared the peanut butter on the traps in order to rid myself of their bothersome presence.

So it is with the evil one, whom Matthew specifically calls the “tempter” earlier in 4:3. He, too, knows our vulnerable points, our weaknesses, our difficulties, and our struggles. He knows what portion of our constitution is often left unprotected and unattended to. So he sets traps, not for our betterment, but for our demise. For those who long for financial security and wealth, he might set the trap of an ill-conceived, “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to hit it rich. For those who literally ache inside for intimacy and companionship, he might set before us a soft, sweet voice inviting us into an illicit sexual relationship—the chance to “go all the way.” For still others, those with a consuming drive to succeed, he might draw our eyes to the uncovered examination paper on the desk beside us or encourage us to “fudge” on our resume so that we gain a competitive edge. You fill in your own vulnerable point. You envision the trap and the bait. Whatever they are, what they have in common is this. Enticements to sin, to commit evil, and to self-destruct often originate, not with God, but with the Devil himself. And the combination of his cunning advances and our sinful inclinations can be fatal if left unchecked.

And so Jesus invites us to pray, not occasionally, but continually: “Our Father, lead us not into such times of testing. Rather, deliver us from the Evil One. You, O Lord, know the left from the right. You know what lies behind us and before us. You know our past, present, and future. You know all of our vulnerable points. And you certainly know where all of the Devil’s traps are located—under the table, behind the door, and high up on the shelf. Father, lead us between and beyond all of the tempter’s traps.”

This petition, the last one in the Lord’s Prayer, implies at least these three things:
1. Our Father is with us. The same God who provides us with our daily bread and forgives our many debts, will not abandon us when the going gets tough.
2. Our Father guides us through the myriad of traps if we trust him. “Don’t go there,” he whispers. “Don’t look at that. Be careful when you do that.” Day after day, that still, small voice leads us all along the journey. There are traps that we see that he helps us around, and there are traps that we don’t see that he helps us to avoid.
Our Father delivers us. His love is great, and his hand is strong.
That ravenous lion who seeks to devour us is far more powerful than we are, but no match whatever for the Lord.

On my many trips to Israel, I found myself making decision after decision so that the students had a rich and safe experience. Sometimes the students may have sensed danger, and other times, they had no idea of what may have been going on nearby. Just as I steered the group through the Holy Land, so Jesus entreats us here to let God steer us through life. “Lead us not into times of testing,” we must pray, “but deliver us from the evil one.”