Teach us to Pray about Temptation
I know why you've come here tonight. You want to fight against temptation; you want to learn how to resist, how to overcome, how to not even fall into temptation. But what does Jesus teach us to do about temptation? To pray about it! This doesn't seem effective, does it? Maybe that's because we don't understand what the tempters are, what the temptations are, and how it is that we overcome them.
First the tempters. Right from the get-go our Small Catechism boldly states. "God tempts no one." This is almost a quote from James 1 where St. James warns those in trials and temptations never to fall into the devil's trap of believing that God is tempting them to do evil. Believing this error would make it impossible to ask God, "Lead us not into temptation." Believing that God is tempting you, robs you of your only Helper against temptation. That's why from the start we so boldly say, "God tempts no one.".
The tempters are the familiar unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns about the devil being a bird snatching the seed of God's Word out of people's hearts so they can't believe. He warns of the world being like thorns that choke the seed of God's Word with the worries and riches of this life so that it bears no mature fruit. He warns of the flesh that is joyful about the Word till a time of trial comes and then falls away. 70 years later 1 John warns against the same 3 enemies. The murdering devil, the passing world, and the lusting flesh.
Now look at the Passion Reading. Recognize the voice of Satan in the passerbys and the Jewish leaders? It's Satan who said in the wilderness, "If you are the Son of God." Satan who disappeared at the beginning of Jesus' ministry "until an opportune time" shows up again at the end. Luther says in the Large Catechism that Satan particularly tempts those occupied with spiritual matters and strong Christians.
The tempting world is also at the cross. Jesus sees His suffering mother. As Simeon had predicted, a sword is piercing her own soul now. Jesus is tempted to stop His mother's pain by coming down from that cross even as we want to do whatever we can to stop the pain of our loved ones. Such good love for our family is one of the chief tempters in the world. Luther recognized this in "A Mighty Fortress." There he doesn't identify sexual urges, envy, or hatred as the chief tempters, but "goods, fame, child and wife." The temptation to protect these at all costs can lead to all sorts of sins.
The flesh is also at the cross. The soldiers are just carrying out orders. Part of their booty was the garments of the condemned men. But evidently Jesus' undergarment was special and they all greedily wanted it. So with the true God hanging above them in agony not just from nails, whippings, and a crown of thorns but from their sins, they knelt before the god of greed to see who would get the true God's undergarment.
The tempters are the devil, the world and our flesh. These chase and hunt us with one temptation after another. Our Catechism states what those temptations are: false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Do you see that these are linked? We usually think the big temptations are sexual sins, sins against people, sins against property. But such sins don't suddenly burst upon us. They start with false belief. The 1943 Catechism was clearer when it translated "misbelief." Temptation doesn't start with unbelief. It doesn't start with a bold rejection of God. It starts with believing, but believing the wrong thing: a false belief, a misbelief. Believing the wrong thing leads away from God, and therefore, it always leads to despair. It's from despair that other great shame and vice come. For example, "I may as well drink too much; everything is already a mess." "I'm a hopelessly fallen sinner; why not sin more?" "I'm going to give in eventually, so why not just do it?"
All "believing" is considered good. Regardless of what you believe, being a person of faith is considered spiritual, religious, good. But false belief, misbelief is never a good thing. A false belief never leads to the true God, so the stronger you hold on to one the quicker you end up far away from God and in utter despair. So the devil's main weapon against us is not black statements of unbelief, blunt offers to buy our souls, or brazen blasphemy; his main weapon is to "deceive us or mislead us into false belief."
Someone has said the devil is a price changer. He goes into the grocery store at night and puts 1.09 on the rib eye steak and 3.99 on the hamburger. He puts 2.79 on the Samuel Adams and 5.59 on the Old Milwaukee. He puts .39 on the butter and .89 on the margarine. We go in the next day and falsely believe we're buying the best when we pay 3.99 for hamburger, 5.59 for Old Milwaukee, and .89 for margarine. We reject what is the best for us because it is priced so low.
We reject the forgiveness of sins that comes to us for Christ's sake because it's free while we grab on to our efforts to try real hard not to sin.. We reject the regeneration of Baptism because it comes to us in water and grab on to the good feelings we can generate on our own. We reject the forgiveness of Absolution because it comes from the mouth of a man and grab on to our excuses that come from our own head. We reject the presence of Christ among us because it is in Bread and Wine and look for Him to show up in miracles, signs, and wonders. We turn it all around. The things that are worth much we believe to be worth little. The things that are worthless we falsely belief are worthy of being focussed on.
The devil, the world and our flesh work by deceiving and misleading. In the Passion Reading, these unholy 3 get the crowd shouting, "If you're the Son of God, come down from the cross," yet if Jesus comes down He goes against His Father's will and becomes a son of Satan. The unholy trinity get the church leaders to shout, "If He saves Himself, then we will believe on Him," yet if Jesus saves Himself it wouldn't matter if everyone believed on Him. And the devil, the world and the flesh get the church leaders to declare that God would rescue Him if He really were the Son of God, yet it's precisely because He is the Son of God that God won't rescue Him. It is the will of God the Father that the Son should suffer for us.
This matter of tempter and temptations is much more complicated than you think. Human reason thinks it can avoid tempters and temptations by trying really hard. Keep saying Bible passages to yourself. Sing hymns to yourself. Don't go to movies; don't watch TV; don't listen to the radio. For all practical purposes become a monk or a nun without moving into a monastery or convent. What fools we are! If only it were that simple! Overcoming temptation is not a matter of avoiding this or that because literally everything can become a temptation. Not just someone we're not married to, but the person we are. Not just our enemies but our friends. Not just alcohol but food. Not just food but exercise. Not just R- rated movies but G-rated ones. Our life is one long temptation, so said Luther.
So where is the victory? Is it in sermons titled: "How to Overcome Temptation"? Is it in Bible Classes about "How to live the victorious Christian life"? Is the victory over temptation to be found in your doing something to defeat it? No. Jesus teaches us to pray not act. He teaches us to be passive not active. By praying, "Lead us not into temptation," we are telling our Father in heaven that we are no match for the unholy 3. Luther says in the Large Catechism, "If you venture to help yourself by your own thoughts and counsel, you will only make the matter worse and give the devil more space. For he has a serpent's head, which if it gain an opening into which he can slip, the whole body will follow without check. But prayer can prevent him and drive him back" The victory is not in doing but in praying. Praying drives back the devil according to the Large Catechism. He can't bear to hear us pray. He runs away holding his ears. That's one of the reasons Luther said the Lord's Prayer should always be said out loud.
Our victory is in this prayer not in our not being tempted. People often think that being tempted is the same as sinning. But Hebrews says Jesus was tempted in all ways that we are, yet without sin. The fact that we are tempted till we die does not mean we are losing the battle. In fact, you'll remember in Gethsemane that when Christ is strengthened by the angel it is then that the temptation raged all the more intensely. If you falsely believe the more you're tempted the more you're sinning, this will lead you to despair, and you know where despair leads: to other great shame and vice.
Okay then our victory is in never sinning. There are people who attempt to live under this deception of the devil. They're like students who think being a good student means never getting less than an 'A'. How crushing! How hopeless! If our victory over temptation is in never sinning, then we would never need forgiveness and Christ need not have died. Secondly, if victory over temptation was to be achieved by our holiness, then Jesus really messed up the Lord's Prayer. In this prayer there isn't a single petition that asks God to make us sanctified, devote, or stoutly believing, not a single petition that asks Him to help us make progress in sanctification.
What we set against the devil in the Lord's Prayer is not our sanctified name but God's holy name, not our efforts to bring the kingdom but the fact God's kingdom comes, not our will but God's will, not our deserving of daily bread but God's giving of it, not our ability to avoid trespasses but God's forgiving of them. God is the actor in the Lord's Prayer we are the receivers. God is gracious; we are graced. In and on grace we must leave this matter of temptation. Luther said, "Evil passions are extinguished only by the heavenly dew and rain of divine grace."
Our mental efforts or spiritual discipline will never lead us not into temptation. Only God can do that by His grace which comes to us through tangible, physical means. Baptism is the dew of heaven washing away our sins. Absolution applies the rain of divine mercy cleansing us from sins. Communion is the merciful Lord of heaven Himself come down to give and assure us of His grace even though we are tempted and have fallen.
In the Lord's Prayer we pray for what already is. His name is holy, His kingdom comes; His will is done; we have daily bread and forgiveness. Well, we also have already defeated the tempters and the temptations. Our translation of this petition, however, doesn't show that. It says, "We pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory." The 1943 one was a little better when it said "obtain the victory." But it really is "retain the victory." We already have the victory. We've had since Christ said on the cross, "It is finished."
You see dear friends, as with all the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, we don't pray as if standing outside of the Father's house. No we pray from inside where the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus have brought us through Baptism. Here we admit how weak and temptable we are asking God to guard and keep us so that the devil, the world and our flesh might not deceive us into leaving our Father's house. We ask that by His grace we might retain the victory we have had in Christ since Good Friday. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Wednesday, Lent V (3-20-02) 6th Petition