A Strange Prayer
We're praying against the Devil, the world and our sinful nature, yet we ask our Father in heaven to "lead us not into temptation." That's strange.
Luther catches the strangeness by beginning his explanation with a forceful, "God tempts no one." Luther gets this from James 1. Verse 13 strongly cautions against thinking God is tempting you, "Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God' for He Himself does not tempt anyone." This has to be asserted forcefully because everyone believes He does. That adage about prayer seems true: I prayed for patience and God sent me difficult people; I prayed for chastity and God sent scantily glad women; I prayed for hope and God sent disappointments; I prayed for peace and God sent turmoil. Over against how it "seems," we state what James 1 says, "God tempts no one." God didn't tempt the church leaders to murder, the crowd to shout, "Crucify" or Herod to brutalize Jesus. And God doesn't tempt you into false belief, despair, or other great shame and vice.
So where do temptations come from? James 1:14 answers, "Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust." Lust comes from our sinful nature. To say we're born sinners is to say we're born lustful. And to make matters worse we're born into a fallen world ruled by the Devil. The Devil, the world, and our sinful natures work in concert to produce lust not just for sex, but money, power, peace, happiness, good looks, a better job. You name it we lust after it. The Devil drops a little of the World's poison that new, more, different is better into our sinful hearts and like old time photography, that drop from the World delivered by the Devil exposes a lust in our heart for more money, a new life, a different spouse that was always there. (Thielicke, Between God and Satan, 29).
"Lead us not into temptation" is a strange prayer because God tempts no one, and because to be tempted isn't strange. As it's not strange for birds to fly or fish to swim, so it's not strange that fallen sinners are tempted. As long as we are in this life, the explanation says, we will be attacked by false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. The Large Catechism goes into more detail. Misbelief, despair, shame and vice aren't the attackers; they are the weapons. Our attackers are the Devil, the World, and our Flesh.
The Large Catechism is specific about the attacks. "The young suffer especially from the Flesh. Afterward, when they reach middle life and old age, they feel it from the World. But others who are occupied with spiritual matters, that is, strong Christians, feel it from the Devil" (III, 107). The young are tempted by the false belief that the desires of the flesh must be served. The middle age are tempted by the false belief that the World is the right measure of success. And the strong Christian is tempted by the false belief that the Devil or his minions randomness and meaninglessness are in control.
All this temptation is "natural" for our fallen natures to experience. It was natural for the unbelieving Pharisees to be tempted to believe ceremonial uncleanliness was worse than killing an innocent man. It was natural for worldly Pilate to be tempted to dump the Jesus Problem on someone else rather than do the unpopular but right thing of releasing Him. It was natural for King Herod surrounded by sensuous delights to be tempted to turn on Jesus when He wouldn't please him as everyone else did.
To be tempted by false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice isn't strange for anyone with a sinful nature living in a fallen world ruled by the Devil himself. And it isn't strange that Christians feel this tempting more acutely, painfully, and constantly. Read Romans 7. Those outside of Christ don't feel tempting that much. If you only have the sinful nature, there is no conflict except with your conscience every now and then. But if you have been born again in Baptism and your new man is fed and grown by Gospel and Sacrament, the battle is joined.
Poet Yeats sarcastically said that Christianity only multiplied temptations by its do's and don't's. Chesterton responded that it "only multiplies temptations in the sense that it would multiply temptations to turn a dog into a man" (Collected Works, III, 30). A dog is tempted by food all the time, sex some of the time, and that's about it. Men are tempted by these, and by fame, power, money, happiness, doubt, despair, etc. However, the contrast between Christian and non-Christian is even starker than between dog and man. Those not born again; those without the new man are dead in their trespasses and sins says Ephesians 2. What do dead men feel? You can't really tempt a dead man with anything. So it's not strange that Christians experience every little pin prick of temptation while the dead non-Christian doesn't even feel the stab of temptation.
"Lead us not into temptation" we pray everyday, and it's a strange prayer. Because God tempts no one; because to be tempted isn't strange particularly for us Christians, and because to be tempted isn't sinful. Hear from our Large Catechism: "Such feeling [of temptation], as long as it is against our will and we would rather be rid of it, can harm no one" (III, 108). It's not sinning to be tempted. Hebrews 4 proves this. It says Jesus was tempted in all ways like we are yet without sin. If to be tempted in itself was sinning, it couldn't be said that Jesus was without sin.
Look at the Passion Reading. Surely Jesus was tempted by the false belief that man could deliver Him. Pilate said 3 times, "I find no basis for a charge against Him," Surely Jesus was tempted to believe that though it was His Father's will He go to the cross Pilate could stop it. And wasn't Jesus tempted to despair of God's love and mercy as He was given over to ham-fisted soldiers for repeated beatings, slapping and whipping? Don't you think Jesus was tempted to believe to His own great shame that there was no point to enduring this suffering? O how tempted the Man Jesus was to fall into the great vice of believing it was all meaningless, pointless.
Hear what I'm saying. I'm not preaching the Gospel that Jesus endured where you fail, although that is true. I'm pointing out that the temptations swirling about your head and heart daily, hourly aren't sins. You aren't to repent, feel bad, or despair of the fact you can be tempted so easily and constantly. I guarantee you, particularly if you despair of being tempted, you will give in. Giving in offers relief from the tension, the poking, the temptation itself. But it relieves it by sinning, by falling. So you go from needing strengthening in temptation to needing forgiving for sins.
Being tempted isn't sin, but here's where not only sin begins but slavery to it. You probably know a professing Christian who embraces his or her sin as being natural. They defend their right to live in their sin and still be regarded as a Christian. How did such a damnable, unbreakable bondage form? The Forward Edge of the Battle Area was temptation. Augustine said this is how it happened in his life. A temptation was given into, so a lust was served. A lust served became custom, and custom not resisted became necessity (Confessions, VIII, 5, 10).
In this prayer we are really asking, "Let nothing become a temptation to me," thereby admitting to God and ourselves that everything (mind you everything!) can become a temptation. Consult the hymn "A Mighty Fortress" what are the greatest temptations for Luther? Not sexual urges, envy, or some other vice, but the things he loved most in life: "goods, fame, child, and wife." (Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father, 121).
Temptations rarely come in the form of the obviously evil or satanic but usually in the form of something good. Eve reasons, "The fruit is good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom." Giving into temptation leads to despairing of God's help and so hiding from Him as Adam and Eve did. Then cut off from God we fall into even greater shame and vice, but the battle started at the point of temptation, and we can't overcome temptation by discipline, will power, or "how to" Christianity.
St. Jerome tried. He moved to the desert and had only scorpions and wild animals for company. But, by his own account, he often thought he was in the midst of dancing girls. "'My face was pale from fasting, but my mind burned with passionate desires within my freezing body; and the fires of sex seethed in me though the flesh had already died in me as a man'" (LW, 27, 69). You stoke the lust, the fires of passion, you empower the temptation when you meet it with the law. Young Joseph when sorely tempted to sleep with Potiphar's wife doused those flames with an appeal not to God's wrath but goodness. How can I do this great wickedness and sin against the God who rescued me from death, my devilish brothers, and the world of slavery?"
"Lead us not into temptation,"we pray admitting how temptable we are and reminding ourselves that God never leads us there. No, He leads us to His thorn-crowned, purpled-robed Son who stood firm being tempted by God only knows what. He leads us to the Man even pagans had to admit was innocent. He leads us to the God/Man who endured all this to deliver us from the Devil, the World, and our Flesh. He is the only way for us to overcome their temptations and win the victory. By His suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying, we aren't forgiven for being tempted because that needs no forgiveness. What we are forgiven for is our falls, and more astoundingly still we are freed from our self. In Jesus' name we're to see our sinful nature floating in the font; sent far away by Absolution; poisoned by Communion.
This is how God would guard and keep you from temptation. It works as in this Augustine story. A former live-in lover whom he passed without greeting began chasing him shouting, "Augustine! Augustine! Don't you remember me?" Augustine running away from the temptation called back over his shoulder, "Augustine doesn't live here anymore." That's what you can say about your sinful nature. Having been drowned, sent away, and poisoned, it truly doesn't live with you anymore. Praying daily "lead us not into temptation" asserts the life of your new man and the death of your old. Because it would be strange indeed for your sinful nature to pray not to be led into the temptation it loves. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (20100310); 6th Petition; Passion Reading 4