Lead us not into temptation

The Temptation of Adam

The Temptation of Adam  – Jacobo Tintoretto

James the brother of Jesus writes this concerning temptations that we face.

James 1:13-14 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

God never tempts us, nor is he ever the one who drags us into sin. It’s our own evil desires that do that. So why would Jesus ask us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil?” Isn’t that the one thing God wouldn’t do anyway?

I believe that the key to unlocking this mystery lies in the stories of Jesus. Jesus loved to tell farming stories to describe how the kingdom of God grows within us. In one of these stories recorded in Matthew 13:1-8, a farmer goes out and sows seed on the ground. Some of the seeds fall on the path, some on rocky soil, others fall among thorns, but the final group of seeds falls in good soil. The seeds that fall on the path are snatched away by the birds and never germinate. The seeds that fall in the rocky soil spring up quickly, but because the soil is too shallow, the plant lacks the roots to survive the summer sun. The seeds among the thorns also sprout, but the thorns quickly choke the life out of the young plant. Only the seeds planted in good soil grow to maturity and produce a hundred fold harvest.

Later in Matthew 13, Jesus explains this parable when he is alone with his disciples. The seeds snatched by the birds are those who hear the gospel but never respond. Their faith never takes root because it is stolen by Satan. The next two obstacles, the rocks and the thorns, are of particular interest to us because they represent the two great temptations that followers of Christ will face throughout their lives.

The rocks represent hard times; persecution and trouble. If our roots are too shallow, the heartbreaks of life will be sufficient to undo our faith. The thorns are the opposite. They represent the dangers lurking in the good times. We all know what comes with great wealth and possessions. We worry about losing them. They consume our time maintaining and enjoying them. They dominate our lives choking out thoughts of the eternal. They own us as we depend on them for our security and if we are not careful, they will destroy our faith and kill the gospel seedling that was planted in our hearts.

In other words, Jesus sees two great threats to the Christian soul. Heartache and success. Great wealth and excessive poverty. Too much and too little. These are the rocks and thorns, the two great temptations, which seek to destroy our faith in God.  The book of Proverbs captures this idea with this simple prayer:

Proverbs 30:8-9 … Give me poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Interesting. Isn’t this what Christ asked us to pray two lines earlier in the Lord’s Prayer? Avoiding the two great temptations, riches and poverty, is linked to the request “give us this day our daily bread. “Lead us not into temptation” complements “give us this day our daily bread.” They are two sides of the same coin. By asking God for “our daily bread”, we are also pleading with him to “lead us not into temptation.” If he were to give us more than our daily bread, if he were to drown us in wealth, the conditions would be right for our hearts to be led into the sins of pride and self-reliance. If God were to give us less than our daily bread, we would be brought to the brink of starvation and tempted to steal.

This is not to minimize the threats that we face from outside ourselves. We do live in a world with real enemies, real spiritual forces and terrorists. We are to pray, “deliver us from evil.” With that said, James reminds us that our own evil desires pose an even greater threat. It is our evil desires that drag us into sin and if we are not careful will “give birth to death.” (James 1:15) Enemies may kill our bodies, but lurking within our own hearts are threats with the power to destroy our own souls.

In this life we walk a narrow ridge line between the chasms of pride on the one hand and despair on the other. It is our task to plead with God to steer our lives between them, to clear the rocks and thorns  and allow the gospel to grow to full maturity in the fertile soil of our hearts. May we never stop praying for ourselves and each other, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

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Forgive us our debts

Victims of the Nazi terror bombing campaign in London. “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” CS Lewis

England was not in a forgiving mood as German bombs indiscriminately rained down on the terrified residents of London. It was in this atmosphere of fear and anger that CS Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of talks on what he called “Mere Christianity”. One of his most poignant talks dealt with forgiveness.

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do — I can do precious little — I am telling you Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do? (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

It is impossible to receive God’s forgiveness without forgiving our neighbor, but those who understand the true cost of forgiveness understand that is impossible. So what do we do?

Jesus tells a story of a servant who is forgiven a debt of an astronomical amount of money by a kindhearted king (Matthew 18:21-35). The king cancels the 10,000 talent bill because he was  moved by man’s desperate pleas to  save him and his family from a life of debt slavery. Despite having been forgiven, the servant begins choking a man who owed him a much smaller sum, demanding that he pay his debt.

I hated this unmerciful servant until I understood the size of debt he was owed. A denarii was what a worker could expect to be paid for a day’s labor. Therefore 100 denarii was roughly equivalent to a third of his annual salary. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, could you imagine taking a financial hit of that magnitude? Would you be able to absorb the loss of income? It may be the difference between eating and not eating.

And yet we despise this unmerciful servant Why? Because as significant as the debt that was owed him, it was dwarfed by the debt he owed the king. That’s why we believe the king is well within his rights to imprison this servant and hand him over to be tortured. He deserves it. Do you see now how Jesus set us up?

God is the kindhearted king, we are the unmerciful servants. This warning is for us:

Matthew 18:35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you [prison and torture] unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

So what do we do when God demands the impossible of us?

We remember that our God has forgiven us at the cost of the crucifixion of his Son.

We allow the enormity of the debt we owed God, that is all the ways we have failed to love him and our neighbor, to humble us and build  compassion for the one who has harmed us. The one thing we have in common with our enemies is that we both owe God a debt that we are incapable of paying.

Finally, we cry out to God. A third of an annual salary is too much harm to let go. Only he can lift this burden and wrest my fingers from the debt that is owed. We can’t do this by our own strength. We need to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” May God give us the grace to believe that God has forgiven the unforgivable in us and will give us the power to do the same for others.

Give US this day OUR daily bread

The ‘us’ in ‘give us this day our daily bread’ includes this child who lives and works at a dump in Honduras.

I never realized how self-centered my prayers were until the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer were pointed out to me by the author Scott McKnight. The Lord’s Prayer never says ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’. It is always ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’. My version of the Lord’s Prayer is quite jarring in its selfishness if you think about it.

[My] Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give [me] today [my] daily bread.

Forgive [me] my debts, as [I] also have forgiven my debtors.

And lead [me] not into temptation,

but deliver [me] from the evil one.

When you pray the Lord’s Prayer my way, you wind up trying to manipulate God in order to get what you want. God, I’ll worship you and I’ll even pray that your will is followed on earth as it is in heaven, but this is only a warm up for what I really want to say, “give me this day my daily bread.” I will give you yours, if you will give me mine. That unfortunately is the definition of a pagan prayer, an orphan trying to manipulate a day’s survival out of a powerful authority figure.

But Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, played a pivotal role in reshaping my understanding of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the way we live out the Great Commandment, love God and love others, in our prayer lives. We love God by worshiping him and by wanting what he wants for the world. We love our neighbor by caring as much about their needs as we care about our own. That is why Jesus commanded us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”

We are encouraged to bring our needs before God, but we never do it apart from the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. When we pray, we ask God to protect our children, but we also ask that he might protect the innocents caught in the Syrian civil war. When we ask God to meet our financial needs, we are also praying for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. When we ask God for comfort, we also pray for the family down the street that is losing their father to cancer. We cannot ask for my daily bread, without asking God to provide for my neighbor. Why? Because the Lord’s Prayer is the way we love our neighbor through prayer.

“But who is my neighbor?” We are not the first ones to ask this question. A rich young man posed this question to Jesus two thousand years ago. Jesus’ answer startled the young man and, if we are honest, it rattles us today (see Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbor includes all of humanity even the immoral, even the wicked and especially our enemies. To pray “give us this day our daily bread” with integrity means that we pray that God will provide the daily needs for even a member of Al Qaeda and his family while praying for our own. You cannot love your neighbor without loving your enemy. You cannot pray “give us this day our daily bread” without praying that God will bless our enemies.

How can we pray in this way? Only when we realize, as Tim Keller once pointed out, that we were the enemy once, and Jesus loved us and prayed on our behalf even when our sins had nailed him to the cross.

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, ‘Father,  forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Our Daily Bread

Daily Bread

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” ,.. for the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6:31-32)

“Dear God, put me in a position where I won’t need you anymore.”

I was startled when a mentor suggested that was what my prayers were like. I didn’t like what he was suggesting, but I saw that he was right. Deep down I think we all hate being dependent on someone else. I know that I don’t like having to rely on God. I want my life to be secure. I want it to be predictable. We don’t like the feeling of living day to day and paycheck to paycheck. But that is precisely the place where Jesus calls us to live when he taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He is calling us back to the wilderness.

We must not forget that the Lord’s Prayer is a deeply Jewish prayer. The image of “Daily Bread” was seared in the memories of the nation of Israel. It recalls the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness between the slavery in Egypt that lay behind them and the Promsied Land that lay over the horizon. It was there in the wilderness that God taught Israel to trust him one day at a time.

The elation over God’s spectacular victory over their Egyptian oppressors quickly faded as reality of life in the desert set in. Where will we find water? Where will we find food? We must not be too quick to judge the Israelites when their fear slipped into anger and they accused God and Moses of leading them out of Egypt only to kill them in the desert. After all, they had been slaves for 450 years. Trust was not going to come easy to them.

But God was gracious and he split the rocks and out poured living water. With their thirst satisfied, they grumbled about the lack of bread. God by his grace, did not rain judgment down on them, but  manna, bread from heaven. He commanded them to collect just enough for that day. There would be more tomorrow. You know what happened. In a complete breakdown of trust, they hoarded the food. The food was full of maggots the next day. Moses was angry, but God patiently sent the manna, one day at a time, just enough for that day. Israel eventually learned what it meant to trust God for their “daily bread.”

Moses reflecting on this experience wrote:

Deuteronomy 8:2-3 Remember how the Lord led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna … to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Jesus also calls us back into the wilderness, where he longs to teach us to trust him for our daily bread, but that is the very place I fear. I want six months income in the bank so I can feel secure about my finances. I want the problems of my wife and kids to be small so I can feel good about myself as a father and a husband. I am not content with the bread for today. I want my house full of the stuff and then go out and rent a storage container when I run out of space. Why? Because I’m not really sure that God is going to provide tomorrow.

Jesus is calling us to something different. He wants us to live hand to mouth. He wants us to ask him for what we need for today and then watch with delight as he provides and then the next morning get up and ask him the same thing. He never grows tired of caring for even the smallest of our needs. He wants us to walk with him in the desert, trusting him every step of the way. We are no longer slaves, but neither have we reached heaven. The desert is a needy and thirsty place. It is there that we encounter the God who provides our daily bread. It is there where we learn to pray. It is there we discover what it means to trust him.

Our Daily Bread is part of a series of posts on praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans … for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” – Jesus

In our previous post we explored the idea of the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our prayers. This week I’d like to begin taking a closer look at each piece of the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with …

Our Father in heaven.

I don’t think we can begin to appreciate the audacity of addressing God as father. It was foreign to both Jew and pagan alike. Consider the words of King David in Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3)

Have you ever stood under a cloudless night sky and gazed up at the vast number of stars? David, who grew up as a shepherd boy, spent many nights looking up at the countless stars of the Milky Way. The God he worshiped as a Jew was the one God who created the entire universe, who numbered the stars and called them by name. David marvels that the God who created all he could see in the night sky even thought about someone as small as himself.  But call him father? I don’t think the thought ever occurred to David. He knew God as shepherd. The nation of Israel knew him as the God of fire and lightning on Mount Sinai, the Savior who  parted the Red Sea, inflicted plagues on the Egyptians and brought his people to the Promised Land. Would they have addressed a God of this magnitude as father? It would have struck them as too familiar and yet we are called to address him as father.

Praying to God as our father was unthinkable for pagans as well. If you read Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that the prayer is offered as a contrast to the Lord’s Prayer.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7)

The pagan way of relating to God is one that tempts us every day. I think it is our default mode of spirituality. The pagan mentality tended to bring the gods down a level so that we could manipulate them for our purposes. The common belief in the ancient near eastern religions was that the gods, while being powerful, were incapable of feeding themselves. You brought sacrifices, not as a plea for the forgiveness of sins, but as a meal. You fed the god and the god was expected to grant your wish. If he or she didn’t come through, you moved on to the next god. Prayer was business, it had nothing to do with the love of a family.

I pray like a pagan all the time. “God, I am in a jam. If you come through for me this one time, I promise to serve you.” The Lord’s Prayer is quite different.

Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:8)

Prayer, as Jesus teaches us, is an appeal from a child to a perfect father in heaven, in contrast for some to the imperfect fathers we had or didn’t have on earth. A son or daughter does not earn what they need from a loving father, it is given to them because of who they are. If we believed that, would we try to manipulate God with our prayers? Wouldn’t our prayers take on a different tone?

The Lord’s Prayer is more about the posture we assume as we approach our God in prayer and less about the words we recite. Do we approach him as the servant of a needy God who demands his pound of flesh in sacrifices and acts of devotion or do we approach him as a father who if we ask for bread will not give us a scorpion? Will we need to pour out many words in an attempt to get his attention or will we be able to rest in his goodness so that we are able to align our will with his will? It all begins with how we see him. He is “our”, not “mine”, but “our Father”, who is in heaven.