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Sermons

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

October 19, 2003

Bible Reading

But when you pray, use not vain repetitions as the heathen do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them; for your Father knows what things you have need of before you ask him. After this manner therefore pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

(Matthew 6:7-13)

Reading from Swedenborg

If we give in, we are worse off after the inner struggle than we were before, since our bad traits and false ideas have gotten power over our good traits and true ideas.

Since there is no kindness these days now that the old religion is coming to its end, faith is very uncommon. Because of this, hardly anyone is allowed to experience spiritual struggles. So we hardly even know what they are and what they are good for.

Inner struggles help our good traits and true ideas to get control over our bad traits and false ideas. They strengthen the truth in us and unite it with our good parts. They also get rid of our faults and the wrong ideas that come from them. They help open up our inner spiritual self, and put our material self under its control. And they help us to overcome our selfishness and materialism, and to control the cravings that come from them.

When we have done these things, we gain enlightenment and intuition about what is good and true and about what is false and harmful. So we become understanding and wise, and this grows in us every day.(The Heavenly City #192-94)

Sermon

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:13)

I would like to begin by stating categorically, explicitly, indubitably, unequivocally, that this is probably the least clearly understood petition in the Lord's Prayer. Oh, the intent of it is clear enough: we first express our wholesome fear of moral testing or temptations (based undoubtedly on numerous painful encounters with the process), and then we ask the Lord to save us from the evils that cause the testing or temptations.

The difficulty that has been struggled with down through the centuries has been the actual wording of the first half of the petition. Many devout and well-meaning scholars have searched for some defect in the Greek text, hoping that some other valid, less puzzling wording might be substituted for "lead us not into temptation." For this seems to imply that we are enticed into temptation situations by God. But this possibility was strongly denied by the apostle James when he wrote, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone" (James 1:13).

Even among Swedenborgian scholars the tendency has been to conclude that the meaning of the phrase is something like this: "Do not allow us to be overcome in temptation." Several plausible arguments in this direction may be found in our collateral works. My intention is not to challenge such hypotheses, but to suggest that they bypass the underlying problem inherent in the text. One of the truly significant ideas or insights given to us by Swedenborg is that the literal text of the Bible is written in the form of "apparent truth," or "appearances of truth." There is no negative connotation to this description, nor is there any suggestion that therefore the letter of the Word is not "true." It is simply calling attention to a widely used and often appropriate form of truth.

Without this mode of truth, much of our daily speech would be tiresomely stilted and awkward. For instance, we schedule many events on the basis of the time the sun "rises" or "sets." But you and I know that the sun neither rises nor sets, even though that is the appearance. Also, society has a whole set of customs sometimes called "amenities." Often they contain little "real" truth, but serve instead to promote peace and harmony by appearing to be true. "How delightful it has been to have you visit us," we may say; while what we are thinking is, "Thank goodness these bores are finally leaving!" Or, "What a lovely dress you have on today!"--which, being interpreted, would come out something like this: "What ghastly taste you have in clothing!"

It would be inexcusable in such situations to say what we really feel or think--not only because it would be bad manners, but also because of the unavoidable cruelty and callousness involved in always insisting on saying "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." If, for instance, each time you are asked, "How are you?" you insist on giving a full-blown account of all your current health problems, people will soon stop greeting you in this way, you can be sure.

Apparent truth is also a necessary adaptation in a great many parent/child relationships. A wise and caring parent may from time to time may feel that the only loving thing to do is to resort to discipline or strict restraint in guiding or safeguarding the child. In order to make such guidance effective, the parent must often appear to the child to be truly angry, and in some instances, may even appear unfair or vindictive.

The wisest and most loving of all parents, our heavenly Father, has also found it prudent from time to time to let himself be seen in a similar light. Many such appearances of truth can be found in the Bible. For instance, we read in the Psalms that "God is angry with the wicked every day," or more accurately, he is "a God who expresses his wrath every day" (Psalm 7:11). Other passages picture God not only as angry but as vengeful, repenting, and so on. Some people have claimed to have been turned away from religion because of such Biblical statements. But none of these statements is in fact true. God is by nature incapable of such human failings as anger, vengefulness, or change of heart. These statements are simply reflections of how the biblical scribes recorded their impressions of encounters with God. Or, to use our term, they often wrote "appearances of truth."

Now to turn to our text: the real truth is that God neither tempts us nor leads us into temptation situations. Well, you may say, then obviously the text "Lead us not into temptation" must be inaccurate. I think not. Informed and responsible translators continue to translate it the same way. So far as I know there is no convincing evidence that the received text is faulty. For that reason, a major point of this sermon is to try to show that the text as it stands is not only correct, it is also fully appropriate to the situations it addresses.

First we might ask what the logic would be that would lead the Lord to teach us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation"? There are two ways to answer this that I am aware of:

The words can be differently understood by us when we are in different states of mind (as witness the adaptation cited earlier, "Let us not be overcome in temptation") and, (and I think more important) often when we are involved in the testing or temptation process, it may appear to us that the temptation is from God.

How often have you heard someone say--or perhaps said yourself--"Why did God do this to me?" Or, with a bit of reverse English (but really meaning the same thing) some may say with a deep note of resignation in their voice, "I guess it must be God's will that this happened to me." And you and I might respond (under our breath if we're charitable), "Nonsense! No temptation is the result of God's will!"

But that is still not the whole story. An insight found in our church's teachings is that a sense of despair, of being abandoned, of being harshly treated or punished is a normal part of being involved in temptation. In short, to note the existence of such feelings is not to criticize temptation; it is to observe a fact of temptation. Arcana Coelestia #8351 says, "Spiritual temptations are as a general rule protracted till a person is in despair." And in The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #197, speaking of temptation, it says, "In a state of desperation, a person speaks bitter things; but the Lord pays no attention to them." And we also recall the words Jesus spoke from the cross, the state of his last and most severe temptation: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1). We can be sure that in less troubled times, Jesus knew full well that the Divine (which he knew was dwelling within him) would never abandon him.

What sorts of things can we learn from this fuller knowledge of the nature of spiritual testing or temptation? For one thing, we should get out of the habit of taking offense at the attributes or qualities of temptation. We should learn to appreciate that our intellectual idea of its nature is quite different from the effect that temptation has on us when we are in its grips. At times our intellect may be elevated to see higher degrees of truth than that which is sometimes contained in the letter of God's Word. But during the experience of temptation, the apparent truth may become quite real to us. Whenever we are under the direct influence of worldly or selfish affections, our capacity to reason spiritually is temporarily stifled. And, if we will only believe it, at such times we really believe that the Lord has somehow led us into that particular temptation trap.

Let me illustrate this: What is our usual thought pattern whenever we are groping about for some plausible excuse for our faults? More often than not, don't we tend to excuse ourselves on the grounds of difficult or ""impossible"" circumstances? Given the same set of circumstances, we rationalize, who could have done anything else? "The devil made me do it!" We may not willingly allow the following pattern of words to form in our consciousness, but what we are really thinking is this: "If God hadn't let me get into that spot in the first place I wouldn't have let him down!" Or to put it in Biblical terminology, "if the Lord hadn't led me into temptation, he wouldn't have had to deliver me from the evil!"

Are you still with me? If so, let's next ask: In our times when we are free of temptation, what can we do to prepare ourselves to avoid this dangerous way of thinking whenever our minds are under the constraints of temptation? Or perhaps a more direct question would be: What is it that we think gives circumstances such power over us that we believe them to be capable of betraying us into sin?

Well, one thing we need to realize or admit is that circumstances are never the cause of sin. They are at best a means of exposing some of our hidden tendencies, of showing us something of our real spiritual state, or of manifesting some of the carefully hidden selfish affections that lurk in our heart--affections that we probably normally refuse to own up to, or at most, that we usually gloss over with some plausible excuse.

The fact is that if all of our inner affections were pure and spiritual (and that is a mighty big IF), then no matter how filled with temptation potential any given set of circumstances might be, we would have no trouble with them at all. We would in fact consistently do and say only that which is good and true. Under any circumstances, each person's actions are as pure and holy (or the reverse) as the affections of the heart from which they proceed.

Unlike Sir Lancelot (whose strength, you recall, was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure), earthbound creatures that most of us are, we are not so constituted. So we need to build some sort of reservoir of strength for our use in times of trial. As a first step in that direction, we need to acknowledge that it is neither God nor circumstances that cause us to yield to temptation. At the same time, we need to admit to ourselves that whenever we find ourselves in the context of a tempting situation, the natural level of our mind, if unchallenged, will invariably react unwisely, not looking within our own mind and heart for the source of the problem, but peevishly looking somewhere--anywhere--outside of ourselves. We need to take notice that whenever we do commit an act that disturbs our conscience, we seldom turn our thoughts back on ourselves first, searching for the cause within. Instead, as we said before, our more usual reaction is to think, "If I hadn't been placed in those tempting circumstances, I wouldn't have committed the act."

Now, let me tie this fact of life into our text from the Lord's Prayer. First, there is no way I know of that we can change the intrinsic structure of spiritual trial or temptation. Feelings of despair, resentment, blaming anyone or anything but ourselves--these will always be with us. And of course the Lord knows this. So how divinely appropriate that he should teach us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation"! This expresses perfectly the first spontaneous outlook of a more or less repentant mind, at the only level at which a mind in such a state can be reached.

Even if the motivating cause of praying these words is far from worthy--perhaps no more than a crying out against the uneasiness and discomfort of the moment--still, as a prayer, these are words of sorrow for sin, and an appeal to the Lord for help to overcome in the future. Any higher expression of truth than this would not only be inappropriate, it would be impossible in the state from which every regenerating person must begin.

The words "Lead us not into temptation" are perfectly suited to the early states of spiritual life in every human being. And that is where all of us have to begin our journey toward becoming a spiritual being. However, as we advance spiritually, there is nothing morally or spiritually wrong--at that time--with qualifying our understanding of the words so that they are more clearly suited to our present state.

Earlier I said that I had no desire to quarrel with the tendency among some of our astute Swedenborgian writers to qualify the intent of the phrase to be, "Do not allow us to be overcome in temptation." Perhaps now you can see why. It is surely true that if we are regenerating, our understanding of the petition at some time has to rise to this level. But this does not alter my concern that we must realize that no one starts there; we all must slowly and painstakingly grow into that state. As Isaiah put it, "Who is [the Lord] trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To those just weaned from milk? [No!] For he says 'command on command, command on command, rule on rule, rule on rule, here a little, there a little'" (Isaiah 28:9-10).

At no time in our life should we be afraid or ashamed to pray at a rudimentary level; for to do so is to face humbly our real spiritual state. Even though we may know that we are praying on the basis of an appearance of truth, still we cannot sincerely pray, "Lead us not into temptation" unless there is at the same time at least the beginning of a desire to be "delivered from evil," regardless of where the temptation came from.

The very form of the words, which most of us learned by heart as children, helps teach us that it is our responsibility to set our minds against getting into so-called compromising circumstances or associating with apparently evil companions. As we have said, it is not wrong--in fact, it is quite right in the early stages--that a person think that circumstances and bad companions are the actual causes of our sins.

Understanding comes only through experience. This is especially true in regard to the process of temptation. If we will only begin with the right attitude: a true desire to shun or flee from evils, looking to the Lord for help, we will place ourselves in a state to receive help in both understanding and will. It is only gradually and through experience that anyone can learn that neither the Lord nor circumstances are the cause of our spiritual trials. Only in this way can we come to realize that it is never the Lord's will that we face temptations; that he simply tolerates them as necessary disciplines for our spiritual growth. At the same time, the regenerating person can begin to appreciate that circumstances, rather than being the cause of temptations, are instead a divinely gracious means of exposing to us, to the extent that we can face it, our true character at any stage of our life.

And it is perhaps only then that we can fully appreciate words Paul spoke to the Christians at Corinth: "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Amen.

Prayer

O Lord our God, we know that you never tempt anyone. We know that our trials and struggles come not from you, but from hell, and from our own shortcomings. Be patient with us, we pray, when in the midst of temptation we hurl accusations against you of unfairness and lack of compassion. Be close to us even when we feel that you are far away and unconcerned about our anguish. Strengthen us to face the trials of this life. Through the battles and the despair that we face, weaken the grip of selfish desires and worldly goals on us. Tear us away from our ego's need to feel that we control our own lives, so that we may give you control of all that we think, feel, say, and do. Amen.

Rev. William R. Woofenden