Why do we call this the Lord’s Prayer? Have you ever wondered that? I’ve been asked that before, but I only recently found an answer to the question, in a book on this prayer called Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, by Westmont College theology professor Telford Work. You may remember I mentioned this book a few weeks ago. Dr. Work notes that many of us who consider ourselves theologically conservative assume that this is just a prayer Jesus is teaching the disciples—sure, Jesus prayed, but his prayers were different. He meant something different when he said, “My Father” than we do when we say “Our Father. After all, we’re clearly very different from Jesus, and why would he need to ask forgiveness for his sins? And so, for the best of reasons, we “separat[e] the Father’s relationship to Jesus from the Father’s relationship to us.”
That’s a grave mistake, because it effectively pitches the gospel out the window. “If that were the case,” Dr. Work says, “Jesus would have come and gone without changing much of anything. God’s relationship to us would be no more than a Creator’s relationship with his creatures. Still aloof from his fellow human beings, the Son would not truly be one of us, not Emmanuel, not God with us.” He’s right. The gospel rests on the fact that Jesus became fully human, completely one of us. He identified himself totally with us—that’s why he could take our sins, and their punishment, on himself. He prays this prayer along with us—yes, including “forgive us our sins,” not because he committed any, but because we have committed many, and he became sin on our behalf. He prays with us still, and for us, as our great High Priest in heaven, beside the throne of God the Father. We talked about that a few years back as we worked through Hebrews.
The key point here is something we keep coming back to as we spend time in the Sermon on the Mount: this is all about relationship. Above all, prayer is about relationship, and our relationship with God first and foremost. That’s why, when Jesus teaches us to pray, he tells us to begin by saying “Our Father”: we begin by claiming that relationship which is ours by his grace, and acknowledging that relationship which is supposed to be the most important reality in our lives, from which everything else finds its meaning and significance. That’s why he teaches us to ask God to reveal himself in us, to bring us into full submission to his authority, which means ultimately to remake us according to his will, not ours; it’s why he teaches us to confess our total dependence on our Father in heaven, both for our physical needs and for our spiritual ones.
And it’s what finally makes sense of this verse, and especially the first part of it. We commonly say this, “Lead us not into temptation,” but the New Revised Standard Version translates it, “Do not bring us into the time of trial,” which should give you a pretty good idea of the problem here. Temptation, trial, testing, all of those words translate this one Greek word; and all of them pose difficulties. We already know that God doesn’t tempt anyone, so asking him not to tempt us makes no sense; and on the other hand, he makes it clear that he does test us and he does send us trials, and that he does so for our growth, so why would we ask God not to do something he’s already said he’s going to do? Especially when he says it’s for our benefit in the long run?
Part of the problem is that “lead” isn’t a strong enough translation for the verb here, which means “to bring” or “to carry.” It’s the verb used in the Greek version of the Old Testament when they bring the sacrifice into the presence of God. This is a prayer that God would not put us in harm’s way—we’re perfectly capable of doing that all by ourselves. We already lead ourselves into temptation without any trouble, we certainly don’t need the help.
But doesn’t that make this an expression of distrust in God? No, it doesn’t, once we remember that this is a personal and relational prayer. That’s easy to lose sight of; I’m grateful this week to Andrea Skowronski for pointing me back to this. With her permission, I’m going to quote her here, because I don’t think I could say it better:
“Lead us not into temptation” is an appeal to God’s very nature as holy and separate from evil. Lead us not into temptation, because the evil one does that. Lead us not into temptation because You are holy and apart from the evil one. Lead us not into temptation because we are weak and small and afraid, and we need You. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one, because if You don’t, we are (and I say this with no trace of flippancy) damned. We know You are holy. Be holy. Show us You are holy. Act according to Your nature. And also, we know You do act according to Your nature. We know You will act according to Your nature.
As you think about that, consider also this story from Kenneth Bailey:
Some years ago, in Egypt, my friends and I made a number of extended trips into the Sahara to visit a famous well, named Bir Shaytoun . . . For that particular journey, we always selected “Uncle Zaki” as our guide. . . . As we would leave the village on the edge of the Nile and head out into the almost trackless Sahara, each of us in turn felt the inner pressure to say, “Uncle Zaki, don’t get us lost!” What we meant . . . was, “We don’t know the way to where we are going, and if you get us lost we will all die. We have placed our total trust in your leadership.” . . . [This] phrase in the Lord’s Prayer expresses the confidence of an earthly pilgrim traveling with a divine guide. The journey requires the pilgrims to affirm daily, “Lord, we trust you to guide us, because you alone know the way that we must go.”
This fits with the one change I would make in the way we say the Lord’s Prayer—you saw it in the NIV: not “deliver us from evil,” but “deliver us from the evil one.” Jesus isn’t teaching us to ask God to keep evil things from happening to us, or to keep our lives from being affected by the power of evil, much as we might wish that. Rather, he tells us to ask God to set us free from the power of the evil one in our lives. This is in part the power of temptation, and in particular those temptations to which we fall again and again, but it’s far more. It’s the power of lies, about ourselves and others. It’s the power of fear, of all the fears that hold us captive—of rejection, of loss, of inadequacy, of pain, and on and on and on. It’s the power of despair, and its minions sloth and burnout, that tell us to give up because it’s all just wasted effort anyway.
We know those powers, and we know they affect us. Whatever we pray, whatever we do, temptations come, and trials come, and we are tested, and sorely. Has God ignored our prayer? No. First, we remember that God does not tempt us; he allows the temptation, but he isn’t trying to make us fall, he wants us to overcome it. Second, we remember that in every temptation and every trial, Jesus is right with us by his Holy Spirit. We are not alone, and we do not face trials and temptations in our own strength alone.
And third, we remember that we do not pray, “Keep us safe from the evil one,” but “Deliver us from the evil one.” We can run away from some temptations (and when we can, we usually should), but the root of temptation is in each of our hearts, and we carry it with us wherever we go. The only way we might ever keep the evil one from going after us would be to make ourselves completely harmless to him—to abandon our liberty in Christ for the sake of a little temporary safety—which would mean turning away from the one who said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
We look at that, and we look at our struggles with temptation, and the ways the enemy attacks us and our families, and all the ways the world is at war with the church—and don’t imagine it was any less so thirty years ago, or sixty, or a hundred sixty; there has never been a time the Devil has gone easy on the people of God—we see all that and we want to pray, “Deliver us from evil”; we see the battles raging and we cry out, “Father, lead me around all that.” It’s perfectly understandable that we look for the wide gate and the easy way. But Jesus looks at us and says, “No, when you pray, pray this way: Father in heaven, I see the battle up ahead, I see the valley of the shadow on the horizon; please stay with me all the way to the other side. If you lead me in, please lead me through.”