By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION - This is one of those confusing passages from the Bible that sometimes appear. On the face of it, this part of the Lord's Prayer seems to imply that God has the potential to lead us to moral harm. However, the Greek for "lead" means 'do not allow us to enter into temptation' or 'do not let us yield to temptation.' In other words, we are asking God to help us in our earthly struggle not to follow the path that leads to sin. St. Paul gives a vivid description of this inner 'war' in Romans 7:13-25.
Sin results from our consenting to temptation. Sin is a rupturing of the proper relationship between myself and God and between myself and those whom God gives me to love. And a rupturing of my relationship to my own self by a life of in-authenticity.
In Chapter 8 of Romans, St. Paul tells us we are engaged in a battle between the 'flesh' and the spirit. 'Flesh' refers to anything that takes us away from God, fellow human beings, and our self - such as envy, jealousy, pride, greed, dishonesty, grudges, judging others, prejudice, self-indulgence to the point of abuse of self, sexual license...
In a six day retreat I give to working people, I sometimes ask them to reflect on their experiences of personal sin. I pose two questions to them: What are the dynamics in my personality that underlie my sins? In what areas of my heart do I need God's forgiving and healing love?
The Holy Spirit helps us discern between trials and temptations and between being tempted and consenting to temptation. Temptations are not designed to make us fall, they are designed to make us stronger. As the Epistle of St. James has it: "Happy the one who holds out to the end..Once he (or she) has been proved, he (she) will receive the crown of life (the ultimate and eternal reward for fidelity and perseverance in following the law of Christ)." (1:12) For our part, we pray to God for the inner strength and courage to resist the test and thus to grow in our faith life. It was through prayer that Jesus vanquished the devil during his forty days in the desert.
Scripture scholar William Barclay provides some further light on this subject when he outlines possible sources of temptation. Here are three. First, the attack of temptation can come from outside us, for example, from the bad example of others. There are people whose influence is corrupting and it would be wise for us to stay out of their reach. And there are cultural influences, such as a culture of greed or a culture of violence. Secondly, some temptations come from people who love us. They have not the slightest intention of harming us, but their advice to, for example, not 'rock the boat' at work by standing up for what we believe in puts us at odds with our truest self. Jesus experienced this kind of temptation from Peter. Jesus told his disciples that he would have to suffer greatly. Peter responds, "Master! God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!"
Third, are the temptations that come from within us - the "dynamics in my personality" mentioned above. In Barclay's terms, each of us has some moral weak spot, some point of ethical vulnerability, some fault of temperament, some instinct or passion that left unguarded can lead us to sin. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his rules for the discernment of spirits, in the Spiritual Exercises, (a retreat manual) emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge. This means honestly facing both our weaknesses and our strengths, our limitations as well as our gifts. In this way, we learn how the devil tempts us and how to protect ourselves from the evil one.
Strangely enough, temptation comes sometimes from our strongest point. We find this to be true when we become morally over-confident, when we become like the Pharisee who seeing a tax collector go up to the temple to pray, thought in secret, "I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of people - grasping, crooked, adulterous - or even this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). In Ignatius' words, this is the weakness of complacent strength, another way of saying - pride.
Reflecting on his inner moral struggles, St. Paul presents us with the clearest sign of hope for our own inner battles: "What a wretched man I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death (subject to temptation and sin)? All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25)
A prayer reflection by poet Maya Angelou (an excerpt)
When I say."I am a Christian" I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin." I'm whispering "I was lost, Now I'm found and forgiven."
When I say."I am a Christian" I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.
When I say."I am a Christian" I am not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I'm weak and need His strength to carry on.
When I say."I am a Christian" I'm not claiming to be perfect, My flaws are far too visible but, God believes I am worth it.
When I say."I am a Christian" I'm not holier than thou, I'm just a sinner who received God's good grace somehow!
(February 2008 Newsletter)