And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one
Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Number 7 of 8 commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer broadcast on Raido Liberty by Fr. Alexander Schmemann to listeners in the former Soviet Union. (Translated by Alexis Vinogradov)
The last petition of the Lord’s Prayer reads: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one” (Mt 6:13).
Quite early on this petition led to misunderstanding and was subjected to all sorts of interpretations. First of all, what is the possible meaning of “lead us not”? Is it possible that God himself is responsible for tempting us, for sending us the sufferings, trials, temptations, and doubts which fill our life and so often make it unbearable? Or perhaps, does God torture us at least for the sake of our eventual illumination and salvation?
Furthermore, who is this “evil one” from whom we seek deliverance? This expression was and is often translated as simply “evil:’ while the Greek original, apo tau ponirou, can be translated as either “from the evil one” or “from evil.”
In either case, what is the origin of this evil? If God truly exists, then why does evil triumph and why do evil persons win? And why is the presence of evil power much more evident than the presence of God’s power? If God exists. how does he permit this? And if, let’s say, God decides to save me then why doesn’t he save others around me who are dying and in such terrible suffering?
Let us admit that these questions cannot be readily answered. Or more precisely, these questions cannot be answered at all, if we seek an answer that has a rational, intelligent, so-called “objective” formulation. All attempts at theodicy, that is, the rational explanation for the existence of evil in the world in the presence of an all-powerful God have proven unsuccessful and unconvincing. One of the most forceful rebuttals of such explanations remains the famous answer of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov: “If future happiness is built on the teardrop of even one child, I respectfully return my ticket to such happiness”.
But what then can be said?
Here one can begin to unravel the meaning, or perhaps more accurately, the inner power, of this last petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.” For, in the first instance, evil comes to us precisely as temptation, as doubt, as the disintegration of faith; the victory of darkness, cynicism, and helplessness in our soul.
The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness-our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, the full force of love. For it is by faith, hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.
Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it-an account of Christ’s temptation.
And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t once justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: ”And lead us not into temptation.”
The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him. It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.
We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.
There exists no concrete reality that we could call hatred, but it appears in all its awesome power when there is one who hates; there is no suffering as such, but there is the sufferer; everything in this world, everything in this life is personal. Thus it is not from some impersonal evil, but rather from the evil one that we ask for deliverance in the Lord’s Prayer. The source of evil is in the evil person, and this means in the person in whom paradoxically and horribly evil has replaced good, and who lives by evil. It is perhaps here, in these words about the evil one, that we are given the one possible explanation of evil, for here we discover that it is not some kind of impersonal force spread throughout the world, but rather as the tragedy of a personal choice, personal responsibility, personal decision.
And therefore only in the person, and not in abstract theories and arrangements, is evil defeated and goodness triumphs; which is why we pray first of all for ourselves, for each time that we overcome temptation, it is because we choose faith, hope, and love and not the gloom of evil.
A new order of causality is established in the world, a new possibility of triumph, heralded by this prayer: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil”