Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Matthew 6:9-13 and Secrets of Heaven #1692 (see below)
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The Lord’s Prayer once again brings us to another really big topic: temptation and God’s deliverance. There’s so much here we can only scratch the surface.
First, if the phrasing “Lead us not into temptation” gives you pause, know that you are not alone. The idea that God might actually *lead* us into conflict and has to be petitioned not to do so, has bothered Christians from the very beginning of the movement. There is evidence that early Christian liturgies even modified the wording of the prayer to deal with this. Some scholars believe that the phrasing speaks to a kind of apocalyptic mindset that was prevalent in Jesus’ day, one that understood history to be heading toward a great battle between the faithful and cosmic forces of evil. The prayer spoke to a hope that, in following God, the faithful might not be led into a conflict that would ultimately overwhelm them (1). I think that we can resonate with those kind of existential anxieties even today, whenever we hope that we will be up to the challenges life throws at us.
But of course, all of this exposes some natural and fundamental questioning that we might well have around how Divine Providence works ie how God actually affects and shapes our lives. How does God lead us? Why does temptation exist? What is its purpose? And where is God during times of temptation?
Swedenborg speaks to all of these questions many times in his works. First, in regard to the phrasing “lead us not in to temptation” he points out that these words are what he calls an appearance. In the Swedenborgian worldview, there is an internal spiritual metaphorical meaning contained within the literal outward meaning of the words on the bible page. God’s Divine Truth emanates out toward us and goes through successive accomodations to human understanding, finally coming to rest in the outward “clothing” of the words spoken to and by the people of the time the Bible was written. Sometimes that outward clothing feels pretty similar to the spiritual meaning, (for example “love our neighbor”) and sometimes it almost totally obscures it (for example, God is angry and vengeful). To illustrate the difference in meaning, Swedenborg uses the example of the sun appearing to rise and set around a still earth, according to our vantage point, when the actual reality is that the earth moves around the sun. What appears to our eyes in that circumstance doesn’t represent the ultimate truth. Likewise for God’s nature; there were times when circumstances were interpreted by people to conclude that God was angry and vengeful and the Bible reflects that conclusion. However, the reality is that God is entirely loving.(2)
It is a similar case with the phrasing of the prayer. God never takes the tough love approach, leading us into trials or temptations, “for our own good.” When we want someone to blame it can sometimes feel like that. But God’s leading doesn’t actually happen that way. God has the utmost respect for our freedom, and so God’s leading is subtle and internal and individually crafted according to our needs and mindset. God does not create circumstances out in the world for us to experience, but rather, as we do experience them, guides our response and reflection and our meaning-making.
But this does prompt the question of what temptations are and why they happen. Culturally, the word temptation has taken on a kind of salacious tenor, which is why some of the most recent translations of Swedenborg’s works simply use the word “crisis” instead. We all know what it feels like to be in crisis, both large and small. Crisis means: a time of upheaval, often in which various elements are in opposition to each other, and/or turning point decisions will be made. After a crisis, we usually see things differently, and act differently with intention, because the crisis has changed us. A simple communal example is our current pandemic crisis. How is it changing what we value? What is it bringing into relief? How will we act differently afterward? Once things return to normal, might we still wear masks sometimes to make sure someone doesn’t catch our cold? Might we pause in gratitude for the simple things like a hug? Might we prioritize down time, or helping our neighbor, or scientific development?
So Swedenborg uses temptation in this way, not so much as something that has the potential to make us stray from the right path, but rather, as an experience that has the potential to change us: that clarifies our thinking, strengthens what we value and opens the path toward transformation. Why is this kind of experience necessary? We heard in our Swedenborg reading that temptations or crises are the means by which evils and falsities are broken up and dispersed within us. We all have unhealthy tendencies and false ideas to which we cling. This doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us people. People born into a natural earthly world, faced with a natural earthly life. Many times, we are happy to just chug along, not paying attention to our unhealthy tendencies or false ideas until we are forced to, until we are thrust into a crisis. The crisis *makes* us pay attention. And just like forgiveness, it is another holy threshold, where we get to decide what we value. We get to decide if we will keep trying to put our head back in the sand, or if we will face the crisis process with courage, and be open to what it will reveal to us.
In personal terms, a crisis can be precipitated by any number of different outward events, but the nature, quality and outcome of the crisis will be dictated by *our* internal processes and constitution: what and who we love and value, what we understand to be true, how willing we are to reflect and repent if necessary, and how willing we are to change.
But, even though our own personal makeup determines the nature and shape of our crises, and it sure does feel like a lot of work to make it through them, and this brings into relief another appearance at play. Swedenborg emphasizes that the Lord is fighting fiercely for our benefit during our crises, and it is by the Lord’s power alone that our crises are resolved, even as we are “allowed” to feel the full blooming of our own efforts. We have to feel like we are doing our own work in order for it to have any real meaning for us. The experience of overcoming or working through our crises changes us fundamentally, and we get to hold on to that, it becomes part of us. But it is key for us, as we look back upon our temptation times, to recognize it was the Lord’s power that brought us through, not our own. Making it through a crisis should indeed make us feel confident, and it is worth celebrating, but it is a confidence that should be grounded in faith and gratitude rather than self-satisfaction.
And this circles us back around to what is appearing as an unintentional sub-theme of our Lord’s Prayer series. Many times we are asking for things in the prayer that are already happening. In the sentence we are focusing on today, we ask that we might be delivered from evil, but that is not something that God needs to be prompted to do. Just as in the giving of the daily bread, just as with forgiving our sins, so it is the same with our constant deliverance. God is already giving us internal sustenance, already forgiving us, and already fighting on our behalf all the time. We don’t have to prove that we are good enough to receive God’s care. It happens no matter what.
So why do we pray for these things if they are already happening? Well, just because they are already happening, doesn’t mean that they have nothing to do with us, or that their meaning, efficacy or potential to change us is not affected by our conscious awareness and partnership. We ask for things that we know are already given or already happening so that we might remember them, so that we might give our consent to partner with them, so that we might remain open to them. I know that when I pray The Lord’s Prayer each morning, that my silent addition is “Please don’t let me forget.” Don’t let me forget in the middle of the day, when I’m hungry and grumpy and overwhelmed and trying to power through my to do list. Don’t let me forget when I’m trying to go so sleep but my mind is swirling. Don’t let me be so distracted by my own selfhood, that I forget that God is with me.
We construct a life for ourselves through endless sensual pleasures, through love for the material world and for ourselves…This demonstrates how large a gap separates mortal life from heavenly life, which is the reason the Lord uses adversity to regenerate us and bend us into harmony. (3)
I love this imagery, that we might be “bent into harmony” through our crises. There is nothing more human than the struggle we all share in trying to live this life, and this acknowledgment is the foundation of empathy. As Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem stated: That even as we grieved we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried..(4)
God is so deeply present in those words “even as.” Even as we grieved we grew. They are not to be skipped over, those two words are what bend us into harmony.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol VII, p133.
(2) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3425
(3) Ibid #760
1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Secrets of Heaven #1692
Hardly anyone can see what the battles of spiritual crisis accomplish. They are the means for dissolving and shaking off evil and falsity. They are also the means by which we develop a horror for evil and falsity, and gain not only conscience but strength of conscience; and this is the way we are reborn. For that reason, people who are regenerating are thrust into combat and undergo terrible trials — if not during their physical lives, then in the other life, assuming they can regenerate. In consequence, the Lord's church is called the church militant…
 It is the Lord alone who does the fighting in people facing their own spiritual battles, and who conquers. By our own power, we cannot accomplish anything at all against evil, hellish spirits, because they band together with the hells in such a way that if one hell were overcome the next would rush in to fill the void. This would continue forever. They are like the ocean beating on the individual stones in a jetty. If it managed to open a chink or a tiny crack in the jetty, it would never stop until it had broken down and overflowed the entire structure, leaving not a trace. That is how it would be if the Lord did not bear our battles by himself.