Sunday, March 14, 2010

And Lead Us Not Into Temptation

I can't say I ever really thought about this line until this project. I said it, but I never really puzzled over it. And on the surface, it is most definitely puzzling. Why would God lead us into temptation? And to what end? To test our resolve, perhaps? It's not a completely unbelievable concept. Think of it like athletic practice -- repeated effort on ever-more difficult tasks allows us to grow more skilled and more confident.

And maybe it's not so much God actively tempting us as God temporarily withdrawing his care a bit so that we are forced to deal with desolation, that is, moments when we don't feel confident or resolved. It's the parent letting the child pedal away a few steps on their bike for the first time. Only by doing does the child ever learn how to balance.

Not a bad interpretation, no? The problem is, the petition here is a request to not be led into temptation. (Also, to say God does not keep us from temptation is different than saying God, lead us...) Either way, the argument is not insurmountable. The petition could mean, Lord, don't give me a burden that's more than I can't handle. Or even more colloquially, Lord, keep me from screwing up. I think that's generally what I think I'm saying.

But the Greek word being translated "temptation" here, peirasmos, actually can also mean "tribulation" or "testing". And that fits a lot of what we find Jesus saying in Matthew and Luke (where the Our Father is found). Think about how many times at Mass you hear one of those parables or exhortations from Jesus about being ready, lest you be caught short when the end times arrive. And in those passages Jesus often references the coming tribulations.

The interpretation that comes from this way of thinking is in some ways pretty similar to what I suspect we think naturally. To say keep us from tribulations is to say don't let me screw it up so bad that when You come acallin' on my deathbed or Jesus comes again I've placed myself too far out of your care. Keep me from a life built out of choices that result in the final tribulation which is Hell.

It certainly fits with our last petition, deliver us from evil. It's just that, instead of "evil" meaning bad things happening to me right now, we mean the finality of Evil.

"Lead me not into frickin' lasers."

I'll talk a bit more about that last line tomorrow. But in the big picture, here again we're talking about little increments, baby steps one line from the next. The first of the four petitions for our needs was that we have our daily bread -- that is, that the kingdom come. The second was that God would forgive us our sins, a forgiveness we desperately need that we might enter into his kingdom. The third, here, is a sort of heightening of that, a prayer that our sins would not become so insurmountable that we allow ourselves to be beyond saving.

We could argue over what exactly we mean by things like "damnation" or "final judgment". For me the most compelling vision has been that of C.S. Lewis in his short story The Great Divorce (which I highly recommend). The Great Divorce is the story of a group of dead people living in a sprawling, bleak twilight town (Purgatory/Hell), who take a bus to the beauteous hills and valleys of Heaven to "move on".

A Lewis-like Heaven (otherwise known to New Yorkers as Upstate/West of the Hudson).

The twist is, although all are welcome and encouraged to stay, most of them choose to go back to Hell instead, because they don't want to let go of old grudges or bad habits or be forgiven. They've gotten so used to being in control and being self-insulated, they really can't conceive of another way.

So, it's not that God condemns them/us so much as we paint ourselves into such a corner that we actually choose to reject God. It probably sound ridiculous, but I don't know... we certainly are pretty good at rejecting the forgiveness, the love, the friendship of others. Why not God?

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