"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."--ST. MATTHEW vi. 13.
It is good for us sometimes to stand still for a moment and consider our use of very familiar words. And this petition may appropriately illustrate our need of such an exercise.
It is on your lips every day. Every Sunday you offer it you hardly know how many times, in private and in public prayer: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." And the moment you stop to think about it you feel--who does not?--that it is a very solemn and moving petition if you offer it before God in sincerity, and with an honest desire to be kept out of the way of sin; but it becomes a fearful mockery if it is offered with unclean lips, or by one who is living in any sort of sinful practice, either secret or open.
And yet, as we all know, it is possible to do this, making the prayer mere lip service, under the influence of daily custom. This, then, is the question it suggests to us whenever we stop to think about it: How far are we endeavouring to keep our lives in accordance with the spirit of such a petition? "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Most of you, I can well believe, would not voluntarily or deliberately step out of your way to meet a temptation, or to seek any evil course of life. You would not do it of your own free choice, or in cold blood, as we say. This, at any rate, is your own feeling about sin, whether the feeling is consistent with your life or not. As you contemplate any low form of life in another, you recognise its ugliness and its degrading character, and you call it very likely by the name it deserves. If, then, you find yourself involved in any sin, in spite of these feelings, and although you take this daily prayer upon your lips, how comes it to be so? How comes it that you remain in this pitiable condition?
Your answer is, perhaps, that temptation comes upon you unawares, and that it takes you by surprise; or it seems to watch for some moment of forgetfulness or weakness; or you fight against a temptation, but still it clings to you as if it had a life of its own and were independent of you; or you are drawn into sin you scarcely know how; or you are driven into it by some one whom you fear although you despise him; or it seems to you to be in the very air you breathe. And although such answers explanatory of a life of sin or waste are no real excuse for it, they are very often quite true. If it were not so, the devil would not be the dangerous enemy that he assuredly is to our spiritual life; our risk of failure in our battle with sin would not be so great as experience shows it to be. We must therefore expect that temptations to sin will sometimes come upon us quite by surprise and at unlocked for moments, and that some temptations will linger and cling to us with a hateful persistence; you must be prepared also to find that some companion may draw you towards a sin, or a bully may endeavour to drive you into it. Your life is a happy one if it is free from all such risks, but you cannot count upon such freedom. So that, if any one begins his life thinking that his conflict with evil and its manifold temptations is going to be an easy one, he begins under a dangerous delusion, and he is likely to end in some disastrous failure.
You desire, let us hope, to keep your soul unstained by evil ways. If, then, you remember that to secure such a stainless and unpolluted life you have not only to fight with some external enemy now and then, but against dark and insidious powers of evil which seem to start up around you and in the very citadel of your heart unawares, and that except through a constant sense of God's presence in your life you cannot hope to keep free from their influence, this feeling should give reality and earnestness to our daily prayer to be delivered from the evil.
And, indeed, this feeling that our life is set in the midst of many and great dangers is one of the first requisites for its moral safety. It stands beside us with its warning, whenever a temptation to some sin besets us, reminding us that, no matter how pleasant or attractive the temptation may seem to be, or how trifling the sin that it suggests, it is in fact an outpost of a great army, whose name is legion, and that we should hold no parleyings and have no dealings with it, for it breathes corruption, and it brings degradation and death behind it.
"'Obsta principiis'" may indeed be said to be a warning specially needed by us in regard to every kind of temptation. But we may go further than this. Our safety from particular sins depends very often and very largely, at a critical moment, upon our general attitude and feeling towards sin in every shape.
It must be acknowledged, I think, that most sins which lay their hold upon us and master us, or struggle long and hard for the mastery, make their first entrance into the soul so easily, because they find it swept and garnished for their reception, and its doors wide open. With reference to this you have only to reflect on some chapter of your own experience. Has it never happened that, when some wrong or sinful act or thought or speech was first presented to you, it stirred a feeling of shrinking, or strong dislike, or fear, or uneasiness, or, it may be, disgust; but instead of listening to that warning voice, and spurning the temptation utterly, as your feeling bade you do, you were attracted somehow to turn and gaze upon it. You knew it to be sin, but you felt no repulsion. Your soul was not garrisoned and defended by any strong sense of the hatefulness and deadly influence of all sin as such; so if you fled from it it was with a backward look; and then you allowed yourself to think of it in others, or you lived on friendly and familiar terms with those who were stained by it; possibly you even jested about it; you let your thoughts feed upon it; you expressed no stern disapproval of it; you allowed the atmosphere of your life to be tainted by it; and at last your adversary the devil, having rejoiced to see his wiles thus gathering round you, saw you slip or plunge into the sin, and go one great step nearer to becoming his bondslave--just as some foolish bird, fluttering this way and that instead of spreading its wings for a heavenward flight into the pure and safe upper air, might plunge into the snares of the fowler. And yet all the while, although you were living this weak and vacillating life, which is the seed-field of sin, you were praying to God every day--"Lead us not into temptation."
If we remember any such experience we may at least gather from it some lessons of safety and strength for the time to come. It reminds us first of all how vitally important is our general attitude towards every form of sin and its allurements. On this attitude it very often depends whether your life is to be comparatively free from pitfalls, or whether it is to be beset with dangers at every turning. If by your attitude and behaviour you cause it to be felt that sin is hateful to you, and that you are sincere when you pray that God may keep you from all evil, a great many of the temptations that would otherwise make your life difficult and dangerous will shrink away abashed; or if the tempter ventures to assail you, he will do it half-heartedly when he sees that you repel him with a whole-hearted repugnance. It is this attitude even more than individual acts which fixes the tone of a society.
When there is no prevalent sense that there are those present who maintain this attitude of hatred and contempt for sin and everything that breeds or fosters it, the tone, as men say, becomes low, or lax, the air becomes corrupt, and life in such surroundings becomes full of peril. If the good are timid, shrinking, showing no positive fervour, no zeal for virtue, and no moral indignation against evil influence, then the bad in their society will lift up their heads and walk boldly. But when, on the other hand, they who are in their hearts convinced of the sinfulness of sin, and of the infinite mischief that may arise out of any form of it, are not ashamed to show it by their attitude, they cause the base to hide itself in its proper darkness, and they create an atmosphere around them in which temptations lose a great deal of their force and strength.
Let this, then, be your feeling about your life--that when it is assailed by any sin, that sin is not something isolated or insignificant; it is not something which may be indulged or accepted, as if it had no relation with other sins; it is a part of an infinite brood of evil; and that if you admit it within the circle of your life, or tolerate it in the air you breathe, you never know where its pestilent germs may fall, and breed, and multiply, and what mischief may come of it.
It is this feeling of the mysterious vitality of sin, and the subtle kinship of one form of sin with other forms, and its destructiveness when it seizes on a life or poisons an atmosphere, that helps us more than anything else to feel the force and the intensity of the Saviour's prayer for us: "Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me. I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from evil." It is this same feeling of the spreading, insidious, infectious and destructive nature of sin that makes us echo this as our first and most earnest prayer for all we love, that God may keep them from evil; and it is this that makes us value so highly and recognise with thankful hearts every example of a pure and strong life, which gives inspiration and strength to those around it.