By J.R. Miller
The petition in our Lord's Prayer regarding temptation, perplexes some good people. It reads in the Revised Version, "Bring us not into temptation." Does God then ever bring us into temptation? Does he want us to be tempted? We think of temptation as incitement or persuasion to sin. We know that God never tempts us in this way. "Let no man say when he is tempted--I am tempted by God." But the word temptation means also trial, testing. So we have this in James, "Blessed is the man who endures temptation (trial); for when he has been approved, he shall receive the crown of life." In the same epistle we have also this: "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proving of your faith works patience." The reference here is to trials, disciplines, sufferings, rather than to incitements to sin.
We are to be glad when we have such experiences, because in them we shall grow strong. It is a real misfortune never to have anything to put our character to the test--or to bring out its undeveloped qualities.Thus we are helped to understand the meaning of temptation--from the divine side. When Jesus was led, driven, by the Holy Spirit, into the waste places to be tempted of the devil, God's thought was not to cause him to sin; rather, it was to give him the opportunity to be tested and proved, that he might come again with the light of victory on his face, ready to be the Friend, Helper, and Deliverer of countless other men. So when God brings us into a place in which we must meet temptation, it is never his purpose to lead us to sin. That is Satan's purpose--but God's is that we may meet the temptation and be victorious in it. Temptations, therefore, are opportunities that God puts within our reach, by which we are to become strong and rich in experience.
We are not, therefore, to pray that we shall never have any temptations. Imagine a soldier praying that he may never have to fight any battles. What is the business of a soldier--but to fight? Only on battlefields can he learn courage or train himself to be a soldier. What battles are to a soldier, temptations are to a Christian. He never can become of much worth as a man--if he never faces struggles and learns to overcome. Soldiers are made on battlefields, character is grown, and men are made, in trial.
God does then bring us into temptation, or trials. At least, he allows us to meet temptation, not that we may fall--but that we may have the struggle and come out of it stronger, ready for nobler and worthier life and service. The Master's cheering word to every follower of him as he enters any struggle is, "He who overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne." The day of temptation is dangerous to every struggler.
There is a place on the great mountain divide in the west--where the destiny of a dewdrop, trembling on a leaf, is decided by the direction of the breeze that is blowing. If the wind is from the west, the dewdrop will fall to the eastward of an invisible line and will be carried into the Mississippi, and to the Atlantic Ocean. But if there is even the gentlest breeze from the east, the drop of dew will fall to the west of the divide, and will start on its way to the Pacific. So in experiences of temptation, human lives tremble on the divide of the eternities. We know not the momentousness of our decisions, even in what seem most trivial matters.
We understand now the meaning of temptation and the importance of its issue. It is the part of true life, to make it a blessing. Some tell us that the petition in the Lord's Prayer is cowardly, "Bring us not into temptation." If nobler character lies beyond the struggle, why should we shrink from the struggle? Why not seek it and welcome it? Yet we dare not rush recklessly into peril. Our Master never bids us put ourselves needlessly in the way of danger. We are to ask for guidance and then go where he wants us to go, not thinking of the peril. Christ did not pray that his disciples should be taken out of the world, that is, away from its enmity and danger; his prayer rather was that they should never fail in any duty, and should then be protected from the world's evil, that is from sin; that in their battles and struggles--they should be kept unspotted.
The prayer, "Bring us not into temptation," is never to be a request to be spared perilous duty, or that trial, coming in the path of duty, shall be avoided. We should never be afraid of anything in the divine will. George Macdonald describes thus what he calls a sane, wholesome, practical working faith: "First, that it is a man's business to do the will of God; second, that God takes on himself the special care of that man; and third, that therefore that man ought never to be afraid of anything." If you go into any way of temptation or danger unsent, unled of God, you go without God's protection and have no promise of shelter or deliverance. But if, after your morning prayer, "Bring us not into temptation today," you find yourself facing the fiercest struggle, you need have no fear. Christ is with you--and no harm can touch you.
The problem of Christian living then, is not to escape struggle, to avoid meeting danger--but in any peril in the line of duty to be preserved from harm. Temptation is not sin. Sin begins when temptation is listened to, parleyed with, and yielded to. There is no sin in the feeling of resentment or anger which rises in us when we are insulted, when injury is done to us. We cannot prevent the momentary feeling of wrong; that is not sin if we gain a victory over it, if we turn the rising bitter feeling into a prayer, and the impulse to resentment into a deed of kindness. But when the bitterness is allowed to nest in our heart--we have sinned.
Safety in temptation requires that we solemnly and resolutely reject every impulse to do anything which is wrong. We must watch the smallest beginnings of departure from right. We have our weak points, and must keep a double guard at these places. We must watch our companionships. We had better sacrifice a friendship that has brought us much pleasure, than by retaining it, allow contamination or defiling. The influence of the world is most subtle. It is easy to drift unconsciously into its atmosphere, and to have our lives hurt by its spirit.
In one of Maartens' novels, one of the characters is a pure hearted girl who might be judged to have no consciousness of sin. She, however, leaves her quiet home and with friends visits Paris and Monte Carlo. At the close of one day she receives a black edged letter, telling her of the death of her old pastor. He had sent his love to her just before he died. The event recalls the good man's birthday message to her some time before, which she had overlooked. The message was, "Keep yourself unspotted from the world." The words now jumped from the page with painful vividness.
Then the book goes on to tell how the girl sat stroking the back of one hand with the other, mechanically, as if to wipe off the dim stains of the day. She felt soiled as well as saddened. She opened the window and looked up at the stars. Then her head sank on the window ledge, and the tears fell freely on the blots that no tears could wipe away. She had not gone into the world's evil ways. She had not given up her Christ--only she had gone into the atmosphere of worldliness, and her garments were no longer unspotted. The incident tells us how easy it is to be hurt by the world.
How may we get divine help in our struggles with temptation? Only the other day, one was almost bitterly complaining of God because he had allowed a friend to fall into grievous sin after the earnest prayer that the friend might be kept. "Why did God let my friend fall?" was the question that was asked--as if God had failed to do his part, as if it were God's fault that the friend had fallen. We must remember that God does not keep anyone from sin by force. He does not build a wall around us, that the evil cannot get near us. He keeps us through our own will, our own choice. But he will always help us when we strive to be true.
There is a luminous word about temptation in one of Paul's epistles: "There has no temptation taken you--but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above which you are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." We never can plead that our temptation is too great for human strength. It is never necessary for us to fall. We may overcome, in the bitterest struggle. God keeps watch--and will never permit the temptation to become greater than we are able to bear. He does not pamper us and keep us from struggle. He wants us to be good soldiers. He wants us to learn to stand--and to be brave, true, and strong. But when he sees that the temptation is growing so hard that we can no longer resist it--he comes with help. He makes a way of escape--opens some door by which we may have relief or deliverance. Peter was not kept from temptation the night of the Lord's betrayal--it was necessary that he should be tried--and that his own strength might fail. In no other way could Peter be prepared for his work. But Jesus kept his eye on his disciple in his terrible experience, and made intercession for him--that his faith might not utterly fail.
It is well that we learn the need of divine help, in the temptations of our lives. It is not enough to have the forms of religion--in the great crises of our experience; only Christ himself will suffice. It is said that Gainsborough, the artist, longed also to be a musician. He bought musical instruments of many kinds and tried to play them. He once heard a great violinist bringing ravishing music from his instrument. Gainsborough was charmed, and thrown into transports of admiration. He bought the violin on which the master had played so marvelously. He thought that if he only had the wonderful instrument, that he could play too. But he soon learned that the music was not in the violin--but was in the master who played it.
We sometimes read how certain people have learned to overcome in temptation, and we try to get their method, thinking we can overcome, too--if we use the same formula that they use. We read the biographies of eminent saints to find out how they prayed, how they read the Bible--thinking that we can get the secret of their victoriousness, simply by adopting their method of spiritual life. But as the music was not in the violin--but in the player, so the secret of victory in temptation is not in any method, not even in the Bible, nor in any liturgy of prayer--but only in Christ. The power which makes us strong, is not in any religious schedule, it is not in anyone's methods--we must have Christ with us, Christ in us.
There is a beautiful legend of Columba, the apostle of Christianity in North Britain. The saint wished to make a copy of the Psalms for his own use--but the one Bible was kept out of his reach, hidden in the church. Columba made his way secretly into the church, at night, and found the place where the precious volume was kept. But there was no light in the building, and he could not see to write. But when he opened the book and took his pen to write--light streamed out from his hand, which flooded the page with radiance. With that shining hand he made a copy of the Psalter. It is only a legend--but it teaches that those who live always in communion with Christ have Christ in themselves and need falter at anything. When we are serving him--he helps us. The light of his life in us--will make our lives shine so that where we go, the darkness will be changed to day. Then we shall always be conquerors in him.