Hidden in Plain Sight

There is always a great temptation that in growing familiar with a thing we may begin to ponder its meaning to little.  This is most certainly the case with the Lord’s Prayer.  When it comes to this prototypical prayer that Our Lord gave to us, we should marvel at its depth.  As a testament to its inherent depth, we find saints and doctors of the Church, when reflecting on the meaning of each of the seven petitions, coming up with different conclusions.  This ought to awaken an awareness in us that this prayer is meant to be contemplated rather than merely recited.  Praying without contemplation of its meaning is mere saying.  In order to combat this tendency, I would like to offer reflection on the last two petitions, namely “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil.”

Any reflection on these two petitions must first start with two fundamental assumptions.  The first regards temptations.  On a superficial level, it appears that Our Lord was implying that it was God who leads us into temptation.  But St. James in his epistle tells us: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).  This means that it is not God Himself that tempts us, but ultimately all temptation comes from the devil.  This of course fits with Our Lord’s experience of temptation in the wilderness when the devil shows himself lord of the other two enemies of mankind (the flesh and the world) by tempting Him to turn the stones into bread and to receive all the kingdoms of the world.

This brings us to the second assumption and that is the fact that Evil is not some impersonal force, but has as its source a person (or persons).  The spirit of the world is one that is marked by materialism and scientism.  It views the world as a closed system in which given enough time we can explain everything through science.  God is then squeezed out of the picture as a superfluous hypothesis.  Even if He does exist, He is most certainly remote.  But there is a hidden effect of this spirit that we also often overlook.  If the world contains only what can be seen and measured, then there is also no room for the devil either.  Everything that happens has a material explanation (usually psychological) and the devil too is superfluous.  This “humility” of the devil allows him freer rein to orchestrate his plans.  He remains hidden in plain sight.  We demonize “the culture” or capitalism or socialism and miss the personal responsibility that ought to be assigned to the one who uses these things as means to carry out his diabolical plan—“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  Properly understood then the last petition is always our pleading with God to protect us from the machinations of the Evil One; “deliver us from the Evil One.”

Although these are viewed as two distinct petitions, they are intimately related because of this link between temptations and the one who tempts.  It is instructive then to look at temptations in general and how it is that Satan tempts us.

Why does God allow us to be tempted?  In turning to the Book of Job, we find that the first two chapters offer us a great deal upon which to meditate.

The first thing that you should take note of is the fact that there is a great battle going on between God’s elect and the forces of the Enemy.  God is not actually a participant in the battle however.  No one can truly fight God because He is all-powerful.  He merely indulges Satan so that ultimately His power is shown through His creatures.  And this is one of the reasons why God allows us to be tempted.  It is for His glory.  Lucifer is the highest of God’s creatures in the natural order.  He is of the first hierarchy of angels, the Seraphim.  He and his minions are so far above humanity in power that it is as if a colony of ants (us) were fighting mankind (the devil and his minions).  Even God’s mightiest angelic soldier, St. Michael is from the lowly eighth hierarchy, the Archangels.  Yet, once the order of grace is introduced, these lowly creatures are made so powerful that they are able to engage these great powers in battle.  A lowly handmaiden is given Lucifer’s place in heaven and now puts on combat boots and squashes his head.  All of this shows forth the power of God’s grace.  To Him be the glory.

Each time we are tempted and overcome that temptation it ultimately serves as a reminder of God’s power.  It is as if it is our own heel that crushes the head of the serpent and pushes him back to the depths of hell.  We grow stronger by the infusion of the divine life in us and the Evil One receives a mortal wound.  We also grow in faith that God always does provide grace in the manner and time that we need it.

Secondly, we are tempted because this is a time of trial and purification for mankind.   Through temptations we are brought low and grow in humility.  This is the experience of St. Paul when he speaks of a “thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated” (2Cor 12:7).  They can also serve as a wake-up call when we fall that we are not quite what we were made to be.  Recall the Pharisee who recounts all his own works to God and imagines himself to be self-sufficient.  He needs a healthy dose of temptation to keep from forming too high of an opinion of himself.

temptation_of_christ

By instructing us to pray “lead us not into temptation” Our Lord was first of all reminding us that ultimately we are powerless in the face of temptation.  It is an act of humility to utter the words.  But because we live in a season of testing, we ask God to remember our weakness when He does give the devil room to work.  We ask Him to limit the amount of power Satan exercises upon us and to give us the grace to overcome them so that they cease to be actual temptations.  We see this as God limits the space that Satan has in working against Job.  The first set of evils he visits upon Job are not allowed to “touch his person” (Job 1:12) and the second he must “spare his life” (Job 2:6).

The petition to be delivered from Evil is not merely a request that we be blindly protected from the ploys of the Evil One but that we are able to recognize them for what they are.  Many people fail to recognize the “ordinary” ways in which the devil is active in their lives.  They may believe in extraordinary demonic manifestations like possession, obsession and oppression, but do not realize that there is an ordinary form of demonic activity to which we are all subject.  We can make tremendous strides in our spiritual journey when we begin to see his ploys more clearly.  To that end, I find that there are four main categories into which they fall.

First there is discouragement.  Psalm 91:6 speaks of “the arrow that flies by day, for the matter that walks in darkness, nor for the ruin and the devil that is in the noonday.”  The great spiritual fathers have identified this “noonday devil” as discouragement leading to sloth.  The fact that it comes at noonday implies that one is already set out on the day’s work and that this devil comes during the heat of the day (i.e. when one is beginning to wear down) to convince the worker to give up the work altogether.

In our lives what this often looks like is that it starts with some idea or expectation of where we should be on our spiritual journey or how much fruit our apostolate should have borne at this point.  This is the “arrow that flies by day.”  Next comes the feeling of discouragement.  We find that it was really too hard to begin with or that we have been doing it wrong all along.  The temptation usually is not to give up altogether but to change something or to put our energies into something else that is “better.”  He can exploit our desire for growth by equating spiritual progress with change.  But discouragement never comes from God.  To arm us against the Accuser, the Advocate gives us the gift of courage to overcome the great stumbling block that discouragement can put in our path.

Second, the Evil One uses Division.  The Greek name for the devil, Diabolos, means “one who tears asunder.”  He does this by fostering division with those we are close to.  It usually starts with an accusation that we latch onto.  Once we are hooked on it, he then supplies us with reasons why they do it.  For example, a man is driving in the car and his wife is telling him to pass the car in front of him.  The devil is quickly there to point out to the man “she always does that when I am driving.”  Notice the absoluteness (always) of the statement so that there is an implication that she has a serious problem.  Once the man agrees with this, the devil then gives him reasons such as “she is so controlling.”  Now the man gets angry that his wife doesn’t trust him and she is left to fill in the blanks (again with the help of the Evil One) why he makes such a big deal out of such a small thing.

The antidote to this weapon of division is what I like to call “compassion in small things.”  It is an attempt to see things from other people’s perspective.  Returning to our example, the man might simply say “No she doesn’t always do that.  In fact she usually only does it when she is worried about being late.  She must be worried.  Let me reassure her.”

Third, there is distraction.  The primary goal of the evil one’s distractions is to have us lose focus and our sense of direction.  This happens in four main ways.  The first is to generate fear about the future.  This is a major theme in CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.  The senior tempter, Screwtape invites his nephew to exploit fear of the future because all vices are future directed.  He says, “[G]ratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”

The second form of distraction is to remind us of slights and offenses we have suffered at the hands of others.  For most people this temptation arises most often in prayer.  This is because prayer is a time of great vulnerability where we open ourselves to God and therefore can be a time when we are reminded of other times of vulnerability and when we were wounded.  The antidote is to remember that God is the ultimate vindicator of wrongs against us and to place our trust in His mercy.  This is closely related to the third form which is to play the comparison game with the situations of others.

If these fail, then there is always the pleasures available at the present moment.  A chief way this is done is temptation through curiosity and I believe the main weapon is the internet.  I think we would all be surprised at the amount of time we spend online each day if we were to log the number of times we stop to look at email, texts or Facebook.

Our Lord Himself called Satan, “the father of lies and a liar from the beginning.”  Obviously then the last form of temptation and the root of all temptations is deception.  As the father of lies, he will always tempt us to deception as well.  Usually this comes in two forms.  First is by equating information about someone with the truth about the person.  This is where we are tempted to label someone as liberal, conservative, gay, straight, etc. and assume that tells us all we need to know about the person.  We even do this with ourselves by assuming a label tells everyone else all they need to know about us.  We can label ourselves as “orthodox Catholics” without even considering those places where we are like the Pharisees.

Second is by tempting us to lie to conceal or avoid some pain.  This is almost always at the heart of every falsehood we tell as a thorough examination of conscience will reveal as our motive for lying.  It could be an attempt to shield us from the pain of being embarrassed about our past, the pain of disappointing someone or of getting caught in something we should not be doing.  Ultimately what we fear is the truth and the lies end up trapping us.  But only the “Truth will set us free.”

St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises says the devil is like a lover who tries to seduce a young girl or another’s wife; once his machinations are revealed the evil one is vexed and he flees.  Let us bring to light the trappings of the evil one by earnestly praying “Deliver us from Evil.”

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