Scripture Readings: Psalm 34:11-22, Matthew 6:9-13
The gospels of Matthew and Luke (11:2-4) contain slightly different versions of what we call "the Lord’s Prayer." The version most Christians know is in Matthew 6:9-13, and the traditional words used to translate this passage include asking God to "deliver us from evil." (v. 13) This is our prayer every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, and also now in a our perilous time. "Our Father," we pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
There can be no doubt that Christian faith takes evil very seriously, and surely all of us do as well. But how do we understand evil? And what do we mean when we pray, "deliver us from evil"?
In the Christian Bible evil is sometimes identified with evildoers. Psalm 34 illustrates this meaning, for the psalmist proclaims: "The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles." (vs. 16-17) The psalm clearly teaches that God punishes evildoers and saves the righteous. Americans now praying to God to "deliver us from evildoers" may well look to this Psalm for assurance and perhaps also to claim justification for attacking Iraq and ousting its evil regime.
But before we draw this conclusion from the Bible, we need to consider the New Testament identification of Satan with evil. In the New Testament gospels and in the Revelation to John, Satan not only acts through individuals, who resist the saving love of God in Christ and so might be identified as "evildoers," but Satan acts on his own. In the temptation story at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which is related in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, Satan speaks directly to Jesus, and the Revelation to John ends the New Testament with a cosmic battle between armies led by the risen Christ and by Satan. (Rev. 20:7-10)
We may be reluctant to think of evil as personified in Satan or as the Devil, yet this recognition of the autonomous power of personified evil is even part of the Lord’s Prayer. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the original Greek of Matthew 6:13 not as "deliver us from evil" but as "rescue us from the evil one." The New American Bible read by Catholics uses the phrase "deliver us from the evil one," and the Revised English Bible reads "save us from the evil one." The term "evil one" is a more accurate translation of the ancient Greek manuscripts, so these versions of scripture remind us that for the first Christians the evil power identified as Satan or as the Devil was very real and frightening.
The New Testament differs from the Hebrew Bible by attributing the evil done by "evildoers" to the evil power of Satan. In the Jewish scriptures Satan plays the role of prosecutor in the heavenly court of God, a role that is not evil but is part of the divine system of justice. In the New Testament, however, Satan is the source of resistance to the reign of Christ. In the gospels of Luke and John the betrayal of Jesus by one of his own disciples is explained by stating, "Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot." (Lk. 22:3 and also Jn. 13:27) In 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul counsels that Satan may tempt Christians who lack discipline in their prayers, and in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 Paul warns that because "Satan disguises himself as an angel of light . . . it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness."
Christian teaching rejects any simple condemnation of evildoers and confronts the harsh fact that evil is also done by those who claim to be righteous and to be doing the will of God.
In Romans 7:19 Paul confesses, "The good that I would do I do not do, and the evil that I would not do I do." Paul does not number himself among "the evildoers" of the world, for he does not think of himself as an evil man. But he acknowledges that not all he does is good. Paul doesn’t explain what he means, so we are left to interpret the implications of his confession. Certainly, we know from our personal experience as well as from history that good intentions do not necessarily prevent evil results, and that may be all that Paul meant. Or, he might have meant that even good persons with good intentions also consciously choose, at times, to do evil by putting their own self-interest above the interests and good of others.
In either case, Paul’s writings undercut the sharp dichotomy between evildoers and the righteous, which is reflected in Psalm 34. Moreover, Paul does not blame Satan for the evil that he believes he has done in his own life, but takes personal responsibility for this evil. The evil that we do, "our evil," is the most difficult to discern and acknowledge. Paul calls this kind of evil "sin," and Paul argues that we can be saved from this kind of evil only by the grace of God.
So, when we pray "deliver us from evil," we ought to mean more than asking God to keep us safe from evildoers. And we also ought to be praying for more than God’s assistance in resisting the temptations of Satan, although help in that regard is certainly worth praying for. When we pray to God to "deliver us from evil," we must be praying for insight into the evil that we, as good people with good intentions, might nonetheless do — and also for the strength to confess our sin, to repent, and to forgive others. Amen.