"The Lord's Prayer."
Sermon XXVIII. Forgiveness and Deliverance.
By the Rev. Percy Dearmer, M.A., Vicar of S. Mary's, Primrose Hill.
AFTER bread, forgiveness. After the wants of the body comes this prime necessity of the soul. "Give us our bread, forgive us our trespasses." It is put here as a daily spiritual need--something that we require as constantly as food.
The Christian is set forth here as a man who is ever acknowledging his sins; whenever he prays, confessing his trespasses; solemnly asking God's forgiveness from day to day, from hour to hour. There is about the Christian life this atmosphere of confession--this inward crying of the heart, "God be merciful! Forgive! "The Christian has put far away all other thoughts as to his goodness or excusableness. He is not like the man of the world, ignorant of his own vileness; he is not like the false religious professor, confident in his own respectability. He is a humble man, hungering after forgiveness as he does for bread.
Here is the first great, simple lesson of this petition. It describes the whole attitude of the Christian soul.
It also implies the attitude of God. For the Lord's Prayer contains no petitions that are not answered; we are only told to ask what God is ready to give. We pray for what we shall assuredly get in answer to prayer. God is always ready to forgive; free forgiveness is granted to the soul that asks it. We are so used to the phrase now that we do not realise how new it was, how startling, when first uttered. The Jews had no notion of any other goodness than that which is produced by a system of rewards and punishments--a legal goodness, a restrained goodness. Then there came a Man who went up and down the land, telling sinners to be at peace, offering forgiveness free to all who repented, tearing down the penalties which had been thought such indispensable safeguards to righteousness, saying, "Thy sins be forgiven thee" to those who had made no formal reparation, gathering round Him publicans and harlots, and with His last breath promising His fellowship in Paradise to the thief who an hour before had been a blasphemer.
"Who was this presumptuous Absolver, this upstart, Who was destroying all the barriers of society?" they asked.
It was God, showing men His own way, so different from the ways of men. God the Forgiver. It is the central secret of the Gospels.
At the present day men find it harder to realise the awfulness of sin than perhaps ever before. There is so much in our modern way of looking at the universe that gives us the feeling of necessity, of inevitableness, of some measure at least of determinism--our heredity, our environment. The old terrors have paled, the old horrors of retribution have faded. We cannot help it; the stress is laid on the other side; the atmosphere is different for us. Sin seems to us more natural, more excusable, and God more tolerant, more easy.
There is loss in this. It is one-sided; just as the old terrible view of God, the old horror of Hell was onesided.
Yet there is some gain. It is easier for us to realise God as love. And after all it is here that the Christian Church lays the stress. It is not of sin that the Creed speaks, but of the forgiveness of sin; not of eternal death, but of life everlasting. It is not of the terrors of God that the Lord's Prayer tells, but of His Fatherhood, of His forgiveness;
And if we want to bring home to ourselves the awfulness of sin, which is so little realised to-day, is not this the way for us--that we should bring more home the forgiveness of God? Let us not fear to lay infinite stress upon His mercy, His love. Let us only try and realise that He does forgive us, only feel the glow of love and gratitude that comes to the forgiven soul, and we shall learn to realise the solemn seriousness of our sins--we shall come back to that grave view of life, that fearful sense of responsibility which we have so largely lost.
The common error to-day--especially among the millions who call themselves Christians and do not practise Christianity--is to think of God as merely good-natured. But is not that just because they do not ask Him to forgive them their trespasses?
If we do this, we shall learn indeed the love and patience of our Father; but we shall learn also the blackness of our sins. Is not that the remedy? Does anyone here find it difficult to be really sorry, really penitent, really horrified at their own wickedness? Many do; in some measure all do.
Let us place ourselves more constantly at our Father's feet and ask Him to forgive us; from our hearts ask Him Who is altogether loving, and the sad tale will unroll itself--the burden of cruel, selfish deeds, of evil words, of base thoughts, and the revelation of things undone (far more difficult to discover), the burden of things undone, of duties unfulfilled, words unspoken, of talents cast away, of affections trifled with, of light within that has graded into darkness, the burden of opportunities lost, of days wasted for ever.
Yes, I think if we ask God to forgive us we shall learn our sinfulness. The thought of His love will be a more poignant medicine than the old thought of His terrors. And nothing will stir us to repentance and amendment like the rush of gratitude that forgiveness always brings.
Pray more often, "Forgive us." Let that be a frequent ejaculation as you go about your duties and your pleasures. Each secret cry in the heart will reveal more of your sins, each will show a wider vision of God's love.
But this is only half. The petition differs from every other part of the Paternoster, in having a condition attached, "As we forgive them that trespass against us." Even in the shortened form that S. Luke records, with two clauses omitted, even there it was felt necessary not to omit the conditional words. And S. Matthew records how our Lord broke off at the end of prayer and went back to these words, emphasising them yet again, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
Did I say the clause is conditional? Nay, it is even more. It does not say, "Forgive us if we forgive others."
It says, "Forgive us as we forgive others." In the revised version of S. Matthew, this is greatly strengthened, because the past tense is restored. "Forgive us as we also have forgiven." It is not merely a condition. It is an assumption. It does not say, "You must not pray for forgiveness unless you also are ready to forgive." It says, "Do not dare to ask forgiveness unless you have already forgiven." You must of course be yourself a ftge absolver before you can ask for absolution.
Even more is this apparent when we remember that our Lord did not use the word "sin," but called our sins by the name of debt. We should perhaps be sorry to lose the old word "trespasses" which we owe to Tyndale's translation of 1526. But it misses the force of the word that is used both in the Authorised and the Revised Versions, "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." Our sins are so many failures to do what we ought to have done--the lost days of our life--they are debts owed to God, debts that we can never pay, health, life, powers, given and squandered. We ask God to cancel the debt. We do not attempt to deny that other people have wronged us, we do not pretend that others are not indebted to us (as we to them); only we claim as the reason for our request that we have already cancelled all debts that were due to us. Their debt to us is very small; our debt to God is very large. In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the servant owes his master ten thousand talents, and is owed by his fellow-servant one hundred pence.
And, as that parable reminds us, if we fail in forgiveness all the debt is rolled back upon us. All its weight returns. That is a strange thing. Hardly less strange to us than to the first disciples. For we have not learnt the lesson.
The lesson is that this clause also of the Lord's Prayer is social. Even here, where we deal most directly with God, asking Him for pardon--even here that obstinate neighbour of ours comes in. Even here we cannot stand out as individuals, but are still--yes, more than ever--members of a brotherhood.
No, we have not learnt .the lesson. It is still the common boast of British Christianity that "No man shall come between me and my God." And, strangely enough, this cry is raised in this very connection, it is raised in opposition to the Church's claim for human absolution.
Surely, one would have thought, the Lord's Prayer itself should have been sufficient warning against that foolish boast. For what it teaches is the exact opposite--that every man shall come between me and Him. Every single man that has ever wronged me--they come crowding round us as we pray, with mute inquiries, "Am I forgiven? And I? And I?"
For they need our forgiveness, as we for our part need to give it. Is it not true that they need it? Is it not true that you can absolve--that every son of man has in his measure the power of the typical Son of Man, the perfect Man, that every son of man has power on earth to forgive sins? Do we not know that it is true? Is there anyone here who has not felt over and over again the load that has been taken from his mind when he has acknowledged to another man a hidden load of guilt, of indebtedness for wrong done, and has been met--not with coldness and reproof, but with forgiving human sympathy? Who has not felt how such a moment was the dawn to him of a better hope, the beginning of a wider love for man and faith in man?
Ah! do we realise how immense is the power of forgiveness that each one of us can exercise? Do we realise how each one of us can go through life scattering blessings among our friends (and shall we add our servants?), drawing from them all that is best, their love, and resolutions of amendment, and a new belief in their power to improve? Do we realise the crushing, killing power of resentment and suspicion, the hideous atmosphere that is created by our standard of business relationships, the soul-destroying effects of our unforgiving, untrusting, unloving way of dealing with others?
Yet, who has not seen in some saintly Christian the triumph of the opposite spirit? Here and there we find a man or woman who knows no resentment, who forgives; and they pass through life as the spring winds pass over Nature, calling up flowers and fruit, sweetness and brightness and beauty as they go; and they become themselves such forgiving souls, full of a rare loveliness that draws us to them by strong ties of gratitude and love.
Oh, it is strange still--this clause of forgiveness, strange still, difficult. Yet it is necessary to salvation. Yet we pray for it every time we use our Lord's words.
Yes, we pray not for a momentary sense of forgiveness, but for the very spirit of forgiveness. We pray not for forgiveness anyhow, but for forgiveness acceptable to the necessary law of God.
And what is necessary? This. That we should be in union with God's Will, and that we should be in the fellowship of His Kingdom.
And therefore, as we pray, we cancel all debts. No longer may we consider the obligations of others to us, no longer may we nurse our wrongs, or claim our rights.
As debtors we come to God, praying Him to forgive us. Praying Him to forgive us our sins, and therefore first seeking love: for love is the great enemy of sin, and sin will not be ready to depart till love occupies the ground.
Then we can pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
And can we know when we are forgiven? Can we find out how the face of God looks towards us?
Yes. For we can see how we are looking at our fellow men. God deals with us as we have dealt with them.
These two petitions close the Lord's Prayer; for the Doxology with which the Prayer is sometimes concluded was not among the words that our Lord originally said; it was added by the Church just as the Gloria is added to the Psalms as an ascription of praise in public worship. In the Revised Version it is put into the margin. The Prayer as Christ taught it ends with the cry for deliverance.
And these two clauses are so closely linked as to form but one petition--"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Keep us from danger, but if it he Thy Will that we come into it, then deliver us from the evil in it.
Every child understands these words. And yet for all their simplicity, they contain great difficulties. They are intelligible to the heart, but difficult to explain. We feel as we say them , that they are real and true; yet they involve one of those paradoxes which so often lie at the root of philosophy.
God can try us, test us, but God cannot tempt us to sin; it would be against His nature to lure us into evil. Yet we pray that He may not lead us into temptation.
The explanation is, first, that there is a profound distinction between trial and temptation. A trial is a test, something that puts us on our mettle, brings out the strength that is in us, or reveals hidden, unsuspected weakness. God tries us: He does not tempt us. Yet He suffers us to be tempted, and temptation is the way in which we are tried. It is the old problem of evil. God is not the cause of it, yet He suffers it: and by means of the struggle with evil, man becomes good and great. We do not pray to be delivered from trial, but we pray that in trial we may be kept from . entering into temptation.
S. Paul has a passage that exactly expresses this. "There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear; but God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it." S. Paul does not say that God tempts us, nor that God will keep all temptations from us; but he does say that God will so help us that we need not fall, He will make a way of escape, He will make it possible for us to endure. In other words, He will deliver us from the evil.
S. James goes even further and rejoices in temptation. "Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proof of your faith worketh patience." He is here contemplating the triumphant resistance of a strong man of faith. The temptation becomes a cause of rejoicing: it increases strength. And surely this is true also: if we were never tempted, our characters would have no chance of development. It is through a series of conflicts that the good man marches on towards perfection.
Yet we pray, "Lead us not into temptation," 6r as in the Revised Version, "Bring us not." It seems something of a paradox. Yet if we apply it to the heart, there is no difficulty in it. And when we pray this prayer, we know what we mean: we say it with absolute clearness and sincerity.
And if we put it to a concrete test, we find that it is entirely right and true. In the life of everyone of us, a time comes more than once when we have to decide to undertake duties that we know will bring new temptations, new occasions of sin. We take the step, knowing that we are going into the midst of many and great\ dangers, yet is there any time in our whole life when we pray more sincerely, "Lead us not into temptation?"
And was not that exactly the case with our Lord Himself? He was tempted, not of God,xbut of the devil. Yet it was by the Spirit of God that He was led. "Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil." We commemorate it by every Lenten fast. The Holy Spirit did lead Him up to the verge of temptation. Yet do we not feel sure that in that terrific moment the one prayer of His inmost being must have been, "Lead Me not into temptation."
There stands the paradox. We know that we must avoid temptation; yet that, when it comes, we must rejoice--rejoice, of course, only if we are trying to serve God--for then we know that the temptation will work redemption and triumph. We know that God constantly suffers us to be brought--nay, Himself brings us up to the verge of temptation; yet we know that He will not cause us to fall into it. So we pray, "Bring us not into temptation." "O Lord," we cry, "bring me not into this temptation, but through it, past it; carry me safely over it," A temptation comes to us, assaults us. There is no sin in that; it is not our fault. An evil thought slides into our mind; there is no sin in that; we do not pray to be kept from such attacks. It is only when we harbour the thought, and let it grow and envelop us, that it becomes a sin. Then- we are within it, we have passed into temptation. Such thoughts are like the germs of disease that are constantly entering the blood, but do no harm unless the body is weak and harbours them--and they grow with amazing rapidity, and envelop the whole man.
So with temptations. We avoid them as much as possible, but they are bound to come constantly; and sometimes duty may call us right into the midst of them. Then we pray more fervently than ever that they may not settle in us, that we may not harbour them, so that they may not take possession of us and envelop us. And each resistance helps us to be immune in the future.
We may be in the midst of fever, and yet not in a fever. We may be in the midst of temptations, and yet not fall into them.
Is it not for this that we ask when we say, "Lead us not into temptation "?
And is not the lesson of this petition that of dependence on God? It is against our own carelessness, our own foolish self-sufficiency that we pray.
There are so many temptations that are still too strong for us. To be brought near them is to be brought into them, unless we are on our guard. If we live carelessly, God suffers us, as a punishment, to be brought within the scope of temptation, and we find it too strong for us. That is so common a thing that we call it a law of our being. It is a law, one of God's laws. So we turn to Him and pray that He may lead us aright; or, in other words, that He may give us the will to be led aright; for we must pray, if we are to be delivered from our self-satisfied trust in our own strength.
It is the warning of Holy Week, of that great awful week, when all the disciples were tried, and none were able to withstand.
"Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into Temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak."
Yes, watch against temptation, and pray, when it comes, that you may be delivered from the evil. With this cry for deliverance the Lord's Prayer ends.
We are set in the world, in the midst of so many and great dangers, and we pray not that our path may be made easy for us, not that we may be withdrawn from temptations into some secluded monastery (where, indeed, the devil would still follow us), but that, going through the world, we may have strength to choose the right, we may have the God-given instinct to avoid pitfalls, to pass safely through the allurements, blind to the smiles of the world, insensible to the pressure of the flesh, deaf to the mocking laughter of the devil. So our Lord prayed for His disciples; it was in Holy Week, this too on Maundy Thursday, after the first Communion, and before the Agony in the Garden, that He said--"I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil."
So hard to distinguish as we go on through the world, so hard to distinguish between the right and the wrong, so hard to know what _we should take and what refuse, what we should do and what we should leave undone--so hard even to refuse when we do know, so hard even to bring ourselves to face the pleasant things and put them from us. Ah! how we all stand, compassed about with dangers, some known and dreaded, some loved though they are known, some (and those the worst) not known, not suspected at all.
What can we do? Only say this prayer, "Deliver us from evil."
From the evil, and from the evil one: for that thought is included--from our ghostly enemy. Our Lord knew more about the struggle than we, and behind the seen temptations He detected hostile wills in the spiritual world, demons, evil ones, working to pervert the Kingdom of God, evil spirits in the next world, as well as evil men in this. Worse than the world, and worse than the flesh, are the sudden wicked things that shoot into our minds from the outside--without warning, without any leading up to them on our part--the fiery darts of the devil, the bitter, cruel, false onslaughts of the spirits of evil.
We stand aghast at all the forces that are against us--forces that have had such shameful triumphs over us in the past, Or perhaps, worse, some of us are not aghast at all, have never realised the awfulness of the struggle, the hideous consequences involved here and hereafter, the bitter misery and degradation brought on ourselves and on all the sad struggling millions of humanity, the glorious prize lost--the holiness and happiness that might be for us, that might be for all.
Ah! if we have never yet realised the solemnity of life, let us at least strive to do so now in this most solemn week that is before us--the week of the great conflict with evil, the week when He Who was tempted like as we are, yet without sin, was lifted up upon the Cross to take away sin.
And as we realise, our cry will be, "Deliver us, deliver us, from the evil."
A cry not for ourselves only; for here also we include the whole human race in our prayers. The bed-ridden old woman in her lonely garret, as she says these words, prays also for those who live in palaces (and need them more perhaps than she); prays also for the statesman as he struggles between his duties and his ambitions; prays for the student as he strives for the light; prays for the priest, for the merchant, for the labourer, each in his own temptation; prays for her country, that its evils which fill men's lives with temptations to greed and lust and crael careless sloth may be removed; prays too for other countries in their throes of anguish which may end in a second death, or in a new life.
And each one of us prays not only for himself, but for all others--for the young man overwhelmed by the pleasures of the world, for the worker choked by its cares, for the little child in his first steps, for the aged in their last. '
Great indeed is the need of each one of us, every hour, every minute. "Deliver us from evil." Constant must this cry be in our hearts. Yet it is far stronger even for ourselves if we remember also in the great struggle of prayer that great "Us" for whom we pray when we ask that God our heavenly Father, Who is the Giver of all goodness, will send His grace unto me and to all people, and keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death.
Thus for thousands upon thousands of years men have prayed, dimly first, and then more clearly, and as they prayed they have stemmed the tide of evil. It is being rolled back; the deliverance of the world from evil is in sure progress. Above the welter of blood and tears, of wounded, weeping, wicked, sad humanity stands the Cross upon Calvary, the token of victory, the sign of hope.
And every prayer, "Deliver us," brings us nearer to the time when He Who hung there shall have put all things under His feet, when God's name shall be hallowed, His Kingdom shall have come, and His Will be done, in earth as in heaven.