And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13).
In my Mennonite church, we used a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer where the first line of this verse was rendered as ‘Save us from the time of trial’. I don’t know which is more accurate, but I liked that version as it didn’t imply that times of trial were something that God brought us to; rather, that it was life which would inevitably bring us trials, and that we were asking, not that God would take them away, but that we would be brought out of them still whole. In fact, if we read it together with the second half, the suggestion is that it is ‘the evil one’ who brings trials, though perhaps with the permission of God; and this chimes with the role of Satan as portrayed in the first chapters of Job, as an instrument of God whose role is to be the accuser, the ‘counsel for the prosecution’ in the courtroom of our lives. Incidentally, this means that when we accuse or condemn our fellow Christians, or indeed any fellow human being, we are doing the work of Satan; a thought to ponder.
Whichever translation we choose, both are still better than ‘Do not lead us into temptation’. The letter of James, possibly written by Jesus’ brother, and certainly the closest epistle to the teaching of Jesus himself, makes it clear that ‘No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and.. tempts no one’ (James 1:13). This part of Jesus’ prayer is more about undeserved suffering than it is about sin and its enticements.
It is of course true that times of suffering can tip us towards sinful thinking and behaviour: to misdirected anger, resentment, self-pity, self-serving. Perhaps this is especially true if we don’t expect to have any suffering in our life as Christians. If our theology tells us, as the devil tells Jesus in the desert, that ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’, then when trials come, we will have no spiritual resources to deal with them, and our faith will founder (Satan is of course quoting Scripture at Jesus here, but using a very dodgy hermeneutic…). This is why I am grateful that the Mennonites, among many other gifts they offer, have a theology of suffering which so many churches lack (just try to think of one hymn, apart from ‘O Love that wilt not let me go’, that deals with human suffering). I sometimes wonder whether the reason for this is that Mennonites and other Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants; if they hadn’t had a theology of suffering, how would they have survived? (I learned recently that while Protestants tended to beheading of heretics, Catholics instead burned them; interpret that how you will!) If there is a promise of Jesus that we can be quite sure has been fulfilled over and over, it is this: ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33, NIV).
And so, right at the end of his model prayer, no doubt intended to be memorised, Jesus adds a plea that we may be saved from, or if not from, then through, pain and sorrow. It is a plea he made himself, in the garden the night before his trial. And it was not answered, or rather it was answered with a ‘No’. It had to be. And it may be answered the same way for us, as we are, to use Paul’s mysterious but intriguing phrase, ‘completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’ (Colossians 1:24). But we must still make the plea, because we are human, and because asking to be spared is part of an honest relationship with God. ‘Sin is behovely’ [necessary] said Julian of Norwich (and in ‘sin’ she included suffering, not seeing a distinction between those two effects of the Fall), ‘but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’. For that we pray.