Needy People Need to be Delivered from Anfechtung
In the Small Catechism, Luther uses a German word for temptation (Bekenhrung) meaning "winning over" rather than the more common German word for it (Versuchung). However, he really wanted to supplant both with the more precise Anfechtung (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 185). In so doing, Luther confronted two delicate points in the Christians' life.
First though, what is Anfechtung? One German speaking scholar says in Luther's understanding of the word: It signals "the sudden and at the same time deep wounding nature of satanic attacks. We indeed feel as though a sinister superpower completely unperceived shoots the poison darts of insatiable desire into the inward most part of our heart" (Ibid.). Another says that for Luther Anfechtung described the combined assault of death, the devil, the world, and hell which reduced a man to doubt and despair (McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross, 170). Luther would use the Latin words for temptation, assault, and test when discussing Anfechtung (Ibid.).
Notice that in 6th petition we meet again the devil, the world, and our sinful nature that we first met in the 3rd. There these 3 were attacking from the outside which in German is Anfeindung. The 6th looks at these unholy 3 attacking from the inside Anfechtung (Peters, 184). We're praying not to be lead into despair by these 3. For Luther Anfechtung is "a state of hopelessness and helplessness having strong affinities with the concept of Angst (McGrath, 170). This was the monastic idea of acedia, spiritual sloth. This was also called by them the "noonday devil." A term taken from Psalm 91:6 where the pestilence which stalks in darkness is set against "the destruction that wasteth away at noonday." You know this noonday devil well. It's when nothing is wrong, yet everything is.
The perplexing part of this petition is God's role. The Anfechtung we're praying not to be led into, the noonday devils we're praying to be delivered from stalk us with God's knowledge. Luther doesn't shy away from saying that, "God Himself assigns to us temptations that they may discipline us into faithful obedience" (Peters, 196). And, "'Therefore Our Father wills that in every moment you anticipate temptation'" (Ibid., fn. 151).
Specifically, the Anfechtung we're anticipating the devil, the world, and our sinful nature lead us into is "false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice." Do you hear what we're saying? Despair is "great shame and vice." When we dance with the noonday devil of despair, we've fallen into "great shame and vice." The first stage of temptation is individual sins, lust, greed, drunkenness, but the second stage is where we can no longer believe we have fellowship with the Father through the Son. So, as Luther says that false belief finally leads to despair (Acker, Teach us to Pray, 292).
The essence of despair is to doubt that God is merciful (Luther in Peters, 190, fn. 116). Despair is one of the two forms of original sin. Self-confidence is the other (Ibid.). Where do we see both self-confidence and despair so prominently as in the Passion? Peter with brazen self-confidence plants himself in the middle of Anfechtung and Judas despairs of ever being forgiven for his betrayal of Jesus. We're praying for the Lord to lead us not to be Peter or Judas.
As long as we are in this life, our continual prayer must be "lead us not into Anfechtung." By this continual need of ours the Lord would draw us into unceasing prayer (Peters, 196). Here's where Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing" comes in which is the first delicate point in the Christian Life. People misunderstand this two ways. People either say it's impossible to pray without ceasing and so despair of even daily prayer. Or they say it is possible and set a timer to remind them to pray every hour. For Luther the Christian life is one non-stop prayer. Luther believed that if God opened our eyes we would see how many spears and arrows the devil has aimed us at every moment and we could not but cry moment to moment "Lord have mercy." Listen to what we pray in his Litany if you don't believe that.
Our constant prayer over against Anfechtung is "Lord have mercy", and God must answer us. In our own power nothing is accomplished against Anfechtung, against the noon-day devil, against being either Peter or Judas. Haven't you tried to deliver yourself? Haven't you tried to "pick out a pleasant outlookand put on a happy face" in the face of the despairing Anfechtung? Haven't you tried singing "Don't Worry be Happy" to drive away the noonday devil of spiritual sloth? Haven't you tried to dig yourself out of the pit of Peter or Judas by singing Hakuna Matata or did you just try saying what that Swahili phrase translates to "no worries"?
Didn't work, did it? As we confess in the Large Catechism. The "enemy never desists nor becomes tired, so that when one temptation ceases, there always arises others and fresh ones" (III, 109). Elsewhere Luther confesses that our life "is nothing more than one great trial" (LW, 42, 71); one long Anfechtung. Again, in the Large Catechism we say that this constant temptation constrains us "to cry out and pray every hour" (III, 105). It doesn't move us try to dig ourselves out of the pit but to pray for God to intervene.
Luther understood that the more one tried to dig out of the Anfechtung the deeper he dug in. Think quicksand. Prayer abandons oneself to God's good and gracious will that His named be hallowed, His will to save us be done, and that His kingdom come despite the devil, the world, and our flesh. This petition teaches us to believe that "although we are attacked by these things" we will "overcome them and win the victory."
The essence of the Anfechtung is that God has abandoned us to fight the Devil, the world, and our flesh on our own. Tonight's Passion Reading puts the lie to that. Christ is the one who was abandoned to the worst that the Devil and a fallen world could do to flesh and blood. Even though the secular rulers many times declared Jesus was innocent, He was punished as the guilty sinner you are. And you, Barabbas, are set free. Despairing of God's grace, mercy and peace because the noonday devil is seated on your chest, you ought to get none of them. But you are given all while Jesus gets none.
With all the grace, all the mercy, all the peace that God the Son deserves richly and daily overflowing our lives, who won't break forth in prayers of thanks without ceasing? That's the first delicate aspect of the Christian life this Petition illuminates for us. The second one is the distinction between dominate sin and dominated sin. The world has always believed and now many churches and individual Christians do too that sin can dominate your life and you can still be saved. As long as you're always sorry, no matter what you're doing, you will go to heaven. Ask Judas how that went for him. He hung himself sorry, so sorry. If you're dominated by sin, you don't want to be delivered from it or believe you can be.
This petition prays that sin not dominate us. Let not the Devil, the world, or our sinful flesh ride us straight into hell whipping us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. It is not a prayer to never, ever sin. It's not a prayer not to have temptations. but not to be led astray by them into false belief and despair. That's where sin dominates. When we misbelieve that being tempted is the same as giving into sin and so why not give in, sin dominates. When we misbelieve that the sinfulness which all are guilty of is the same thing as being guilty of actual sin so the person defending his sin is no different than the one deploring his, sin is dominating us.
What we are praying in this petition is that we may dominate actual sins, that we may finally overcome the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. We're praying says Luther (What Luther Says, 4317) not that the birds of temptation to lust, greed, pride, self-confidence or despair never fly over our heads, but that we would not let them nest in our hair. And how does one do that? By the opposite of false belief and despair which only lead to the birds nesting. True belief and confidence shoo the birds away. 1 John 5:4 says, "Everyone born of God overcomes the world." And, "this is the victory that overcomes the world our faith."
Overcoming the world, dominating sin, not letting it nest in our hair, all hinge on the object of our faith and confidence. It can't be us, our strength, our resolve, our promise to never, ever do that again. Peter tried that. Neither can it be self-absolution. That's what the leaders of the Old Testament church told the repentant Judas to do about his sin: See to that yourself. Despair, noonday devils aplenty is the only result of self-absolution because it's no more than Little Engine that Could talking to yourself.
The object of our faith, our confidence is what God does in Christ. The Devil certainly looks like he is winning in our text. He succeeded in bringing about what he wanted when he entered into Judas in the upper room. The world certainly looks like it's winning. See how the leaders of the world, Pilate and Herod, can do anything they please to Jesus? They can mock, beat, and whip Jesus, and nothing happens to them. It certainly looks like our sinful nature is winning. Despite Pilate declaring Jesus innocent the crowd calls for Jesus' blood and to let go a murderer.
How does Jesus overcome the unholy 3 and win the victory for us? When He is attacked by these three, Jesus isn't misled into false belief, despair and other great shame and vice. He goes on believing that He has a Father in heaven whose name is hallowed even as His own name is cast out as evil. He goes on believing that God's will is being done even though God's cup of wrath has not passed Him by and He is drinking it in great big gulps. He goes on believing that God's kingdom is coming even when no one on earth believes or has the Holy Spirit but Him. He goes on believing that though He has had nothing to eat today, He still has daily bread. And He goes on believing that though all sins of all time are on His shoulders, the noonday devil is wrong: there is no need to despair.
Sin is dominated by Jesus not giving in to the lies of the devil, the world, or our sinful nature; sin is dominated by Jesus going right on believing that God is His dear Father and He is His dear child. We dominate sin, are delivered from the Anfechtung of despairing and the noonday devil's call to give up and give in, not by asserting how much we believe but by asserting that Jesus always did. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek IV (20180307); Lord's Prayer VI, Passion Reading 4