Despair Rightly


We martyr the 6th Petition by not despairing rightly. This is reasonable because it's hard to understand the prayer "lead us not into temptation." It has no counterpart in the prayers of the Rabbis (The Temple, 155). Doesn't it sound as if were asking God not to tempt us? But how could we be when James 1:13 says verbatim what Luther begins his explanation with, "God tempts no one!" Don't you just sometimes despair of understanding this? Despair rightly and you will better understand it.

There is no right way to despair of God, His gifts, help, or promise, so regard His promise to you, "I tempt no one" as firm. At Lent's beginning we saw whom God cast under the bus of Satan's temptation: His only beloved Son. In movies actors don't do the dangerous stunts, stunt doubles do. That's Jesus. He stood in for all mankind to be tempted with everything Satan had. For 40 days and night His mouth watered with temptation; He was on fire with it like someone took a knife edgy and dull and cut a 6 inch valley through the middle of His soul. But Jesus didn't drown in the water or burn up in the fire. And so on the night of our text, 3 years later, He could pray to the Father, "Keep them from the Evil One."

God has the power to guard and keep you in any situation so that the Devil, the World, or your sinful nature may not deceive or mislead you. It's true the flesh is weak, but God is not. The world is enticing, but God doesn't give in. The Devil is deceiving, but God can't be deceived. In whatever situation you should find yourself in no matter how keen, alluring, or demanding the temptation, God can make you stand. For the will of God never leads a man where His gracious power cannot keep him.

So God has the power to make you stand in the face of temptation, but does He have the will to? Why should He? How often we fall? How easily we fall? How we've fallen without even being tempted? We already saw how the Son of God was our stunt double in withstanding temptation. Our text shows us Him standing in as our whipping boy. Royalty had those. It was considered wrong to whip royalty even as a boy. So when the prince misbehaved they whipped another boy in his presence. You can read how some princes thought nothing of it others thought much.

You think much. Trouble is you read, "Pilate took Jesus and had Him flogged" and you forget that it should be your bare back you see and your screams you hear. You read, "Again and again they struck Him on the head and spit on Him" and you feel no blows or spittle. But God took note, and God took pity, not on Jesus but on you. By Jesus' suffering God's heart was turned toward all sinners. Jesus suffered, damned, and died in the depths our sins deserve, and God was satisfied. Raising Jesus from the dead, He showed that He accepted all that Jesus did as if you had done it. Every power and grace of God is at your disposal in the face of temptation. Never are you going to call and God not answer; never are you going to pray and not be delivered.

You might think I got ahead of myself, but I didn't. I'm proving to you that you are to never despair of God's power or grace, so that you might see the right despair is that of self. First, don't hear this petition and picture two roads before you: to give in or not to give in. There's only one road; the other isn't a road at all it's the abyss. When you pray this petition think of a mountain road that has a sheer wall on one side and a sheer cliff on the other (Teaching Catechism, 292). There is no way you're going to stay on the road with your driving skills. It's the video game where you're always over steering till you steer right off the cliff into the abyss. It's the pinball game where the ball ricochets from pillar to post till it drops out of play.

We are that temptable. Hence the admonition "Let him who stands take heed lest he fall." Hence the repeated warning to stalwart Peter, "No, you will deny Me." And what you don't see is that falling into a sin against the Second Table of the Law by sinning against authority, against your neighbor's well being, property, reputation, against your sexuality or someone else's is only the first stage of temptation (Ibid. 292).

It's bad; it's sin; it will surely damn you unless repented of. It does send you off the road into the abyss, but it's only the first stage of temptation. The second is where your accusing conscience tempts you to believe that you can't be forgiven for your sins. So, as Luther says in the Explanation, you fall into false belief and finally despair (Ibid. 292), and though you don't look like the painting "The Scream" that's how you feel on the inside.

Not because the Devil has you, but because you are imprisoned in false belief and despair and are on the way to other great shame and vice. You have a devil may care attitude because you think now that you're off the road into the abyss there's no way back. In part this is true. The person who falls into sin and defends or accepts it because that's just the way I am does belong to the Devil. But there is a host of sinners imprisoned not because they want to be but because they despair of ever getting out. The first sin has led them to the greater sin of despairing of God's mercy and forgiveness.

That's the last thing anyone should ever despair of, and to show you this I have to first preach it in the way of the Law. You're saying that the mocking, punching, whipping and crowning with thorns of God Almighty wasn't sufficient to pay for your sins. No, you have to stay in the hell of despair and guilt. You're no different than the crowd crying for Jesus to be crucified. They we're not satisfied though Pilate several times declares Jesus innocent. No they feel Jesus is guilty, so He is. God declared the world not guilty by raising Jesus from the dead after He paid for its sins and you're not satisfied. No, you still think and feel guilty and so you are.

Despair. Despair not only of being able in your own power to keep on the road of salvation., but despair of thinking that it's your thoughts or opinions that count before God. Now we're on to something. It's our thoughts and opinions that need to be despaired of. Despair of the thing Americans prize above all else: the right to their opinions and freedom of thought.

Contrary to a hymn we sing, we all think we should be taken to heaven on flowery beds of ease. We actually think God did promise us a rose garden. He didn't. When He threw us out of Eden for our own good He promised thistles and thorns, bread but only by the sweat of our brow, children but only through pain, and marriage but only with irreconcilable differences.

In the face of these trials, these temptations, the first thing to despair of is our thoughts and opinions about them. We confess as much in the Large Catechism: "If you try to help yourself by your own thoughts and counsel, you will only make the matter worse and give the devil more space" (III, 111). The second thing to despair of is being rid of them altogether. Jesus did not teach us to pray "spare us from temptation" but lead us not into them. Said another way it's "lead us out of them victoriously." Luther said that "where all is as it should be, trails will not pass us by, and we do not seek to avoid them, but to overcome theme like a true knight" (LW, 42, 73). The third thing to despair of is acting. Jesus doesn't teach us to act against the tempter but to pray against him (Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father, 126).

Why? Because we are always tempted in a way different from what we think. It's true that we say in the Large Catechism the young are tempted more by the flesh; middle and old age more by the world; and those occupied with spiritual matters more by the Devil directly (III, 107). But we don't elaborate because we don't know how, where, or when temptation will show up. It could be in blue jeans, with a fiddle, or with just a question, "Did God really say?"

Despair of thinking you know the form temptation will, may, or should come. You don't. I say this because you could change the prayer, "Lead us not into temptation" into, "Let nothing become a temptation to me." For everything, yes everything, can become a temptation to me (Thielicke. 121). Poverty or riches can, success or failure, health or sickness, sadness or joy, good times or bad. Everything and anything, not just what we think or believe, can be a temptation in the Devil's hands. A fruit, a rock, a good image before people, a woman bathing on a roof can all tempt.

If you're despairing of your opinions and your ability to act against temptation, you'll pray this petition fervently. This prevents you from focusing on the sin to be combated and on your gracious Father instead. If you focus on what is to be combated you will become deeper entangled in the evil (Acker, 292). Anyone knows this principle who has tried to do battle with what's tempting them by focusing on it. I won't eat that cheesecake; I won't have that extra drink; I won't look at that girl.

Don't focus on what you won't do but on what you will pray. You'll pray "lead us not into temptation" till you die. The church father St. Agathon said "'prayer is warfare to the last breath'" (Grace Upon Grace, 214). But the warfare isn't ours. A 17th century Lutheran theologian said "God's fatherly heart and His omnipotence are the two supporting pillars upon which our prayer grounds itself" (Gerhard, History of Suffering, 68). Since our Father is in heaven, we have to get to heaven to reach God's fatherly heart and omnipotence. And only One Person ever did. Jesus fought to the last breath to give us free access to our Father in heaven. Therefore we don't despair of our petition being heard and answered but we despair of we who pray it. To despair of a weak, temptable, fallen person is to despair rightly. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Lenten Vespers IV (20140326); Passion Reading 4; Lord's Prayer 6th Petition