Temptation’s Green Pastures: The Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer

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The gospel promise is that God in Christ knows exactly what your temptations are and still bids you find protection from them in him.

Careful now! If you read the Sixth Petition hastily, you’ll come away thinking that God is the source of temptations. One modern translation of the Lord’s Prayers phrases it this way: “Save us from the time of trial.” It’s not a better option. Either way, we face temptations because God sets up trials and tribulations as divine AP exams to see if we have what it takes to get heavenly course credit. Or God is some cruel and arbitrary taskmaster on the front porch swing watching us attempt forward motion in the face of gale-force winds – all for the sake of his own eternal pleasure. But the Lord’s Prayer is a primer on the Christian life. There ought to be more to “lead us not…” than such a paltry picture of God.

Petition by petition, the Lord’s Prayer teaches how we live faithfully – both through its implicit faith in God as the bearer of all good things, and through the one who taught us these words in the first place. With the Sixth Petition, God’s goodness, that’s assumed throughout the prayer, puts the lie to any notion of God inflicting temptation on his human children. Christ’s gift undergirds this petition with his own victory over Old Nick’s temptations in the wilderness.

A biblical scholar could tell you about the history of temptation in the Scriptures and how its focus shifted from the Old to the New Testament. A systematic theologian could present a learned disquisition on theodicy – what responsibility God has for evil. But for my money, the best interpretation of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer came when I first heard Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and Dolly Parton sing the old-timey gospel song “Green Pastures” on Harris’ Roses in the Snow album.

Troubles and trials often betray those
On in the weary body to stray
But we shall walk beside the still waters
With the Good Shepherd leading the way

Those who have strayed were sought by the Master
He who once gave His life for the sheep
Out on the mountain still He is searching
Bringing them in forever to keep

Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live and die nevermore
Even the Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that heavenly shore

We will not heed the voice of the stranger
For he would lead us on to despair
Following on with Jesus our Savior
We shall all reach that country so fair

“Green Pastures” is an honest appraisal both of our lifelong adversaries — the devil, the world, and our sinful self — and of the Lord’s incessant quest to pull us back from all snares. “Troubles and trials often betray” us. They are ever-present. “The voice of the stranger” keeps speaking, luring us into the traps of self-sufficiency, status, and even piety to keep us from looking to God who provides everything needed for this life. At the same time, the song literally repents us, in the sense of the biblical word metanoia. It turns our eyes back to Christ and slathers us with the promise of the one who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies lost sheep.

This same view is present in Luther’s explanation of the Sixth Petition in his Small Catechism: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.”

Temptation doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s in the structure of this broken and sinful world. In the Large Catechism, Luther saw its source as the flesh, the world, and the devil. The flesh tempts us with our internal urges (think of deadly sins like envy, lust, sloth, and gluttony). The world comes after us with the siren songs of glory or vengeance. And the devil instills doubt about matters that Christ has already mastered on the cross. In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis pointed to “those gratifying invitations, those highly interesting contacts, that participation in the brilliant movements of our age, which I so often, at such risk, desire.” He says that to pray this petition is to ask that God might even deny us these things.

Luther argued in the Large Catechism that the goal of temptation, “is to make us scorn and despise both the Word and the works of God, to tear us away from faith, hope, and love, to draw us into unbelief, false security, and stubbornness, or, on the contrary, to drive us into despair, denial of God, blasphemy, and countless other abominable sins.” Oddly, the Sixth Petition doesn’t ask that such temptations be eliminated. Instead, it asks God to be active in the face of temptation. Luther went on to say we’re spared from temptation, “when God gives us power and strength to resist, even though the attack is not removed or ended. For no one can escape temptations and allurements as long as we live in the flesh and have the devil prowling around us.”

Such strength to resist comes only with faith, and, as Paul says in Romans 10, faith comes by hearing the gospel. The faith that endures temptation is created when the Word connects you to the one who endured the attacks of the flesh, the world, and the devil. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said that “Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.” The gospel promise is that God in Christ knows exactly what your temptations are and still bids you find protection from them in him.

“Green Pastures” is a reminder that still waters are to be found walking with your Good Shepherd. Even if you’ve succumbed to temptation Jesus is prowling around, calling and calling, until you hear his voice. When you do, the best possible thing is to prick up your ears and head in his direction. You’ll find only verdant meadows in the fair country of his acreage and a Lord who can provide what no temptation ever can.