But Deliver Us from Evil

God never gives you more than you can handle! How many of you have heard that before? How many of you have had someone say it to you?

I don’t know about you, but my experience of that phrase usually comes from a well-meaning friend, and it usually comes right about the time when I feel like I’m facing way more than I can handle. It makes me want to say, “If God never gives me more than I can handle, then apparently God doesn’t know me very well!”

All of us have those times when the weight of the world is on our shoulders. If we’re honest, though, we put a great deal of that weight on ourselves. It’s almost as though we think by carrying it that we will prove how worthy, or righteous, we are. It’s those excessive stresses of an unfulfilling job that pays too little and demands too much for any single human being; or the strains and struggles in families and relationships that we keep to ourselves, embarrassed that others might find out; or the personal weaknesses we hide, fearing that others might how broken we really are. In short, there are those things that we choose to carry, even though we may have tricked ourselves into thinking that we had no choice in the matter; and even though we continue to weigh ourselves down to our own detriment.

And yet, there are those things that we do not choose, but seem, unfairly, to choose us: addictions, illnesses, deaths of those close to us. Between what we choose to carry, and what the world thrusts upon us, we threaten to sink beneath the waves. And it’s the ones that are put on us without our permission that makes us wonder: “Why, exactly, does God think so highly of us and our ability to handle adversity?”

It’s when we are so weighed down that we are brought to our knees in prayer; crying out to God in some form or another the words that Jesus commended to his disciples and all who would listen: “…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”

These seem like the two sides of the burden coin. On one side, you have the temptations – or, as Cindy reminded us last week, the testings that come our way. This is the side that consists of the things we carry of our own free will. God does, indeed, test us – but like a good test, it doesn’t work to remind us how much we already know; nor does it belittle us with how much we have yet to learn. Instead, it stretches us to take what we already know to begin in order to grasp what we have yet to learn.

The other side of that coin is made up of evil. It’s the stuff that is put on us without any input from us whatsoever. And this, this evil, is the one we cannot bear alone.

See, here’s the thing about the phrase that our well-meaning friends tell us, that God never gives us more than we can handle. It actually comes from Scripture – well, it sort of comes from Scripture. The verse actually says, “God never tests us more than we can handle.” There is a huge difference between God just giving us stuff to see how high we can pile it on, and God testing us in order to stretch us and help us grow in our faith.

What I simply cannot abide is the idea that God would willingly cause evil – that is, the addictions, illnesses, and deaths – in order to design tests for us. At that point, God ceases to be the God of mercy and grace whom we know in Jesus Christ and becomes more like the guy behind the scenes in a horror movie, creating elaborate scenarios in order to create fear and chaos. Is God at work when these things attack us? Absolutely. But is God causing these things to happen to us? Absolutely not!

Some of you may be familiar with the story of William Sloane Coffin, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, whose son Alex was killed in a car accident back in 1960. Ten days after the tragedy, Coffin preached a sermon that touched on his experiences, and got to the heart of our conversation today:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; [but] that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

It’s my conviction that God has given us freedom. And in that freedom, we can celebrate God’s good gifts in joy and compassion; and we are also free think that we are the creators of our own destinies. But God has not abandoned this world, nor left us to our own devices. God desires to be our constant guide and companion; and God – God alone – is capable of transforming the horrific into wellsprings of grace.

It is this transformation that is at work in the phrase we look at today, being delivered from evil. Whatever its Greek or Hebrew origins, evil is that which is opposed to God. And because God’s very being is about creation and re-creation, evil is those things that are about destruction. Death, untimely death, illness, war, destitution, humiliation, all of these things are evil, because they exist in order to destroy. And they are, fundamentally, contrary to God’s desires. After all, we are called to be builders, not destroyers, of God’s kingdom.

God’s deliverance from evil does not mean that bad things won’t happen to us. That’s the reality of living in a world that is both broken and beloved. As a wise friend once said, “Being a Christian doesn’t put a ‘keep off the grass’ sign on your yard.” What it does mean is that God is able to take what others intend for destruction and convert them into creation. Think of the art that has come out of tragedy, or the commitments to justice that have come out of injustice.

Friends, this is the whole essence of our story, that good news we proclaim, that cross that stands at the center of our worship week in and week out. The God whom we worship can even take death – a brutal, cruel, torturous death – and make it the starting point not just of life, but of resurrection, the very defeat of death!

One final thought to leave with you today: when we lift up prays for deliverance from evil, we never do so in isolation. It may be accidental that the text says “us”, but I don’t think so. We do not face evil alone, nor do we implore God’s deliverance from it alone. We do so as God’s people, as God’s beloved, as sisters and brothers who are knit together as intimately as the parts of the body are joined to one another. If one of us is in agony, we all agonize; if one of us celebrates, we all get to go to the party.