Paternoster, providence and power

There’s a running joke in our house, that if I thank my wife for getting me dinner, she replies, “Don’t thank me – thank Tesco.” Sometimes it does indeed seem as if the supermarket chain is taking over the world – though America proved resistant to its might. Tesco not only has a lion’s share of the UK food market, but has exclusive contracts with many food producers, an ability to bleed trade away from every High Street trader to out-of-town stores, a massive vehicle fleet and the distinction of being the largest property company in Europe. But that’s what it takes, it seems, to be able to guarantee ones (necessarily) loyal customers that they’ll be able to get what they want, when they want it.

So when we come to the line in the Lord’s prayer,

Give us this day our daily bread,

it’s salutory to realise that God must have at least as much influence over the food chain as Tesco in order for the prayer to mean anything. Like everything in the Lord’s prayer, it’s wonderful in its conciseness and general application, for if we depend on God for our daily bread (as it encourages us to do) then we must depend on him for everything else we have, too. This is not, after all, a prayer for a miracle to meet a specific need, but a request that God keep us provided every day with life’s essentials – and it’s also a recognition that he does so already, but need not.

In my case, Tescos (as the main retailer within reach of our rural eyrie) is very important – we might be foraging for roots and herbs or sheep-raiding if it failed. So is God not at work through them? And I’m also dependent on my pension provider’s viability; but if I were working, my daily bread might hang on being able to attract clients, or on the solvency of my company. And if I were out of work, I might need state provision, or I might have to depend on the generosity of others. And whatever the circumstances I, like everyone else, depend on the harvest – and the recent bad weather has put even that in doubt here for the first time in very many years.

Equivalent factors were the case in Jesus’s time, too. Except in the case of an Elijah, a Jonah or Israel in the wilderness, God’s provision of daily bread has always come through the means of harvest, work, commerce and human motivations. Therefore, in some sense God must have control of all of these, or the prayer would simply mean, “Keep an eye out in case my daily bread doesn’t arrive, and whistle up a miracle should the self-sustaining systems fail.”

On BioLogos somebody assured me recently that God has no hand in MacDonalds… I suppose that might depend on whether you eat there every day. If so, MacDonalds is your daily bread, and God therefore the ultimate provider. But to me, the universal influence of providence, clearly taught in Scripture anyway, is presupposed by Jesus’s prayer, and I have to add (in the context of the natural creation) that if God provides our daily bread, it’s hard to believe that he left the wheat to decide whether to evolve or not.

Forgive us our debts…

To each of us personally, this clause is possibly one of the most important in the Lord’s prayer, but here I’m going to skip over it as I see no clear link to my theme of God’s providence. I’m happy to be corrected, though!

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

“Temptation” here means “testing” in general, either by temptations to sin, or by troubles of any sort. And it’s “tempting” to say that there’s no need to pray it, because James 1.6 says: “When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” But I’ve no doubt James had learned the Lord’s prayer. He was aware, too, that God tested the Israelites in the wilderness “to see what was in their hearts”, that he gave Satan permission to test Job and that he is actually recorded as sending a lying spirit to deceive Ahab’s prophets. Saul’s “evil spirit” is also repeatedly described as being “from God.”

Bilbo’s response to the last blog suggests that God may allow evil to happen for his own greater purposes, and actually there’s no doubt at all that Scripture teaches that. A website I looked at on Saul’s evil spirit suggests that, once God withdrew his Holy Spirit from the king, like the room swept clean in Jesus’s parable the sinful Saul was susceptible to demonic attack, which God declined to prevent. That may well be so, but his involvement is still close enough for the spirit to be “from God.” If I don’t prevent something when I have the power to prevent it, then I am in some sense responsible.

So temptation is not something totally alien to God, nor beyond his control, or he could not in every case limit it to “what you can bear” and always “provide a way out” (1 Cor 10.13). Nor, of course, would it be worthwhile praying that the Lord spare us from temptation. This discussion isn’t the place to go into the question of why trials and temptations still occur despite our prayers that the Lord not lead us into them – but that was the experience of Jesus himself, whose prayer that if it were possible, the cup of suffering might pass from him was answered in the negative. And Jesus himself acknowledges that that cup – involving his betrayal, his desertion, his trial, his mocking, his scourging, his crucifixion (all resulting from sin) and his sin-bearing – was God’s will.

Did God will for Pilate to misuse the power God had given him for government? Almost any answer to that, in my opinion, is too simplistic. He is incapable of evil, he does not coerce the free acts of men, his set purpose determined the outcome. Fit those together how you will – but don’t leave any of them out.

Deliverance from evil is literally “the evil”, and so might well mean “the evil one.” But like all the other petitions in the Lord’s prayer, it only make sense to ask God to deliver us from evil if it is within his power to do so, and Jesus would only tell us to pray it if he knew it was also God’s will to do so. Satan may well be the ruler of this world, but the Lord’s prayer says that the fact does not limit God’s power to take us out of his grasp, whether that grasp holds us in sin or brings trouble on our lives, as Satan did on Job’s. So why would God not deliver when he wills to and has power to? It never pays to question God’s providence, but I for one would go with the teaching that sometimes God has greater purposes in view – that was certainly the case in Gethsemane, so I don’t see any insuperable reasons why it should not be so for us.

What I don’t accept is that there is any limitation of God’s power to answer the prayer Jesus taught us, either by Satan’s usurpation, man’s sin, natures autonomy, God’s self-emptying or anything else. The prayer is there for us to pray, on the direct warrant of the Son of God. The familiar ending to the prayer is absent from the best mansuscripts of either gospel, but appeared very early in the late first or early second century text, the Didache, where it takes the form:

…for yours is the power and the glory forever.

Not “will be”, or “ought to be” or “might be”, but “is”. I say “Amen” to that.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Paternoster, providence and power

  1. Cal says:

    Good post.

    You made me think if indeed, by removing His presence in the Holy Spirit, God is responsible for the evil spirit. If the Devil is the god of this world, how much would he want Israel’s king in his grasp? Could be an interesting discussion on power, but I digress.

    As for the prayer and James’ comment, the petition “Lead us not into temptation” is followed by “But deliver us from the evil [one]”. I’m not looking at the Greek, but “but” is a conjunction. Perhaps the idea here is not that God destroys and tempts, like James rebukes, but rather when God allows that temptation to come, He sends deliverance.

    I’ve been reading through Judges, this is repeatedly the scenario. God doesn’t drag Israel into temptation, but is in the operation of Deliverance. He may have left the nations there as a means for testing the untried, but he never made Israel go whoring after all the gods of Canaan.


  2. Jon,

    I’ve already posted some thoughts on this in response to Seenoevo on the previous post, so I won’t repeat them here.

    I agree with you, ‘If I don’t prevent something when I have the power to prevent it, then I am in some sense responsible’, and it’s a cop-out to try to make God responsible.

    Whilst I believe that God answers prayer and acts on our behalf, I think it is also the case that He has given us the authority and power to act in certain ways and it is no use asking Him to take responsibility for the things he has devolved to us. Prayer is not always the answer.
    This is one reason for my suggesting that we should be careful about using the disciples’ prayer as a template, particularly if it leads to passivity.

    If God’s will isn’t being done on earth it could just be because we are not doing it.

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