Sunday, April 3, 2022

Still Our Strength and Shield

It was Saturday night. The year was 1253, and Friar William shivered in the cold December air, wrapping his cloak of goatskin more tightly around him, clinging harder to his horse as the fierce wind howled. William was a Flemish priest on a mission from the French king to the distant courts of the great Mongol khans. With the aid of their Mongol escorts, they made their way, steadily and surely, through the Tarbargatai mountain range, at the border of Kazakhstan and China. But the escorts in William's party seemed severely scared as they stared into the pass before them, a dark path amidst dreadful crags. William wasn't sure why. Then his guide, wealthy son of a Mongol commander, sent word with a request from his men, asking William if he knew any spells to keep demons at bay. That... was an alarming thing to be asked. Conferring with his guide, William heard that any local would tell you there were frequent reports of terrible happenings in this pass up ahead. In some tales, people simply disappeared, and no trace was ever heard of them again – rumor had it they were abducted by demons. In other stories, the people would at great length walk out of the path, complaining that their horse had been snatched out from beneath them, stolen by demons. But in more horrifying claims, travelers said they'd found confused horses carrying bodies gutted, ripped up – what demonic cruelty was this? Many might make it through unscathed, but the exceptions were rumored so commonly as to hardly promote peace of mind.

Well... there was no way around it. And so, in Latin, Fr. William and his clerical colleagues began to chant aloud what came to mind: the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Singing the words loud and sonorous and clear, over and over again through the night, refusing to relent, by morning they were out of the pass – with not one fearful incident the entire time. What a relief! Taking no chances, as William and Bartolomeo rode onto the plain, the Mongols began approaching him, each making what their interpreter said was a request for Fr. William to write down these words that had kept them all safe, so they could carry them on their heads.

William jumped at the chance. Better than what they asked, he wanted to teach them to carry this faith, not atop their heads, but within their hearts, “which will enable your souls and bodies to be saved for eternity!” William tried just that, but alas, his interpreter couldn't keep it straight. Fearing to shipwreck these poor men with a false faith, William had to settle for their original request. On slip after slip, he wrote out the creed and the prayer for them; and patiently told them what even this interpreter couldn't botch: “What is written here is the belief a man should have concerning God, and a prayer in which God is asked for whatever a man needs. So believe firmly what's written here, even if you can't understand it, and ask God to do for you what's contained in the prayer written here. He himself taught it with his own lips to his friends, and my hope is that it will save you.”1

William's escorts weren't alone in what they feared. There's scarcely a known culture in all history, since time immemorial, that hasn't been concerned about malicious unseen presences, spiritual shadows injurious to human life: evil spirits, unclean spirits, demons. In the ancient pagan world, said one ex-pagan Roman observer, “these spirits are slender and hard to grasp: they work themselves into people's bodies and secretly get at their guts, wrecking their health, causing illness, scaring their wits with dreams, unsettling their minds with madness, until people are forced to run for help to them in troubles of their own making.”2 Today, on the other hand, the Mongol rumors and Roman observations probably both meet with at least some skepticism from many of us – I know elements of each do for me. But then again, we're more skeptical today, in these things at least, than most generations ever would have been. We're likelier than ever to doubt the rumors those travelers feared about the mountain pass. Real belief in spiritual evil that impacts the physical world is typically looked down on, mocked by those who pride themselves on being 'enlightened' above 'superstition.' We live now in the wake of a mass disenchantment of the world, a reductionistic new way of looking at things, which simply has no room for any realities it can't poke and prod, can't experiment on, can't reckon as one more cog in the world-machine.

Whether the Mongols had cause to fear, and whether demons had much to do with it if they had, I don't know. I haven't come to judge Mongol beliefs nor Roman ones. But the Bible is clear that such spirits do exist, that they have been active, that they can impact the events of the world (in ways frequently undetectable to us), and that they are not to be trusted nor trifled with. When the Bible mentions demons, under whatsoever name or whatsoever title, it isn't speaking in mere myth or metaphor, poetry or personification. It isn't positing primitive explanations for mysteries we can now demystify with newfound scientific prowess. It's simply honest in recognizing that the whole of human history hasn't been wrong about such things in the broad strokes, whatever their details.

The Bible speaks forthrightly, not only in telling us there is a God, but in telling us that there is a devil – whom it sometimes calls Satan, sometimes calls the Evil One, sometimes calls by other names still. He is real. He is personal. He is in no way God's equal, but he is certainly God's enemy and ours (Matthew 13:39). Already in the Old Testament, he appears as an opponent of Israel (1 Chronicles 21:1), as a prosecutor trying to discredit goodness (Zechariah 3:1), as a figure delighting in causing harm and suffering. More fully, he's “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), “a murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies” (John 8:44). He tempts people (Mark 1:13), influences people (Acts 5:3), binds people (Luke 13:16), even enters people (Luke 22:3). He schemes to outwit and obstruct (2 Corinthians 2:11), setting out “snares” to “capture” us “to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). “The whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19), and he “has the power of death” as his weapon of fear (Hebrews 2:14). “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And he has his own share of angels or messengers who work under him toward the same dark goals (Matthew 25:41). If our occasional gullibility in crediting demons too much has stoked the world's skepticism, nevertheless the opposite error of disbelieving in them is no wiser.

But – here the good news starts to come in – the Bible tells us plainly that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8)! And so the Gospels repeatedly show Jesus finding people tormented or possessed by these unclean spirits, these demons, and Jesus getting rid of them, as though he were an exterminator purging cockroaches from a room, as though he were an air purifier whisking all the smog away – for those are two fine pictures of demons, as bits of spiritual smog or as spiritual cockroaches and scorpions and spiders. There was a possessed man who challenged Jesus, but as soon as Christ said, “Be silent and come out of him,” we read that “when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm” (Luke 4:34-35). And who could forget Legion, when “many demons had entered” a single man, but by the command of Jesus they came out, restoring their victim to his right mind (Luke 8:27-36)? Jesus declared that “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” which he offered as proof that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). He even sent out his apostles “and gave them power and authority over all demons” (Luke 9:1), “authority... over all the power of the Enemy” (Luke 10:19).

At last, we know, Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), and so the Father “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Rising victoriously from the dead, God's Beloved Son commissioned his apostles with the further authority to build his Church, and empowered this expanded Body of Christ to do even greater works than he himself had done while ministering in the flesh (John 14:12). So when the Apostle Peter stewarded that Church from Jerusalem, “the people also gathered from the towns..., bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed” (Acts 5:16). When Philip evangelized in Samaria, “unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed” (Acts 8:7). And with Paul, even cloth that soaked up his sweat gained such power that when it was touched to people in faith, “their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:12).

And this didn't stop with the apostles in the first century. We have testimony from the second century that “up to the present day, those who are possessed by demons are sometimes exorcised in the name of the real God,”3 that “some really and truly drive out demons so that often those who've been cleansed of evil spirits believe and are in the church.”4 In the third century, we hear that “by prayers and formulas from the holy scriptures, we drive them out of human souls and from places where they've established themselves.”5 In the fourth century, we're told that “whenever [these spirits] try to occupy a body and torment its soul, they're exorcised by the just and are put to flight in the name of the true God; and whenever they hear that name, they tremble and cry out...”6 Were they always right in assessing those situations? Maybe not. But were they always wrong? That I find even less likely. Through these extraordinary ministries regulated by the Church, God answers us.

See, the Lord's Prayer ends on the important note of recognizing the reality of evil. We cry out to God to at last “deliver us from evil!” But the same line could be translated just as well as “Deliver us from the Evil One,” so that it's a request for rescue from Satan. The Lord's Prayer reminds us that both evil and the Evil One are real, but also that God can do something about both sad facts in how they affect our lives. And the Lord's Prayer has, down through those centuries, been so grafted into Christian worship that the other prayers around it have often taken its shape. We know in ancient Syria, when Christians celebrated communion, they added: “Remember your Church, Lord, and deliver her from all evil, and make her perfect in your love...”7 In the Greek-speaking East, Christians came to pray during their worship “for our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity,” “for the peace of the world.”8 And in the the Latin-speaking West, many Christians followed up (and still do) with something along the lines of “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, and graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”9 From 'every evil,' they say. So what are we asking?

First, when we pray for our Father to “deliver us from evil,” we're asking to be rescued from spiritual evil – we ask for protection against demonic attack and influence. It's nothing new: the ancient Jews prayed for this: “May Satan not rule over me, or an unclean spirit” (Psalm 155:15a). “Save me from the hands of evil spirits” (Jubilees 12.20). “May it be your will, Lord our God..., that you save us from... the destructive Satan.”10 And so too for us, the Lord's Prayer has always been known as a tool of real spiritual warfare. One early writer said that “those who use the appointed prayers continually and in the proper way day and night are not caught... by demons,” while a medieval preacher advised: “If you feel the devil approaching, say the Lord's Prayer, and all the demons of hell cannot harm you.” In fact, as I combed back through the history of how Christians have understood the Lord's Prayer, deliverance from spiritual evil was, far and away, the most mentioned aspect.

So we're asking in it for God to prohibit direct attacks against us by the demons – the sorts of direct attacks those Mongols feared, and which some great saints of the church have indeed told firsthand experiences of.11 We ask God to disrupt their schemes – to break idolatries, correct heresies, heal schisms, repel persecutions. We ask God to preserve us from the sins toward which demons try to influence us: “Deliver me from all my transgressions!” (Psalm 39:8). And especially do we ask God to prevent us from ever falling away, knowing Jesus' warning that “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the Evil One comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19). Whatever the case, “he who commits himself to God doesn't fear the devil, for if God be for us, who can be against us?”12

All of that, we ask when we pray this line in the Lord's Prayer. But, second, we pray for deliverance not only from spiritual evil but also from natural evil. Now, what's natural evil? Natural evil would be found in things like disasters and plagues. One of the major Old Testament words for 'evil' can be applied to catastrophes. An earthquake would could as a natural evil. A volcanic eruption, a landslide, a famine, a drought – those would be natural evils. The same can be true of illnesses: a disease or sickness or other adverse medical condition would count as a natural evil (Psalm 91:10). The ancient Jews prayed against natural evils: “Save me from a bad mishap... and from all the evils that suddenly come upon the world.”13

And in light of how readily Jesus' deliverance ministry spanned both spiritual evils and natural evils – for “he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits” (Luke 7:21) – so do we. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're asking to be protected from disasters. We don't want to fall in an earthquake, we don't want to be swamped by an avalanche, we don't want to be thrown by a tornado, we don't want to wither in a drought, so we cry out, “Deliver us from evil! Keep us safe from all distress!” We're asking God also to protect us from plague and disease – a pretty timely prayer, if I may say so! This is the line where the Lord's Prayer helps us rightly plead for our health and safety. Obviously, if God has purposes for natural evil that can't be achieved in our lives otherwise, then we've already prayed for God's will to be done, we've submitted to his wisdom in allowing or sending that natural evil, and that request takes precedence. But where we don't have to endure this or that natural evil, we aren't insensitive to danger: we pray for deliverance from those natural evils.

Third, when we say “Deliver us from evil,” we pray for deliverance also from moral evil. Now, what's moral evil? These are man-made hurts and harms. It's a common topic of deliverance prayers in the Old Testament. An oppressed Israel prayed, “Deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, that we may serve you” (1 Samuel 12:10), gather and deliver us from among the nations” (1 Chronicles 16:35). The psalmist would often pray things like, “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me; deliver me from those who work evil, and save me from bloodthirsty men” (Psalm 59:1-2).

Oppression would be a case of moral evil. Think of a slave in Alabama in 1860, praying the Lord's Prayer as he goes to sleep. Don't you think that, when he murmured “Deliver us from evil,” his own gut would tell him that an end to his slavery would be an answer to just that prayer? Other injustices would also be moral evils – thefts by our neighbors, lies told about us, and so on. Feuds and schemes would be moral evils – sometimes, someone really does wish you harm, does try to attack you. The violence you worry about when going down a back alley at night – that's a moral evil you're hoping not to face. And war certainly always involves a moral evil. Theft of peace from a land – lives torn apart, communities butchered, lands ravaged – that's violence, that's evil.

Rabbis prayed against such moral evils: “All who plan evil against me, swiftly thwart their counsel and frustrate their plans.”14 “May it be your will, Lord our God, that you establish peace in the heavenly entourage and in the earthly entourage.”15 Early Christians also prayed against moral evil: “Lord, let your countenance shine on us for good in peace... and deliver us from those who hate us unjustly.”16 Ever since, we've been asking God to grant peace in our time. And so do we ask again each time we pray the Lord's Prayer. We ask to be delivered from oppression, from mistreatment, from unjust laws. We ask to be delivered from the hate of others. And we ask to be delivered from warfare. These days, when you pray these words “Deliver us from evil,” you might do well to slow down and mentally picture Russia and Ukraine. You might just as easily think of Israelis and Palestinians, or of Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, so many lands deprived of peace. You might even think of our United States – now less united. less stately, still haunted by long shadows of prejudice, drowning in the blood of millions unborn, desperately self-medicating her despair and boredom, spinning out of control into the delusions of demons. America's afflicted with spiritual and moral evil aplenty, and we pray her deliverance.

Finally, in saying “Deliver us from evil,” we ask for final deliverance. We ask a happy death, and salvation in heaven, beyond all suffering and shame. And many Christians have aimed to pray the Lord's Prayer with their dying breath, thus asking God for exactly this blessing of deliverance from an unhappy death and an unhappy afterlife. I could tell you of Deurechildis, a young nun in seventh-century France. Shown in a vision that she'd soon be “loosed from the bonds of the present life,” the next morning she spiked a severe fever and quickly weakened. But she was happy for the hope of going to heaven, and as her fellow nuns gathered around her bed, with trembling lips she asked her abbess to help her say the Creed and recite the Lord's Prayer. And with those as the last words her lips ever said, she died in joy.17 Or I could tell you about Arnold, a nobleman and retired knight in his late sixties, who in the 1130s had become terminally ill and was getting impatient to be with God. Asking his sons to put a silver cross necklace he'd brought back from Jerusalem on him and for a priest to anoint him, he prayed the Lord's Prayer. Little sooner had he recited “Deliver us from evil,” he kissed the cross, said goodbye, and promptly surrendered his soul to the Lord, dying in wonderful contentment.18

In many churches, the prayers each Sunday include a request “for a Christian end to our life – peaceful, without shame and suffering – and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.”19 But today, most of us give little thought to having a happy death. Partly, it's because we come from an unusually death-adverse nation, believing that to think seriously about death is too dangerous to be healthy. Partly, it's because we've made death such an individualized, hygienic experience, instead of being surrounded and supported by numerous friends in our last hour. Partly, it's because we've been captivated by presumption, thinking that of course we'll have a good death because of course we were good people and of course we're going to heaven, as long as we can't think of an obvious reason why we wouldn't. But it might be good to question some of those assumptions. It might actually be good to plan for our deaths, not only in making arrangements for after we've gone (as many wisely do), but in making arrangements for as we go. And if we give to it the thought we should, perhaps it would be wise to plan, as did Deurechildis and Arnold and so many others, to pray the Lord's Prayer as our final words, asking one last time for heavenly deliverance from every evil.

For this prayer Jesus gave us is a powerful prayer, covering and accomplishing so much more than we realize, in accordance with the faith of the Church who prays it and the faith of each of us – be we American or French, Flemish or Mongolian, ancient or modern or medieval. Tribe doesn't matter, era doesn't matter, but faith matters, for “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). So our faith should cry out for deliverance! After all, each of us needs deliverance from so many evils, whether spiritual, natural, moral, or final. But we have a strong Deliverer, one who's still our strength and shield, as of old. “He is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge” (Psalm 144:2). “The Lord is faithful: he will establish you and guard you against the Evil One” (2 Thessalonians 3:3). This same Lord who taught us this prayer also helps us live and die with confident joy in the face of what we ask to be delivered from. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” we're told, “but the LORD delivers him out of them all,” one way or another (Psalm 34:19). May the faithful Lord answer this faithful prayer, and deliver us from every evil, that the saying might prove true: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet!” (Romans 16:20). Amen.

1  William of Rubrück, Report to King Louis IX of France 27.4, in Peter Jackson, trans., The Mission of Friar William of Rubrück: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253-1255 (The Hakluyt Society, 1990), 166-167.

2  Lactantius, Divine Institutes 2.14.14 (early fourth century)

3  Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.8 (late second century)

4  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 2.32.4 (late second century)

5  Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus 7.67 (mid-third century)

6  Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.21.4-5 (early fourth century)

7  Didache 10.5 (late first century)

8  From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

9  From the Roman Missal

10  Prayer of Rabbi Judah the Prince (late second or early third century), in the Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 16b.23.

11  See, e.g., Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony 40-41 (fourth century)

12  Ambrose of Milan, On the Sacraments 5.30 (late fourth century)

13  Prayer of Rabbi Mar ben Ravina (late third century), in the Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 17a.4

14  Prayer of Rabbi Mar ben Ravina (late third century), in the Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 17a.4

15  Prayer of Rav Safra (mid-fourth century), in the Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 16b.25—17a.1

16  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 60.3 (late first century)

17  Jonas of Bobbio, Life of Saint Columbanus 2.15 (seventh century)

18  Lambert of Ardres, History of the Counts of Guines and Lords of Ardres 134 (very late twelfth or very early thirteenth century)

19  From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

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