The prayer of our Lord contains the profound words, “deliver us from evil.” For these four words contain, in a simple package, implications for prayer and discipleship that could be contemplated at length. The central theme of this statement is that of “deliverance.” Deliverance is a frequent theme in the Old Testament.
Depending on the context, deliverance could be a good or a bad thing; either being delivered over to an oppressor or being delivered from an oppressor were very real experiences of the people of Israel during the span of the Old Testament. The Jewish disciples who witnessed Jesus’ model prayer would undoubtedly have had the Roman authorities in mind as an oppressor from which they would like deliverance.
More important than this, though, is the evil Jesus had in mind when he modeled this prayer to his followers. Let’s unpack the timeless evil from which we should petition our Father to deliver us and explore the ways this impacts our discipleship.
The Evil One
Most of the older versions of the Lord’s Prayer worded it “deliver us from the evil one,” to closely follow the Greek text. With this in mind, it is likely that Jesus was referring to the Devil. This petition was not the only time he prayed for his followers to be protected from the evil one (for example, see John 17:15). But who is this mysterious figure?
Speak of the Devil, regardless of the company present, and you’re almost guaranteed to raise eyebrows. Even among Evangelicals, you are likely to induce suspicion and a good deal of miscommunication. Several misconceptions float around about who the Devil is and what he is capable of, and maturing disciples would do well to be aware of them.
On one hand, some all but deny the existence of demons. These aren’t atheists and agnostics who don’t believe in the spiritual realm, but instead, these are Christians who, for varying reasons, function as if the Devil no longer operates in this world. When Jesus pleads with the Father that his followers be delivered from the evil one, we should pause and acknowledge that he wasn’t wasting words. That prowling lion, the Devil, finds an easy meal amongst those Christians who have so minimized his influence that they are no longer aware they need deliverance from it. If we are going to mature as disciples, we must be as wise as the serpent, while not partaking in his evil (Matt 10:16).
On the other hand, some people view the demonic realm as all encompassing. Their error is giving the Devil too much credit. We must be cautious about labeling our own sin as the Devil’s doing. While it is true that Satan is pleased when we sin, that does not absolve us of our own responsibility. The Christian who is stuck in a continual rut of sin who throws up his hands and says, “the Devil made me do it,” has too big a view of Satan and entirely too small a view of God. When we ask our Father to deliver us from this evil one, we must believe God is big enough and powerful enough to succeed in this task. While Jesus’ words sober us into acknowledging the reality of evil forces seeking to do us harm, we must remember that even the Devil cannot operate outside God’s will (Job 1). Satan is a created being and, as such, is not all-present or all-knowing (Eph 3:9), and he is also a liar (John 8:44). Additionally, humanity has made its own contribution to evil and shouldn’t shift their blame to Satan. Which brings me to my next point.
The Evil Ones
The contrast between good and evil is one that the best writers and filmmakers use as a surefire way to sell a work of art. In part, they may be to blame for the erroneous views of the Devil described above. Evil strikes a chord within us all. Most people tend to think of themselves as “good,” and they feel that “evil” is something “out there.” Stripped of the backdrop of Hollywood, the contrast is much less clear-cut. Hitler is an easy face to overlay our idea of evil and make it recognizable. But my gossip about a coworker to my boss? I tell myself, “well that’s just a slight bending of the moral code, not evil.” This sort of proud thinking gets us in trouble. If one facet of being delivered from evil is external, another aspect is internal. Here is how the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains it:
In the sixth petition, which is, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted.
The catechism personalizes evil, makes it not something “out there,” but something within us. It acknowledges the truth that all men are fallen and sinful, with a proclivity to commit evil acts. Jesus makes the case well when he uses the word “evil” to describe a father who loves his children:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! – Matthew 7:11
Doing good to those whom we love is no virtue, for even terrorists give their children gifts, and even God’s people commit evil acts. The fundamental bent of humanity is away from God and toward self-serving evil (this idea underlies the claim of the Reformers, that “all of the Christian life is repentance”). Maturing in our discipleship—stumbling toward Christ—is a continual confession that our hearts are evil (Gen 6:5) and a continual pleading with our Father who gives good gifts that he would deliver us from that evil.
Elsewhere, Jesus tells us that God alone is good (Matt 10:18), which, by contrast, levels the playing field among humans: we are all evil. While becoming a disciple of Christ is certainly more than confessing that we are evil and that God alone is good, it certainly is not less. Our refrain should be: deliver us from evil. We have cause for rejoicing in the good news that Jesus came to complete this exact mission.
John tells us that, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). What a mission! Where our first parents failed in a garden, the Son of God succeeded in a desert. The one who teaches us to pray, “deliver us from evil,” himself serves as our Deliverer. While on earth, the God-man maintained a vibrant conversation with his Father via prayer and exhibited a reliance on the Holy Spirit, by which he never succumbed to the temptation to sin. For those of us seeking to follow Christ, we must use the same means in order to be delivered from evil. Christ serves as both the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2) and our example (Rom 15:3). While we suffer externally from the evil of others and internally from our own proclivity to sin, our solution to this problem of evil is found in the eternal God-man who became evil so that we might inherit his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21).
When a disciple of Christ is made, a change occurs. The disciple is delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of [Christ]” (Col 1:13). In him we are forgiven of our evil deeds. We are delivered from the penalty of our own evil at the moment we place our faith in Christ, our Deliverer. We then begin the maturing process of sanctification. For this reason, we are given the command to continually petition our Father to “deliver us from evil.” While Christ has already paid for our evil deeds on the cross, our desire should be to avoid situations in which we will be tempted to sin. Our deliverer, Jesus, allowed the Father to lead him into temptation (Matt 4:1) and was then victorious over it. Based on his victory, he instructs his disciples to be diligent to plead God have mercy to lead them away from it. Our ability to cry out to God, “please don’t let me find myself in a situation where I might lust or gossip,” is a great mercy. He gives good gifts; so why not ask for them?
Those of us on the journey of discipleship aren’t called to do it alone. When we ask God to deliver us from evil, an aspect of that deliverance is corporate as well. We are personally delivered from the penalty of evil upon faith, and delivered from situational evil upon petition and dependence on the Holy Spirit. From there, we are called to bring that deliverance to others as we serve as conduits of God’s grace. We multiply disciples when we share the good news that Jesus came not to condemn evil people, but to save them (John 3:17).
Externally, an evil one seeks to destroy us. Our Deliverer, came to set us free from his tyranny. Internally, we wage a war with our flesh and its evil desires. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit by whom we can put these deeds to death. Our eternal, good Father hears our prayers and is faithful. May he get all the glory for this for, “he delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him, we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor 1:10).
Lord, deliver us from evil.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at a church plant in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Hardcore Grace and the recently started Family Life Pastor.