One of my very favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. His recent memoir, The Pastor, goes to the heart of what it means to be a pastor. In one of his chapters, “Sister Genevieve,” Peterson recounts a friendship that emerged with the prioress of a Carmelite monastery, a place where fourteen nuns live the contemplative life. She became a help to him during a period he refers to as the badlands. Almost all of us pastors go through them. Sister Genevieve extended needed soul care, introducing him to such saints as Teresa of Avila.
One day they talked about the Lord’s Prayer and one of the more difficult petitions–“Deliver us from evil.” Sister Genevieve was not surprised by Peterson’s admission. Listen to her response: “Oh you Protestants. You are so naïve about evil. You know everything about sin, but nothing about evil—the prevalence of evil, the persistence of evil especially in holy places…you label everything that is wrong with the world as a sin that you can name and then take charge of getting rid of.”
She may be right. There is a certain naivety when it comes to evil. There have been times I have truly sensed evil. Two years ago, in Pergamum, one of the locations of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, the city referred to as “Satan’s throne”, I had one of my most horrific nightmares, experiencing something of a heavy force seeking to crush me in the night. Coincidence perhaps, but I don’t think so. Evil is both real and territorial. In some of my pastoral experiences, I have seen sinful behavior in meetings, and yes, behind some of them is a very deep evil at work.
At one point, Jesus gathered His disciples and revealed some kingdom secrets, including this—that the Evil One does this work of planting the weeds of evil in the night. In other words, there is an evil more insidious than we realize, that is anti-creation and anti-life, spoiling, corrupting, and perverting creation, as well as the missional work of the church. Underneath so much of the mess is an evil that damages lives, ruins marriages, and divides communities of faith. We need daily deliverance whether we realize it or not.
Miroslav Volf has written a number of recent books on the theme of evil, including Free of Charge and The End of Memory. So has Os Guinness (Unspeakable). But one I have found particularly helpful is NT Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. It is here Wright unpacks this petition we are to pray again and again: “Deliver us from evil.” The key to deliverance, he notes, goes back to forgiveness—God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. It explains why “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is an adjoining petition.
At the Cross, evil was confronted and dealt with. And based upon His work, He has released us not only from the burden of guilt but also from the burden of having to be angry with someone who has injured us. An essential part of the gospel is that evil no longer has a voice over us. We do not have to be held in the ugly grip of unforgiveness; no longer have to allow it to work as a catheter, dripping its spiritual poison in our systems. We are no longer conditioned by the evil someone has done to us. It does not have to determine what kind of people we shall become.
Nonetheless, it is one of the hardest acts to carry out. As Smedes put it, “In the whole human concerto, forgiveness is the hardest chord to play.” It takes spiritual discipline, beginning with prayer, this prayer—“Deliver us from evil.” The alternative is one of the greatest evils—refusing to forgive another.