Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . . Interpreted literally this is an extraordinary statement. If this prayer is addressed to God, supposedly the father of all good, what an insult to ask him not to lead us into temptation. If addressed to the Devil, supposedly the author of all evil, then why are we seeking to bargain with such an one? What then is the meaning of this statement, and why should the Master Jesus have incorporated it into his Prayer on the Mount, if it did not have genuine spiritual worth?
Do we suppose for one moment that the Lord, the Father within, our Higher Self, would deliberately push us into temptation, and therefore we have to pray to him to desist and please to deliver us from evil? Or is there an interpretation that will inspire the nobility within the soul? "O Father within, lead us not away from our trials and difficulties, so that meeting them squarely we may recognize evil for what it is and overcome its power to control." Certainly that attitude, rather than the weak supplication to be spared every temptation, arouses our manhood. Who is the stronger, the more compassionate, the wiser, in the final analysis: the man who has been secluded from all the distractions of life, who has been shielded from every enticement, or he who having been challenged by temptations, has recognized them for what they were, and battled his way out to land on his feet? Assuredly the latter, for that man can be counted on; he has strengthened the inner fiber of his soul.
But there is more to this matter of good and evil. The other side of the equation presents an even more dangerous pitfall. That is the concept that since the soul cannot really know anything until it has experienced it, therefore we must go out and indulge in all sorts of evil experiences so that the soul can grow! That is one of the most diabolic of distortions, to which unfortunately too many truth-seekers fall victim, particularly in the fields of inquiry which may be termed 'occult,' but which are as far from genuine Occultism as day is from night. Such an attitude leads into dangerous avenues of thought and conduct. Instead of facing positively whatever temptations come before us, we justify ourselves by saying: "Well, I am going to have to experience everything that this world holds, I might as well give vent to this impulse and get the experience over with." We will never gain strength, moral or spiritual, that way. That is not being "delivered from evil," but in all truth prostituting our divine birthright in wilfully becoming, for the time at least, one with evil. And what is more, we fool no one but ourselves when we attempt to whitewash our deviations by taking refuge in the idea that because the soul cannot know a thing until it has experienced it, we are enjoined therefore to seek out every form of evil in order to evolve. The true spiritual path does not condone compromise with error.
In the old days our forebears found no difficulty in making clear-cut dividing lines between that which was good and therefore of God, they said, and that which was evil and therefore of the Devil. In some ways there was a healthy austerity in their stand, which we might well emulate in principle, for it brooked no compromise with what one knew to be wrong.
Today, however, through the impact of world-wide relationships and the experience of more consciously participating in the suffering of others, man has come to realize that good and evil, light and darkness, while as end-products are distinct and separate, nevertheless they blend so gradually the one into the other that we are at times hard put to say where evil stops and good begins, where falsehood ends and truth remains, where white is still white, and not a dismal gray. Our vision of basic issues has become blurred because we seem unable to fix a firm dividing line between what is right and what is wrong. Somehow the wide bridge of right principles seems to have narrowed to a hairline, so that man has all but lost his footing. Formerly we could say, with permission of Kipling, that "right is right and wrong is wrong, and never the twain shall meet." But life is not like that. While the principles of right and truth and goodness remain sound through the ages, the application of those principles in our lives demands searching examination of our motives. For it is the motive always that tips the scales toward right or wrong. In contemporary thought there is a noticeable lessening of reliance on commonly accepted authority. Religious dogmas as such will not provide a lasting spiritual anchorage; science with adolescent energy has precipitated us into a technological advance so gigantic as to far out-distance our moral growth (but not our capacity); while the numerous modern philosophies and psychologies leave us rather empty if not confused.
Where then can man turn? Always the answer is: within — for the Father is within as well as without, and if we allow that influence to participate in our lives it may truly act as our Guardian Angel. But this participation is a two-way street. We cannot expect the Father to do our homework. Nor can we expect constantly to be rescued when we deliberately turn our hearts away from its counsel. For counsel is surely given, and warning too.
Lead us not into temptation . . . To whom is this prayer addressed? To none other than the Father in Heaven, the Divine Intelligence which resides in the heart of every living organism, and therefore of man. Each one of us not only has a source of spiritual guidance in the Father within, but has a sure touchstone in the voice of conscience which is the inner link in our working consciousness with our past experience. The voice of conscience is inherent in the soul. It speaks from the long ages of experience which the soul has undergone. Ever since humanity stepped out of the protective guardianship of the Garden of Eden period we have individually and collectively, as the races succeeded one after the other, been sowing and reaping, reaping and sowing, so that today stored in the soul of each one of us is a tremendous reservoir of experience — all of which has created the potent atmosphere of plus and minus in which we find ourselves today.
Our conscience does not tell us what to do, any more than the daimon of Socrates told him what to do; but it will tell us what not to do. It could not give us that danger signal unless we had experienced something in the past that made us suffer and therefore had left an impression of warning in the soul, which now the conscience is trying to recall to our present working consciousness.
We have had all kinds of experiences, made plenty of mistakes, and have suffered from those mistakes. We learn from failure, and the experience of pain gives sensitivity and wisdom to the conscience.
We should have done with continued descent into materiality and be up and on with the cycle of progress toward spirituality. For man has reached that point in his evolution where he can and must raise himself by his own bootstraps, and no longer be dependent upon outside mentors to prod him forward. When we follow a line of conduct that is not upright or on the level with our inner standard, we are going backwards; and this a hundredfold if we attempt to kid ourselves into believing that we "need the experience" in order to evolve. After all, we do have a Father within, a Higher Self, and while it will not lead us into temptation, it will not allow us to be pampered either, but will guide us naturally into those circumstances which the soul most needs for growth.
Our job today is to meet courageously the effects of our past actions, and to build wisely for the future. If we truly aspire to do the works of the Father, as the Master indicated we could, and "even greater things," then we shall find a large area in which to exercise our spiritual initiative. For Life, the great teacher, will bring us our full measure of opportunity.
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Call that mind free which escapes the bondage of matter, and instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author and finds, in the radiant signatures which it everywhere bears of the Infinite Spirit, helps to its own spiritual enlargement.
I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven, which, whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself and uses instruction from abroad, not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies. — William Ellery Channing