[Earlier posts in this series about responding to atheism:
- 1 The Challenge of Atheism
- 2 What is Secular Humanism?
- 3 Responding to Atheism
- 4 The Theistic Manifesto, The Lord’s Prayer
- 5 Theistic Manifesto, The Lord’s Prayer, Part 2]
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive . . .
“Forgive us our trespasses” (v. 12). Now you can be an atheist and believe in repentance and forgiveness, but they can never amount to anything more than a reconciliation between human beings. That would be a good accomplishment and better than nothing. But there are a couple of major problems. First, how high is the motivation for reconciliation between us and other people? If there is no God, if there is no moral absolute above us and apart from us, why should I go through the work of seeking forgiveness or granting it for that matter? An atheist may argue that reconciliation and peace is a better state of affairs because reducing injury between people or groups is a more desirable way to live. But that is so far removed from the theistic reason for reconciliation that it can hardly be compared. It is the difference between a teenager saying he or she is sorry for carelessly backing over the neighbor’s dog in the driveway because “sorry” is a magic word for getting along with other people, and truly grieving that his or her carelessness made the neighbor’s children heartbroken.
Another problem with understanding forgiveness apart from God is that we will never find forgiveness for those trespasses that rise above human relationships. We won’t find it, because we won’t believe we need it. Though in our souls, how we know we need it! If you believe the Lord’s Prayer, this theistic manifesto, you will pray, “Forgive me, dear God. Forgive me for being small-minded; forgive me for pettiness in my heart; forgive me for making myself the center of my world and making myself the measure of all things. Forgive me for not aspiring to what is noble.” And then what happens? If you believe in God, if you are a true theist and you know that the Son of God gave these words for you to use, then you will find release. That is, after all, what forgiveness is. You are freed from the grip of legal obligation and of your own guilt and shame. But you can only pray that if there is a God whose ear is next to our mouths.
And then there is the follow-on: “as we forgive those who sin against us” (v. 12). The theistic manifesto says this, too: Experiencing the freedom of the release of forgiveness from God goes hand in hand with us doing the same with others. And how could it work any other way?
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . .
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (v. 13). Now a positive belief in God goes hand in hand with certain beliefs about the darker side of spiritual life—realities like temptation and evil. The Christian acknowledges such realities and admits that they are the best explanation for the spiritual and moral catastrophes that happen in life, but the Christian can have hope because of the ability of God to provide protection from temptation and evil. The atheist, on the other hand, has to come up with an entirely different solution. It is almost unbearable to think that we are subject to temptation and evil, and there is no salvation at hand. So the easiest thing to do is to deny it all. Temptation? Why hang on to that old notion that clings to the story of Eden and the forbidden tree? Are we not free creatures? And as long as we’re not hurting someone else, who can say we’re doing anything wrong or succumbing to some temptation? Crime is a problem, yes. Cruelty, yes. But temptation?
So, too, for the atheist, it is hard to allow that there is evil in the world, because that is a spiritual judgment. To call something evil means describing not merely an illegality but also a crime against heaven and a purposeful, dark, energetic malevolence. To believe that there is evil is to believe in spiritual realities that exist beyond the acts of human beings. And so Christians pray, according to the directions of Jesus, “Deliver us from evil,” which means, protect us from the ravages of the evil acts of others by keeping us spiritually strong, help us to have faith, be our fortress. It is to say, “Help me to know that You have vanquished the Evil One, that he cannot snatch me from Your hand, that he cannot bury me.”
Yours is the kingdom, power and glory . . .
And finally, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory” (v. 13). God rules. This means that with a clear perspective on the events of the whole world and of your own life, you can say, “You are the One who is ruling, and Your power is the only power that ultimately matters, and Your glory—Your greatness, Your goodness, Your majesty—is what gives the matters of my life value.” It is to define your life in relation to the God who is. This is the black-and-white opposite of what the atheist is doing with life. The atheist or the secular humanist is committed to defining all of life without God: There is no divine interference, but no divine provision either.
And so the prayer concludes, “Forever and ever. Amen” (v. 13). Whenever I pray that final phrase, it strikes me in the face: “forever.” All of these statements about God and to God are not intended to be passing sentiments, but eternal convictions. Forever commitments. In a university classroom, a debate about theism versus atheism may be a 50-minute experience—and then it’s on to geography, mass communications or English 101. But in real life, believing or not believing that there is a God—and that kingdom, power and glory are His special characteristics—may be the difference between a life lived in hope or a life of despair.