“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The question my wife’s grandfather asked me was completely sincere and has been asked or at least thought by many others: “Didn’t anyone who died on 9/11 ever pray ‘Deliver us from evil’? And if they did, did God simply ignore their prayer? Or was he unable to deliver them from evil?”
He could not imagine a greater evil than the one committed on that bright September day. Nor could he imagine that only unbelievers had perished in those murderous attacks. Surely, at least one among the dead had faithfully prayed, “Deliver us from evil”! So where was Jesus?
Using evil for good
The answer is both simple and complicated. Grandpa had misunderstood the meaning of the Seventh Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. He was defining evil far too narrowly. We all do that. It’s natural for us to define evil as those things that make our earthly lives uncomfortable and unsatisfying. If it hurts, if I don’t like it, if I’d rather have it be a different way, or if it leads to death, it must be evil!
But God responds, “Not so fast!” Consider the example of Joseph. He suffered the worldly evil of his brothers selling him into slavery. It hurt. It wasn’t enjoyable. He certainly prayed for it to be different. This was pure evil, right? Well, yes and no.
Through the Spirit’s working, Joseph gradually learned and later proclaimed to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph’s brothers had done their best to inflict evil on him, and they had. But God delivered Joseph from evil. No, God didn’t immediately change the outward circumstances. Joseph suffered evil. What God changed was Joseph’s perspective on that evil, and in time he transformed human evil into divine good. Joseph perceived God’s gracious work—yes, even through evil!—and he was perfectly delivered.
Fighting eternal evil
So if God uses evil for good, what is truly evil? The Scriptures teach us that true evil is being separated from God’s eternal love. True evil is someone forfeiting the eternal blessings Jesus has won for all sinners. True evil involves us turning our ears away from God’s saving Word and treasuring instead the things of this condemned world. That’s the true and hidden evil to which we sinners are so naturally blind and vulnerable, an evil that daily surrounds us and lurks deep within us (Mark 7:21-23).
So we fervently pray, “Deliver us from evil,” something only Jesus can do. And he does. Every time, in his own time, and at just the right time. And sometimes he uses the greatest evil to do his even greater saving work (Acts 2:22-24).
Our Savior never promises to spare us from every worldly evil. If anything, he promises that we will endure evil regularly, especially as his people, but for our ultimate good. Make no mistake about it. “In this world you will have trouble.” And why is that? Because Jesus’ far greater desire—his only mission— is to deliver us from the brand of evil that lasts forever.
So we live day by day in the confidence of knowing that Jesus hears our prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” and answers as only he can: “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” In Jesus alone we are truly delivered from evil forever.
Author: Peter Prange
Volume 105, Number 2
Issue: February 2018