Question: Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God not to lead us into temptation? Why would God do that? I have also read texts in the Bible about God hardening people’s hearts. Again, why would God do that?
— Gerald Phillips, Omaha, Nebraska
Answer: Part of the problem in understanding biblical texts like these comes down to the philosophical distinction between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality refers to God’s action in creating, sustaining and setting into motion all things. From this perspective, God is the first (or primary) cause of all things; even things contrary to his stated and revealed will.
Thus, if I hit you over the head with a bat, I am actually the secondary cause of this painful experience. God is the primary cause because he has made and sustains all things in the process, such as me, the wood of the bat, and the firm resistance of your skull.
As such, God is the first or underlying cause, without which nothing at all would be happening or existing. God is surely opposed to my action, and even has commandments against it. However, given his establishment of physical laws and respect for human freedom, he seldom intervenes by suspending these.
Biblical texts often more freely associate things with God, because he is the first cause of all things without excluding the human agency that is the secondary cause. But with the rise of the empirical sciences and secularism, we moderns are far less comfortable in speaking to primary causality (God’s world) and focus more on secondary causes (our world).
When the Lord’s Prayer says lead us not into temptation, it is not asserting that God would directly and intentionally lead us into temptation but is alluding to the fact that God is the first cause of all things. We are thus asking that God’s providence will allow fewer opportunities for us to be led into temptation by the world, the flesh and the devil.
Likewise, texts that refer to God hardening hearts employ similar thinking. God hardens hearts only insofar as he is the first cause of all things. But it is usually we who harden our own heart. God only permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality), but it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our hearts.
Question: On the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Does his plea absolve all who took part in the crucifixion?
— Cliff Journey, Fairhope, Alabama
Answer: The Lord is certainly offering forgiveness and absolution. But as with any offer of absolution or forgiveness, we must also receive the gift by accepting it with contrition for our sins. In a certain sense, absolution cannot simply be granted (by way of an imposition or a mere declaration of sorts), because this does not respect human freedom.
If I were to stand before you and say, “I forgive you and absolve you of the terrible things you did to me,” you might react with relief and joy. Alternately, you might react with anger because you think you did nothing wrong. Hence, the offer of absolution is one thing; the reception of it is necessary to complete the act. Jesus is surely offering absolution. Whether they received it is up to them.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.