Most of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor. And every now and then it is good to bring these works of mine together. An interesting question came in today (actually it is asked quite frequently) and I’d like to give my answer and add just a few things more that wouldn’t fit into the column. First the question, then the answer and a brief elaboration.
Q: Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God not to lead us in 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?
A: 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 that are involved: 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.
So to be clear, in my horrific little example, God is the primary cause since He is the cause of both me and the bat; I am the secondary cause of my shameful act of violence.
The biblical world was more conversant with and accepting of primary causality. 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). The Catechism speaks to this reality in Scripture:
The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” And so it is with Christ, “who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” As the book of Proverbs states: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (Catechism 303-304).
So the biblical world was more comfortable with primary causality. However, with the rise of the empirical sciences and secularism, we moderns are far less comfortable in speaking to primary causality (God’s world) and tend to 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, or tempt us himself (see James 1:13), but rather is alluding to the fact that God is the first cause of all things. We are thus asking that God’s providence allow fewer opportunities for us to be led into temptation by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and give us the grace to escape the temptations that inevitably do come our way.
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 hearts. God merely permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality); it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our own hearts.
Primary causality is ultimately a confession of the fact that God is at the center of and above all things. God is existence itself and He sustains all things. It is not an untroubling doctrine in that it tends to intensify the questions surrounding the problems of suffering and evil. But even in permitted evils there is the mystery of providence at work. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. He is at all times and in all things provident in ways beyond our telling. Scripture says of the Lord Jesus as the King and sustainer of all creation,
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb 1:1-3).
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.