Red Letter Experiment: #2 Wilderness Training

Not my idea of wilderness training. Prefer mug of coffee while sitting on rock listening to babbling brook.
Not my idea of wilderness training. Prefer mug of coffee while sitting on rock listening to babbling brook.

As I was plodding and plowing through the spoken words of Jesus in Matthew, I came to the Wilderness. You remember–the 40 days and 40 nights wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the evil one? As a graduate of Sunbeams, Girls in Action, and years of Sunday School and Training Union, I am very familiar with the story. It seemed like a myth. Jesus’ rite of passage.

Reading it again and again through my adult years, it still remained mythical. . .almost. I listened to sermons on it, all reminding me that in order to fight the devil, I must use God’s sword–His Word. I got that. I understood. But the person of Jesus stayed hazy and distant. A god/man able to defeat the evil one because he conveniently already knew the outcome? Isn’t that always problematic? The duality of Christ? Fully human and fully divine. One member of the Trinity. My puny brain can’t wrap itself around that truth. But I accept it as truth. I trust it as truth. And this time when I read Matthew 4 and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, I saw the human Jesus rejecting the alluring words of Satan and choosing holiness and single-minded devotion to his Father (and our Father).

No Horns or Sulfur-y Stink

It’s funny–well, maybe not funny–but typically human of us to reduce Satan to an ugly, demonic, perverse-looking creeper. Whoa, I would run so fast if I was approached by this creature. Lucifer (i.e. Satan or “the tempter”) was an angel of light. He was beautiful in Heaven and I believe he is still beautiful. A Dorian Gray beauty. Alluring, sensual, gorgeous and completely evil. No longer an angel of light, but a demon of darkness who rejected “the Light.”

I’m not a theologian, but I am a teacher of literature and I can say that literarilly, John Milton got it right in Paradise Lost–Satan was (and is) beautiful. He’d have to be if people were going to listen to him and believe him and trust him. It is human nature to run from ugliness, thus the Dorian Gray allusion. Satan stays beautiful outwardly, but his inward nature is twisted, distorted, deformed and evil. Do not be deceived; he doesn’t like people.

Onward to Our Hero

Now we’re ready to look at the temptations. Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. It’s important to note that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Spirit-led isolation and not an escape from the world. No running away for isolation. Jesus followed the urging of the Spirit to go into the wild desert of Judea. He spent 40 days and nights there. Fasting. Communicating with His Father. I wonder what those conversations were like? I try to imagine and come up short. God the Father talking with God the Son. What I do know is that Jesus came out of the desert and immediately began his three-year ministry. But…before He left the desert, he had to face what we face everyday–temptation to reject holiness and give in to need and desire. 

Three of the gospels cover the temptation of Christ. John doesn’t. Mark barely does. Matthew is the most detailed, followed by Luke. I did some studying and discovered the obvious. All four gospels addressed different audiences, thus their purposes were different. It’s not a contradiction. It’s reality. If you have to relate important information to varied audiences, you have to tailor your writing to engage the needs of your audience. It’s not something an English major discovered; it’s something God–the creator of the universe–already knew. Duh.

So, we’ve established that the devil is beautiful, alluring and sensual–Jesus went to the desert because the Holy Spirit told Him to–Jesus left the desert after 40 days and immediately began his ministry. There. The stage is semi-set. 

The temptations come after the 40 days are almost complete. Jesus is in a weakened physical state. I can’t wrap my mind around how hungry he must have been. Starving. I’m a terrible “faster.” I’ll start a fast and I’ll have great intentions. Hunger pains remind me that God is sufficient and I don’t need food–I need God. Concentrate, Cindy. Or as my mentor, Winnie the Pooh, says: “Think, think, think.” I get through a day and cave. Then I try again. And cave. Too much food around and too little self-discipline. Not a lot of food in the wilderness for Jesus. Apparently there were some wild animals (Mark did note that in his gospel). Jesus could have had some wild Judean rabbit or some such edible wild thing. But he didn’t. And of course the “tempter” addresses Jesus’ physical hunger first.

“Hey Jesus. Bet you are really hungry. IF you are really the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, prove it. Turn these stones to bread. Satisfy your hunger. Satisfy your physical need. No one will see. Shoot, you deserve it. You’ve been fasting a long time. What difference will it make if you just do a little of your Jesus miracle stuff and show your God-self to me. Shhhh…I won’t tell.

Big question: would it have made any difference if Jesus had nibbled a little stone bread and proved himself to the perversely beautiful and convincing tempter? Let that roll around in your brain a bit.

Jesus doesn’t cave. He quotes scripture to Satan (who he knew quite well since Jesus is part of the Trinity and was and has been and ever will be present with God). Satan was not a stranger (and nor was he Jesus’ brother). He had been an angel. Only an angel. Not a god and not a son of God. He was a servant of God. He didn’t like it. He got tossed out. Back to the Truth: Jesus was fully aware of what Satan was doing, AND Satan was fully aware of who Jesus was. He didn’t need Jesus to prove his divinity. There was another purpose here. He was playing on Jesus’ human need. No surprises. Jesus–fully human and fully divine–doesn’t cave. I would.

Take-Away Point

Think about what you need physically. Food. Shelter. Job. Love. Security. Health. Family. As humans, when we are weakened by a lack of any of these things, we become vulnerable. On a diet? Vulnerable to bread? Cheetoes? Chocolate? Gummy bears? I’ve been on a low-carb diet (health reasons) for a month. I could eat an entire loaf of fresh bread right now.

How about shelter? Living small? Wanting large? Avoid HGTV or all of a sudden your completely sufficient home seems really lame. What? No jetted tub or walk-in closet? ( Oh, we are a spoiled nation!)

Lack of love? Wow. This one creates all sorts of problems. I can speak for women–we fall hard for the wrong person when we are looking for a man to satisfy our love deficiency. We become loser magnets. Someone comes along and assuages our need to be told we are beautiful or sexy or adorable or perfect and WHAM. Down we go. Didn’t I say the tempter was beautiful and alluring and sensual?

The point is this: when we have a hole in our place of physical need, we become vulnerable. Vulnerability leads us to question God’s sufficiency. We get scared. We doubt God even cares or hears or is really God (the one who spoke the universe into being). Weak weak weak. What Jesus told Satan when he was confronted in his weakened and vulnerable condition? God is sufficient. Go away.

How I Hang On to Jesus by a Tiny Rope

My vulnerability? Oh dear. Too many. But right now it’s my health. I have a disease that is affecting my quality of life. It is so easy to start feeling helpless and hopeless until I get my eyes off of “me” and on Jesus. It sounds like a cliché or a t-shirt or a coffee mug from Cafe Press, but it’s not. And it’s not easy. It isn’t a feeling. It requires a deliberate effort from me. Mental discipline.

I have to surround myself with God. For me, that means putting down the novel, turning off the television AND putting work aside. I use work as a justification for not spending more than a few minutes in the Bible. I excuse myself by listening to sermons from my favorite podcasters on my way to work or grocery store (only places I go anymore). And I go down. Emotionally and physically. I doubt God’s sufficiency and become vulnerable to temptation by the one who is great at exploiting weakness. 

Psoriatic arthritis is my disease but it won’t kill me. It just knocks me around a bit (or the medicine to combat it knocks me around a bit). But it also reminds me that life is fragile and so many people are suffering from things that are infinitely more painful and terminal. I read a few posts from 24-7 prayer or Imago Dei or “She is Safe” and immediately the “I” starts to fade. I’m drawn to contemplation and prayer and my Bible and journal.

Priorities shift around and I see life through my God lens. When I’m looking through that lens, I can’t see the huge “me” and instead see God’s love, grace, mercy and sufficiency. Much better way to see.

And that’s just the first temptation. Oi vey.