If you had to take a guess, what would you think are the three biggest temptations people struggle with on a regular basis? If you’re not sure, or you have trouble of thinking of what might qualify as a temptation in your own life, think about something you regularly chastise yourself for; something you seem to fail at, over and over again. Maybe eating too many cookies. Or being short-tempered with your spouse or sibling. Or perhaps wasting too much time on social media, which seems to be a common regret these days. When we’re tempted to do something—whatever it might be—deep down we know it’s not the best choice for us, whether it has to do with how we spend our time, or our energy, how we treat others or what we allow to fill our minds.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, that long, quiet 40-day stretch of fasting and prayer that he spent alone after his baptism in the Jordan River. It’s that portion of Jesus’ life that the season of Lent commemorates. Today would be his 26th day of 40 days. I wonder what would he have felt like when he woke up this morning? A little more than half-way through this time of devoted reflection, was he enjoying his time with God? Feeling weary? Learning new truths? Missing his family? Relaxing into the silence?
During his wilderness time, Jesus had the luxury, I guess we could call it, of tuning out all other influences in his life that may have sometimes competed with his relationship with God. He was now a young adult—somewhere around 30 years old—and he’d most likely been earning a living as a carpenter. He would have been known to the people of his small town as Joseph and Mary’s son. He had friends and family members. He was probably known for his wisdom and kindness, maybe his humor. We know from the story of him at the temple when he was 12 years old that he always had a mind and heart that cared deeply about the things of God. No doubt as he grew his spiritual nature was more and more evident.
And because he was the Christ—and we know how the story turns out–we may think that Jesus had foreknowledge of everything he would be going through in his years of public ministry. It’s also possible, though, that even though he knew God had some purpose for him, he didn’t know the specifics or have a sense of how it would all unfold. Because Jesus was human and divine, I think his “not knowing” would have been an important part of his human struggle—he needed to learn to trust and follow and rely on God in this realm, just as we do–struggling, squinting, praying, day by day.
And if that’s the case, when John baptized him in the Jordan River and Jesus emerged from the water to hear the voice of God and feel the dove of Spirit landing on his shoulder, he may have realized for the first time the enormity of the call God had for him. No wonder he needed to go off by himself, to begin to grapple with this huge revelation and get a sense of what his next steps would be. He needed to withdraw from all the normal things of everyday life—families and friends, shopping and cooking and projects—so he could listen and pray and prepare for the road ahead.
So 26 days into the silence with God, Jesus may have been feeling increasingly confident in God’s leading, settling more deeply into worshipful quiet, learning new things about how God worked and moved and lead in his life. Or if his human side was more in charge than his divinity, Jesus might have reacted like many normal folks do when suddenly faced with extended solitude: they feel a looming anxiety, and they struggle with feeling deeply they’ve lost their purpose, their identity, their connection with others.
In the Atlantic Monthly article, “The Virtues of Isolation,” author Brent Crane quotes something Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani wrote about his time of solitude in the mountains of Japan. He wrote,
“For a month I had no one to talk to except my dog Baoli, I had time with books, nature, listening to the wind, watching butterflies, and silence. For the first time I felt free from the incessant anxieties of daily life, at last I had time to have time.”
But the author of the article goes on to suggest that that peaceful, welcoming reaction to solitude is a fairly rare thing. A 2014 research study at the University of Virginia asked more than one thousand participants to simply sit with their own thoughts for a 15-minute period, not looking at their phones or doodling or doing anything else to amuse themselves. Their other choice—if they wanted to end the waiting period early–was to push a button and get an electric shock. To the surprise of the researchers, nearly half of the participants, one quarter of the women and two thirds of the men, chose the shock over being left alone with their thoughts for only 15 minutes. (Makes you feel proud to be a Quaker, doesn’t it? We’re good at this silence thing.) But seen in the light of human experience, it makes Jesus’ time of soulful preparation in the wilderness—40 days and nights–all the more astounding.
In our New Testament reading, we heard the story of the temptations, which come at the end of that 40-day period, when Jesus was probably at his most humanly vulnerable point—hungry, tired, and lonely. But it’s likely also his divinity had had a boost; he was now spiritually fortified, confident in his ability to recognize God’s leading, strengthened from his single focus on God’s presence all that time. Possibly the temptations come as a kind of test of his readiness, to gauge what Jesus had learned and demonstrate how ready he was for ministry. His temptations were specific and important, and the way he responded to them had everything to do with his readiness to serve God’s purpose in this world:
- First, what was the source of his life: bread, or God? Would he use his own power to feed his hunger or keep his fast and trust God to give him what he needed?
- Next, what did he desire most—the acquisition of power and riches for himself, or a true and devoted relationship that glorified God?
- And finally—and this is a subtle temptation for the soul that wants to love God truly—whose will is being done here? If Jesus decided to put himself in danger to demonstrate that God would in fact save him, which I’m sure he believed, that would be his will being carried out, and not God’s. That’s how his choice would be “putting God to the test,” asking God to jump through hoops to prove His faithfulness. But Jesus saw through that temptation and showed clearly that it wasn’t his own will he wanted, but God’s. We would see him master this temptation again at a critical moment in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In each of these temptations, Jesus had to consider whether he would put himself—his hunger, his desire for success, his will—before God’s. It’s the heart of temptation itself, when we want something and our desire for that thing—whatever it may be—wins out over our desire to love and trust and listen to God and God’s best hopes for us.
Case in point: The Garden of Eden. What didn’t Adam and Eve have in the perfection of the Garden? They had safety, beauty, food, peace, and best of all, daily walks with God in the cool of the evening. It is the picture of perfect harmony, life as it was created to be. But somehow the perfection of that picture began to crack, and in slithered a voice of doubt and division. In the craftiest of ways, it seduced Eve and Adam into choosing what they wanted over what God wanted for them. And that badly mistaken choice—choosing their desires over God—opened up a new reality for Adam and Eve where shame and distrust, separation, judgment and deceit were now possible. That’s what happens to paradise when humans try to run it—we are all quite familiar with that reality today.
But where Eve and Adam made a devastatingly bad choice that cost them their joy, Jesus makes the right one, showing us the way back to God. He does this not only through his rebuke of temptation in the wilderness but also through the way he lived every day and every encounter. He demonstrated that living with peace and grace is as simple as turning our mind God’s way, opening our heart to God’s presence, quieting our own wants and needs enough that we might hear—and accept, and even celebrate—God’s will at work in our lives and in our world.
You’ve heard me talk about Brother Lawrence before—he was a humble French monk who was living in George Fox’s day (in fact they died only one month apart in 1691). Brother Lawrence is known and loved around the world today because of a small, simple book on how to live a faithful life, entitled, The Practice of the Presence of God. As a young man, Lawrence had a sudden, spiritual experience in which he saw a bare tree in the winter countryside but in his mind’s eye he saw the tree bloom into flower, and he was swept through with the love of God so strongly it stayed with him for the whole rest of his life. From that moment he decided that he would do all he could to love God the best he could each day. His simple practice was just to talk to God in his heart all day long, no matter what task he might be doing outwardly. When he forgot God for a brief time, he said he’d turn his heart back toward God as quickly as he realized it, asked God to help him, and then he just gave himself no further trouble about it and went on with his happy inward conversation.
As I reread Brother Lawrence’s book this week—probably for the 10th time–I tried to apply his simple idea—doing even the tiniest things for the love of God—to common activities of my day. I wondered what it might mean to take Gloria and Olive outside for “the love of God.” I was surprised to discover that doing that simple task “for God” on purpose, caused me to be more patient and more relaxed. I let the girls take all the time they wanted instead of tugging the leash and saying, “Hurry up, Olive,” which unfortunately I do. (Olive goes through quite a bit of discernment before finding the perfect spot and sometimes it’s hard to wait when it’s cold outside.)
I found doing things simply for the love of God made a difference in other ways too. Driving to the store for the love of God kept me more aware of and kinder to other drivers. I felt generous, like I could take my time; I cared about other people’s driving experience as much as my own. I wanted them to enjoy their day. I also had a sense that when God is in the mix, things work as they should, and traffic flows smoothly and well. Harmony results. And I think I saw evidence of that. I’m going to test it some more.
Reading the news in the love of God means that even in the most heartbreaking stories, I can feel how tenderly God loves all His children and how close God is to those who are frightened or hurting, sick or in harm’s way. With God’s love as the center, I can see evidence of God working through good and caring people all over the world, doing all they can to be part of the solution to the world’s pain. So instead of the news leading me toward despair, I feel drawn to pray with confidence for those who need God’s comfort and presence and intervention, knowing and claiming, as Brother Lawrence said, that God can change things for the good in any moment.
Praying in the love of God means my prayers are full of praise—which is an underrated and often overlooked energy—and I come to feel like I am resting and talking with a good friend. It’s not too far a jump in imagination to picture the beauty of the garden in the cool of the evening, walking and talking with God. A bit of God’s paradise, still reachable for us, when we turn our hearts God’s way, simply because we love Him.
So the antidote to temptation—whether it’s to doubt, to be angry, to put ourselves first, to despair, to give in to our worst impulses—the antidote is the simple transformative choice that Jesus lived by: to turn our minds and hearts God’s way and love God with all our might. That simple choice—even though we will do it imperfectly—makes all the difference. It lifts us from our fractured world and brings us together, whole again, into a peace that feels like home.
In closing, I’d like to share a poem from Irish poet John O’Donohue called, This Is the Time to Be Slow:
This is the time to be slow
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
- OT Genesis 3: 1-13
- NT Luke 4: 1-13
- Lawrence, Brother. The Practice of the Presence of God. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Practice_of_the_Presence_of_God