I prefer my spiritual experiences to be as tame as possible. I like to decide when and where they are going to happen. If possible, I prefer to pray when it suits me, when it is not an interruption to my busy schedule.
Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were anything but tame. In Mark’s account of the experience, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, suggesting to me that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Mark’s gospel, with all of its stories about demons and exorcisms, takes the spiritual life very seriously, more seriously than I usually do.
For Jesus, his time in the wilderness was not a time to contemplate a beautiful sunset or to remark about God’s majesty in creation, which is what usually counts as a religious experience for most people I know. Instead, it was a difficult and heart-wrenching time.
Not eating for 40 days must have heightened his other senses, and when Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness, he needed to be alert. He needed every bit of strength he could muster. He was challenged, I assume, as he had never been challenged before, a young man coming face to face with nothing less than the meaning and purpose of his life.
As Diogenes Allen, my seminary teacher, puts it in his classic book about the temptations (a parent who names a child Diogenes should not be surprised when he grows up to be philosopher), Jesus was challenged specifically on the issues of material comfort, personal security, and prestige, and in all three areas Jesus – rather remarkably to me – chose faithfulness to God.
I must say, I have never been quite as courageous as Jesus was in these areas. I like material comfort, personal security, and more than a sprinkling of prestige.
My own wilderness experiences have never been times of my own choosing. When they happen, I always want to be anywhere but in the wilderness, but there – more than once in my life – is where I found myself. And believe me, there is nothing pretty about the wilderness. Jesus, we are told, faced wild animals, but the wild animals in my own life have not been wolves and hyenas. More typically they have been my own thoughts, my awful habit of making excuses for my behavior, my eagerness to confuse my own will with God’s will for me.
As I enter this season of the year known as Lent, I am aware that the seasons of our lives are seldom the ones we choose. They do not start and stop based on church calendars. They almost never begin with a pancake supper at church. I usually find myself in the wilderness when I least expect it.
Even so, I invite you to join me during this Lenten season in following Jesus who showed the way for us, who demonstrated courage we will never equal, and whose victory over sin and death makes our own victory possible.
(Note: I submitted something like this to my church’s Lenten devotional guide this year.)