Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
It seems that at every “spiritual” high point I have, doubt comes. The inner whispers gain momentum and become the roar of a great beast.
And I cower in fear.
I fall into the valley of despair.
I pitch a tent in the forest of depression.
And sometimes...sometimes I stay a long time.
In the story above, Jesus follows the same path but has different results. It’s no coincidence that this passage comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3.13ff). Yahweh had just declared, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” At just that point, the doubt comes, the inner whispers start. But instead of doing what I do (and, I think, what a lot of us do), Jesus confronts the doubt head on.
But before the doubt comes, Matthew tells us that “the Spirit then led Jesus up into the wilderness.” Do we look at our trials like this? Do we see the descent into doubt as being led by the Holy Spirit? I don’t. But I might start.
If we look at our walking into the wilderness as being led by the Spirit of G_d, doesn’t that change the way we perceive the trial and doubt? I know that the Bible teaches that G_d doesn’t tempt us; that we are tempted by our own cravings (James 1.13-15), but it also gives us clues on how to look at the wilderness we will, inevitably, find ourselves in. James wrote:
My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing (James 1.2-4).
I think we can see just this thing playing out in the story of Jesus’ temptations above. Of course, he may not have seen it (as it happened) as an “occasion for joy.” But what if he already understood this principle James’ wrote about? What if he understood that, yes, the natural recourse of a “spiritual” high point is putting that high to the test? And, if he did, perhaps he did see it (in the beginning) as a joyous experience. That is, since he knew what Yahweh had said to him, he was like, “Bring it on! I won’t be moved!”
Something else this tells us is that those specific temptations Jesus underwent were exactly the places he was weakest. James told us that we’re tempted by our own cravings, so it seems that Jesus’ cravings are magnified in his temptations.
Notice that the very first thing the tempter said was, “Since you’re G_d’s son…” Right off the bat, the temptation, the mocking, is attacking the very thing G_d just proclaimed! In other words, “If you’re really G_d’s child, you should be able to do the things that G_d does. Okay then. Prove it!”
Then it attacks Jesus’ most vulnerable need — food. Or, as John put it, “the craving for whatever the body feels” (1John 2.16). Jesus fasted “forty days and forty nights.” He went without food (and possibly water; cf. Exodus 34.28). He was “starving.” The temptation is to get something to eat. If there’s not anything available, well, just make some bread out of the rocks!
Jesus counters this attack by quoting Deuteronomy 8.3. That passage is very telling. There it states, “[Yahweh] humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so [Yahweh] could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever [Yahweh] says.” This tells us that Jesus’ fast was part of G_d’s will for him. That, yes, Matthew got it right. Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit of G_d. It was G_d’s will that he be hungry. But, as Jesus noted, G_d would also be the one who feeds him.
The “word spoken by G_d” is also important. Remember the context of Deuteronomy. There weren’t written holy books available in every household, sold in the local bookstore. In other words, Jesus isn’t referring to the Bible. He’s referring to the “word” from the previous chapter (Matthew 3). The “word” that stated he was, in fact, G_d’s child. It’s that word that sustains him.
The next attack plays to his ego — what Jesus thinks of himself. The passage the “devil” quoted is taken from Psalm 91. That whole Psalm is about being in Yahweh’s presence; being under Yahweh’s protection. The tempter sees that passage as a license to do “whatever” and expect Yahweh to jump in and fix anything that goes awry. Sadly, this is like a lot of people who follow Jesus today. We’ve all seen those “Daily Promises” or what not. And they all do the same type of thing — speak of a supposed “golden ticket” which leaves the impression we can do whatever we want and Yahweh will come and rescue us.
Jesus counters this type of reading; this type of interpretation. He does this by quoting from the Torah again (this time Deuteronomy 6.16). And, to me, the gist of “Don’t test Yahweh your G_d,” is, “You’ve got a brain. Use it!” In other words, Jesus bases this rebuttal on the first one. Since he is, indeed, G_d’s child, he doesn’t need to prove it to anyone else — especially through a erroneous interpretation of Scripture!
The last attack comes in the form of power, or as John calls it, “the arrogant pride in one’s possessions” (again, 1John 2.16). “Okay,” the tempter says, “your G_d’s child, the rightful ruler of the world. I’ll give you all of the realms of this world to rule right now. All you have to do is kneel before me and pay me homage. You don’t even have to mean it. You can cross your fingers behind your back. Just swear your allegiance to me.” This, to me, is the hardest temptation of all. In essence, what this temptation is saying is, “Jesus, you don’t have to be tortured and killed. You can bypass all of that unthinkable pain and take your rightful place as the world’s true king. But it will cost you your soul. Worship me and I’ll make it all go away and you can set up your rule right now.” Of course, this would mean that Jesus would be a ruler just like all of the others — one that cuts corners and crushes others under his feet and does whatever he wants just to get his way. I mean, after all, that’s what’s been promised to him, right? Why not just take this easy way out?
Jesus’ counter is again based on those that went before. Since he’s assured that he is G_d’s child he won’t temp G_d by placing himself in precarious situations. And since he is the rightful ruler of creation, he’ll only worship and serve Yahweh, the Creator G_d, and Yahweh alone (hinting back to the Shema, Deuteronomy 6.4-5).
What can we glean from this? A few things, I think. First, we need to rest in G_d’s word to us. Whatever G_d has told us — whether through a vision or a person or a deep impression as we walk through nature or a passage in the Bible or some other holy text — hold on to it.
Second, when the doubts and whispers start (and they will) we must realize they’re expected. They’re the unavoidable “next step” in the process. When they come, we should be at peace with it. We may not like it, but it’s a good thing.
Third, and I think this one is probably the hardest, we’ve got to wrestle with the doubt. We can’t just “name it and claim it” and expect everything to be fine. No. We may “claim it,” i.e., not lose sight of what G_d’s told us, but we still have to do the hard work of walking through the wilderness of doubt. If we fall and don’t get back up here, in this most crucial of places, we won’t make it to the goal.
Next, once we’ve made it through the valley, the deserted places, we’re on our way to becoming “fully mature and complete,” as James taught.
Lastly, and this is something that’s hinted at in Matthew’s story, there are times when we need others to “come and take care” of us as we go through this process. We need what the monastic Celtic Christian traditions of Ireland and Scotland call an anam cara, a “soul friend.” Such people are a necessity in this walk. As St. Brigid said, “A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” And Pelagius said, “Indeed we each need one special friend, who may be called a friend of the soul. We must open our souls completely to this friend, hiding nothing and revealing everything. And we must allow this friend to assess and judge what he sees.” An anam cara is someone who knows us inside and out — our faults and features, our trials and triumphs. Someone who can be brutally honest, albeit in a loving manner. That is to say, we don’t (and shouldn’t) have to go through this alone. We need an anam cara in whom to confide. Granted, sometimes we need to go through things alone, as in Jesus’ case above. But before and after his wilderness experience, he was surrounded by those beings who helped him, guided him, and yes, even corrected him.
May we see each new revelation with new eyes.
May we encounter each doubt with a joyous conviction
that we might be on the right path after all.
May we find an anam cara within whom we can confide.
And may the All-Loving Father-Mother, the Child, and the Holy Spirit
guide us in peace.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC