Mar 152011

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

  8 Responses to “Alone in the Wilderness – Part 1”

  1. Insightful as always, Chuck. Interesting that you speak of being alone in the wilderness. I woke up this morning intending to post a poem by Mechthild of Magdeburg about the desert. More synchronicities….

    It’s true that Jesus’ temptations were real temptations. In fact, he was likely tempted in ways that we would not be (i.e. the tempation to wield almost magical power for personal gain – that’s a little beyond me). I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Thank you for beginning this series. I’ll be reading along.

  3. Beautiful and profound perspective on Jesus’ temptation, Chuck.

    I have to agree with you on the typical version of Satan’s temptation before Jesus: I don’t “buy it” either. You’ve insightfully pointed out that the typical version depicts Satan as essentially confirming Jesus’ identity. By contrast, it seems that a wilderness experience undermines the very work the Spirit has just accomplished. Hence, a temptation in the wilderness just after the anointed hears a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17) would likely send the anointed into great doubt over this very identity. In place of Satan taunting, “If you are the Son of God” (which implies he is), one might imagine a lonely doubt not only in his own identity, but even of that of the Father. Such an interpretation, however, could be too great for the masses to swallow. So Matthew’s simple construction of this moment does hold some sublime beauty.

    Looking forward to part 2,

  4. “Alone in the wilderness”. I missed my flight to Sofia on Monday. Friends and family think I am now in Eastern Europe. But, I am experiencing this quiet solitude and thinking about the wilderness and the decisions I will make, soon. I enjoyed a period in a wild place tending sheep and goats. I am now back in the UK and the world is very busy and troubled. We are close to God in the forest, and the cares of the world are far away. Yet we must return to the world to shape our destiny in it. Changed though by the wilderness. I will get a later flight I think and walk in the forest again, a place where the eagles are, wolves and bears roam and all is in perfect order.

  5. Thanks to everyone for your comments and interest in this topic.

    Seth, I hear you about the magical power. Yet, what if we are all possessed of magical power without realizing it as clearly as Jesus did?

    Karina, isn’t it interesting how often we skip the simple question of why Jesus would need/want to retreat into the wilderness in the first place? And, as you identified, to be tempted in the ways Jesus was tempted immediately after receiving such a powerful sign is incredibly significant. Jesus is so human! I suspect most of us know what it’s like after a spiritual high, when we feel some deep truth is powerfully revealed to us, to then experience the anticlimax of doubt and uncertainty in ourselves and everything else.

    Sharon, thank you for your beautiful words. Raw nature is at once threatening and healing, and in this there is indeed profound wisdom. I like finding a sense of companionship with Jesus as someone who reveres nature that way. 🙂 Blessings for your travels.


  6. “Yet, what if we are all possessed of magical power….” Well, maybe we are – and it’s not like the temptation to use power for personal gain is unique to Jesus.

    As for the reason for Jesus’ need to go into the wilderness, I think Mark 1:12 speaks volumes: “And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” It doesn’t sound like he had much of a choice. Driving is what one does to an animal, like a horse or an ox.

  7. […] influenced some of my posts on this blog, including this series: Alone in the Wilderness, parts 1, 2, and […]

  8. […] that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if […]

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