Jesus Tempted in the Desert – Part 3: Lessons from the Wilderness
Lessons from the wilderness
1. You can’t avoid the wilderness.
Many, if not all of us, have had wilderness experiences – times when we’ve stepped into the uncomfortable unknown. It may have been prompted by the death of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, moving house, work or school, a major illness/injury, or loss of a job [Ref: Top Five Life Stressors].
Such wilderness experiences can leave us feeling alone, abandoned, bewildered, deprived and unsupported. For this reason, I would suggest we are more susceptible to temptation as a means of numbing (and sometimes feeding) these feelings.
Some of us are dragged kicking and screaming into the wilderness, or we’re completely blindsided, air-dropped into a situation with little or no preparation. We might try to run away as fast as possible, or feel paralysed and sink into helplessness. However we respond, one thing is certain: the wilderness is an inevitable part of life.
How does Jesus approach this journey?
In verse 1, we learn that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He goes willingly so we can conclude from this that the wilderness is not something that can be or should be avoided. Moreover, the Bible tells us Jesus is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ so he isn’t alone. The truth contained here is simple but deeply comforting: When you go into the wilderness, you will not be abandoned.
2. Temptation is strongest when we are at our most vulnerable but … there is strength in vulnerability.
Satan chooses to test Jesus when Jesus is starving hungry. In other words, when he is at his most vulnerable. Yet his vulnerability turns out to also be his strength. Because Jesus has been praying and fasting for so long, he is in a heightened state of awareness of his need for God. Stripped of his community, food and any potential distractions, he is in a state of union with his creator. From this standpoint, he can easily see through Satan’s attempts to divide him from God. He chooses God’s way – the true source of power and nourishment.
3. The wilderness isn’t forever.
When you’re in the midst of a wilderness experience, it can feel like forever; that you can’t go on. Jesus himself is pushed to his absolute limit, but his time of trial eventually comes to an end. And so will yours.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13b, we’re taught that:
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
There is a way out, and that way is threefold:
Be still and pray because it is in the stillness that you become aware of when you are being tempted.
Recognise that the temptation comes from an inner wound such as loneliness, feeling powerless or feeling abandoned/rejected.
Turn away from the false promises temptation offers (to numb or feed your pain) and instead turn towards God so that you may come to know your wound fully and be healed by love.
4. You will be tempted again.
The Bible tells us,
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (v13)
Even after I spoke up about being poorly treated (as described here), I didn’t become immune to being tempted to choose ‘peace at any price’. That said, I am much quicker at recognising when it’s happening. I also have Jesus’ method of handling the situation as outlined above.
5. Being tempted in the wilderness brings unexpected gifts.
The Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, uses the phrase, ‘the dark gift’ to describe an experience that, at first glance, may appear to leave us flailing around in the dark without any hope of a positive outcome. However, if we take the time to look, there is a gift for us concealed in the darkness. [Ref: Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, Banta, Press, 2007.]
I see the gift of temptation as this: when we feel tempted, that is a signpost directing our attention to a part of us that is in pain. It’s an invitation to take the journey of healing into our inner wilderness. With Jesus as our guide and companion, we can take this journey safely. After all, he's trod this path before and already knows the way.