On choices in the wilderness

What are you living for? When Martha was distracted by many things, Jesus told her that only one thing is essential (Luke 10:41-42). What is your one essential thing? A meaningful life is not a matter of how many things you do or how fast and efficiently you do them; it’s a matter of what you do and why you do it.

Before he entered monastic life, as Thomas Merton was wrestling with his identity and vocation, he wrote, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for” (My Argument with the Gestapo). What are you living for? Can you express it in detail? And can you identify what is keeping you from living fully for the thing you want to live for?

If you can do that or at least make a beginning at it, and if you take it seriously, you’ll understand what the temptations of Jesus were about (Luke 4:1-13). Actually, “temptation” is not the right word; the Greek word means something like “being tried” or “being proven.” Jesus was being tested to see if he had what it would take to live for the one essential thing in his life, the one thing he had chosen – or that had chosen him – at his baptism.

Jesus had been baptized; he had received the Holy Spirit and God’s affirmation; and he had made his commitment to what was to be his one essential thing. But before he began his work, he had to be tested. Was he up to the task? Did he have what his one essential thing in life would require of him? He would be tested many times throughout his life, and each time he would have to make a critical choice. How would he choose?

When he was famished and alone in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13), would he make his faith serve his own physical and ego needs? When his life was threatened by the crowd for what he said about the gospel (Luke 4:16-30), would he play it safe and soften his message or keep quiet entirely? After he fed the 5,000 and they tried to make him their king (John 6:15), would he accept the power they offered? When he was blamed for associating with the wrong kind of people (Luke 15:1-2), would he conform to social pressure? Just before his arrest, when he prayed for a way out of what awaited him (Luke 22:42), would he abscond into the night?

Of course, those are not merely tests of Jesus alone. They’re tests every one of us face. When I’m so aware of what I need in this life, will I choose a faith that serves me and my needs, a faith that worries with me about my life, about what I will eat or what I will drink or what I will wear (Matt. 7:25)? Will my investment in a life of faith become secondary to my investment in my home equity or my retirement accounts or my social status?

When I feel any kind of pressure from the crowd because of the way I show my faith in the world, will I play it safe and hide my light under a basket (Matt. 5:15)? Will I give to the world the person the world expects me to be, or will I give to the world the person God calls me to be, despite the cost?

When people judge me or shun me because I associate with the wrong kind of people, will I give in to social pressure and allow my place in the world to be dictated by social convention rather than by divine commission? Will I wear designer clothes or the less-expensive apparel that allows me to clothe my neighbor? Will I eat at expensive restaurants, or will I use that money to help feed my hungry neighbor? Will I hold on to that vacation home, or will I sell it and use the money to house the homeless? (cf. Matt. 25:31-46)

The real tests are the ones that slow us down and make us think, or they stop us in our tracks until we choose a new direction, new priorities, new possibilities. The hardest thing about choosing what’s right is, you never know what’s going to come of it. So they are distressing choices. But “the distresses of choice are our chance to be blessed” (W.H. Auden, “The Meditation of Simeon”). Meaningful, life-defining choices are not between good and bad; those are easy to make. The choices that define us are the ones between good and better, or better and best.

What one essential thing in life is defined for you by your baptism, by your commitment to Christian faith? Do you have what it takes to follow through on your commitment? In each of the countless choices you will make in your life, what is the one essential thing that will guide your choosing? What are you living for, in detail, and what keeps you from living fully for the thing you want to live for? You need to know. God needs to know.

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