Some people like to think God never leads anyone into temptation; it’s the devil who does that. If you’re one of those people, think again. God not only leads us into temptation, God led even Jesus into temptation (Matt. 4:1-11, esp. v. 1). Mark’s gospel tells us God drove him to it (Mark 1:12). And when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” we’re asking God to exempt us from the journey of faith, the journey toward wholeness and abundant life, the journey toward God and our spiritual home.
Actually, “tempted” is not a good translation of what happened to Jesus, nor does it describe what happens to us. A better translation is “tested,” “tried,” or “proven,” as in what any customer does in test driving an automobile to see if it measures up to expectations. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). God may be well pleased with Jesus and still wonder: Is he up to the task ahead? Does he have what it takes to be God’s messenger, to proclaim the good news of what God is doing in the world? He needs to be tested to find out.
The place where Jesus will be tested is the “wilderness,” though Matthew doesn’t say whether the wilderness is a piece of geography or an inner, spiritual condition of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty, a condition Jesus has to get through before beginning the work ahead. And the one who will test Jesus is the “devil” – not the devil we know, the Prince of Darkness who battles against God in a fight to the finish. Rather, it’s the more ancient tester, the dark angel of God that tests us to see what we’re made of (Job 1:6-12), to see if God can trust us enough for the holy work in life to which God calls us.
It’s helpful to remember that the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is not really a story about Jesus. It’s a story about the early Christians who, in the first generation after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, were in a dark spiritual wilderness. Doubt, confusion, and uncertainty were all around. What would they make of their faith after the symbolic center of their faith, the temple, the one place where God was to be found and would appear at the end time, was gone? What kind of church would they be? How would they choose among all the possibilities?
For the early church, their tests were like the ones Jesus faced. Would they be the Great Provider, turning stones into bread (v. 3), providing merely for the material needs of the poor? Would they exercise priestly power (vv. 5-6), performing miracles and prescribing what people should and should not believe, what they should do or not do? Would they exercise political power (v. 9), seeking to control the destiny of nations and so control the future? Or would they be who God expected them to be, whatever that turned out to be?
The church found there’s a dimension of life greater than material needs, and life is not life unless we listen and respond to that dimension. The church found that in every crisis, it is we who are being tested, not God. We may question God about why something happens, but in the moment of crisis, God is questioning us to see how we will respond. The church found it wasn’t their calling to control nations or to control the future; it was their calling to live faithfully in a world they could not control. And the church found it wasn’t their role to preserve tradition and tell people how to live, to prescribe right and wrong behavior, or to be responsible for the faith of others. When their minds and hearts were clear about those things, they were ready to begin their ministry.
The church is being tested today. In a world where many of the dependable forms and functions of religion and community life are being lost, we find ourselves in a dark wilderness of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. And in this wilderness, we have to choose who we will be. It is not the case, I believe, that some dark force has us and the world in its grip, some force competing with God for our souls. God is testing us to see how we will choose.
As the Spirit led Jesus, so the Spirit leads us into the wilderness to be tested. And what the Spirit did not do for Jesus, it will not do for us. It will not give us instructions about how to choose. It will not make our choices easy, and it will not make our choices for us. The Spirit leaves it to us, as Paul said, to work out our own relationship with God, to work out the shape of our salvation, with fear and trembling, trusting only that God is at work in us, inspiring both our intent and our action for God’s pleasure (cf. Phil. 2:12-13).
So during this Lenten season, we’re invited to look very deeply into the wilderness of life in which we find ourselves. We’re invited to follow Thomas Merton’s advice to say exactly what we’re living for, clearly and in detail, and to identify just as clearly what keeps us from living fully for what we want to live for. And we’re reminded of the words of Moses: “I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him” (Deut. 30:19-20 MSG). The testing is hard, the choices are hard, but “the distresses of choice are our chance to be blessed” (W.H. Auden).
Questions for reflection
- Matthew says Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted (the original Greek word is an intensive form of “to test, try, prove”). Why might God have chosen this particular time in Jesus’ life to test him? What purpose might the testing serve; why might Jesus need to be tested or proven now?
- (a) Matthew says Jesus was led, Mark says he was driven. How might the experience have been different for Jesus, if he had been led or driven? Why might he have been compelled to go off by himself at this time? (b) Should this experience of Jesus be interpreted as an internal or an external experience? For example, is “Satan” or “the devil” some inner evil force, or Jesus’ description of an idea he decided was wrong after a period of deliberation, or some being outside of Jesus?
- Is there a fundamental similarity between the three tests Jesus faced and rejected as evil? If so, what is that similarity? Or are they three separate and distinct issues?
- To what extent, and how, are the ideas that Jesus decided were wrong prevalent in religion today? Site specific examples.
- If we take it that Jesus’ experiences at his baptism and in the wilderness were personal, inner experiences, why would he share them at some later time with his disciples?
- Where and how has your faith been tested? Where and how is it being tested today? Why might God be testing your faith?