A test of faith

Some people 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 (Luke 4:1). Mark’s gospel tells us God drove him to it (Mark 1:12). When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” maybe we’re asking God not to lead us into the journey of faith, the journey toward wholeness and abundant life, a journey that requires the strength and integrity of our commitment be tested.

Actually, “tempted” is not a good translation of what happened to Jesus in the wilderness, and it doesn’t describe what happens to us. A better translation is “tested,” “tried,” or “proven,” like test driving an automobile to see if it measures up to expectations. At his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). At this point, God may be well pleased with Jesus and still wonder if he has what it takes to embody and proclaim the good news of what God is doing in the world. God needs to test him to find out.

And the place where Jesus will be tested is the “wilderness,” though Luke doesn’t say whether the wilderness is a piece of geography or an inner, spiritual condition – doubt, perhaps, or uncertainty and confusion – a raw beginner’s condition Jesus has to get through before starting the work he’s called to do. 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 tester we find in the more ancient scriptures, the dark angel God uses to test us to see what we’re made of (Job 1:6-12).

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 sure 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 (vv. 3-4), providing merely for the material needs of the poor? Would they exercise priestly power (vv. 9-12), performing miracles and prescribing what people should and should not believe, what they should do or not do? Would they exercise political power (vv. 5-8), seeking to control the destiny of nations and so control the future? Or would they be who God expected them to be, something they could neither predict nor control, 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. Only when their minds and hearts were clear about those things, were they 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 may find ourselves in a dark wilderness of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. And in this wilderness, we have to choose who we will be. God is testing us to see how we will choose. 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 for us; and it will not make our choices easy.

During Lent, we’re invited to look deeply into the wilderness 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 the thing 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).

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