Sitting quietly in the shade of a rock does not bring you any safety. The scorpions are moving and ready to inflict severe pain on an exposed hand or foot. With depleted strength, you dig in the bottom of a dry riverbed for water that has escaped the evaporating heat of day. The dryness of you mouth urges you to dig deeper for even a few drops of refreshment. Such is life in the desert. Such was the ordeal that Jesus endured for forty days.
Jesus did not meander into the desert. The Spirit led him. The verb implies force, non-optional direction. His journey was not a leisurely stroll but a mandatory march. He did not walk into the desert to retreat from the stress of life. His stay was not a brief respite for renewal or refreshment. The desert experience brought trial, testing and temptation. It was not a time to contemplate gentle graces but for a purifying power to summon, call, and refine. God uses the desert to train his leaders in humility and his people in obedience. "No man can live in the desert and emerge unchanged."1
After forty days, Jesus was physically ravaged, emotional depleted and spiritual exhausted. Jerome once wrote in a letter, "The desert loves to strip bare." The enemy waited until his prey was spiritual naked and vulnerable, then he pursued his assault with three temptations that reflected the same themes of the desert temptations of the nation of Israel after their deliverance from Egypt-food, false worship and testing God. These temptations were not enticements to perform acts of evil but reasonable alternatives. The Enemy presented variations. Actions that appeared inoffensive, morally neutral and ethically acceptable. They were merely suggestions to satisfy the desires of his heart. What harm could they do?
Food, money, sex, success are all gifts of God but we grow impatient. We grab. We rush. We push. We force. We gotta have it now. Why wait?
We desire the pleasure of a new car. Why wait?Even the spiraling cost of excessive credit debt or the complications of an ill-timed pregnancy harness our longings.
This desire for pleasure distracts our vision of God's priorities but one young coed sees God's vision very clearly. Rather, than fulfill her desire for pleasure by enrolling in graduate school and pursuing an academic career, she chooses a career of community service to minister to poor women and children.3 By resisting a seemingly 'harmless' temptation, she will seldom dine at 4-star restaurants. She will probably never own a new luxury car and will probably shop for 'new' clothes mostly at second-hand stores. Her home may never have an entertainment center or a wireless network of computers but soul will be satisfied as with the riches of food because she resisted the tempting desire for pleasure.
DESIRE FOR POWER
While we do not engage in the competitive arena with the power brokers of the world, we must be care how we use our power each day with are friends and family. Husbands who dictate family finances may kindle fires of resentment and bitterness in their spouse. Parents may offer bribes, threats or other forms of coercion to obtain desirable behavior but are they training their children to be responsible mature adults. At work information is power, do you withhold it hoping to manipulate your boss or fellow employees.
In every interaction, in every exchange with another person we are offered the desire of power. Will we use it to build up and edify or misuse to manipulate and control?
DESIRE FOR PROTECTION
I received an e-mail
this week asking about the message of Psalm 91. The psalmist words do leave
much wiggle room. His words make the unmistaken claim that the person who
believes in God will not suffer.
9If you make the Most High your dwelling-I wrote back and told her that we have to understand that the psalms were poetry written at different times for different reasons. They express the full array of human emotions-from joy to sorrow, from lament to thanksgiving. Those written after a personal crises will be more lament and the verses composed after in prosperous time will be more heavily weighted to thanksgiving and gratitude. We should not base our theology on one or two lines.
While I still stand by those words, after watching the movie The Passion of Christ, I realized that they miss a key component to the question. We have an erroneous view of suffering and pain. Phillip Yancy states that most Christians if pinned against the wall by a skillful debater would admit that pain was God's one mistake. "He really should have worked a little harder and invented a better way of coping with the world's dangers."4 We do not understand pain because we are so focused on the physical dimensions of this world. We cannot comprehend a reality beyond this earthly.
Before his arrest, Jesus suffered immense physical, psychological and spiritual anguish but he still trusted that God was his refuge. Why? Because he looked beyond the Cross to his eternal reward. He never expected God to provide him with a comfortable, leisurely, pain free life. He came into this world expecting to suffer and die but he did expect his Father to deliver on his promise of rescuing him from the grave. He trusted that neither in this life or in the life to come, neither powers or principalities could ever separate him from the love of his Father. That eternal relationship was vastly more important than any discomforts in this world.
The tempting words of
the Enemy haunt us each day we hear the news that a loved one has been
killed in a tragic accident. We cry out to God asking where were those
angels. Why have you forsaken me? Why weren't you there, delivering her
from danger? Why did you let harm take his life? But God answers,
"I am with you!"
Such a display of faithful does not come from a life that constantly yields to desire. Faith is strengthened only through the habit of resistance learned in the desert. Character is developed only during the dry times of solitude when the evil of harmless temptations is exposed in its stark reality. The imprisonment of the desert is essential if we are to win freedom of the enslaving desires of our heart. Through the parched times of the desert we strengthened to withstand the harsh "...blows of life, the disappointments and even the helpless of forces beyond our control."5
Let us allow the Spirit to led us into the desert this Lenten season so that we might learn to resist our desire for pleasure, power and protection.
1 Wilfred Tresiger quoted by David W. F. Wong, "Wilderness and Prayer," Serve the Lord with Gladness, edited by Howard Peskett and David W. F. Wong , Singapore: Biblical Gradute School of Theology, 1991, 17 cited by James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Downers Grove, IL: NavPress, 1996), 1987.
2 William H. Willimon, "Righteous Renunciation," Pulpit Resources, Vol. 29, No. 1, March 4, 2001.
3 Willimon, "Righteous Renunciation."
4 Phillip Yancy, Where is God When It Hurts, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 22, 23.
5 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, 196.
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