After Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness to fast, pray, and face temptation.
Why the wilderness? I’m sure there are several reasons, including the theological and anthropological significance of the wilderness, but my focus is on the wilderness as a place without any of the protections, conveniences, or distractions of society. In the wilderness we come face to face with ourselves, the tempter, and God, and in the wilderness Jesus went before us to do the same.
Considering the fullness of Jesus’ humanity, I see him facing these temptations in the wilderness as preparation and formation for the events ahead, including the cross. I can hear that same temptation from Matthew 4:8-10 playing through his head in the garden of Gethsemane before he tells the Father, “your will be done.” Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not a box to check to prove his worth as the divine Messiah. It was a formative time for him as a person, and he came out of it prepared for the road ahead.
I like to frame the story like this because, as the author of Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). I really zeroed in on the sympathizing with our weaknesses part, especially because of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness, weakened by forty days of fasting. I’m sure it’s possible during his life that Jesus was tempted with the standard list of temptations most Christians like to talk about (think sex, drugs, and rock & roll), but in the clearest account of the temptations Jesus faced, they focus on three deep-seeded human desires. Father Thomas Keating refers to these three as power and control, esteem and affection, and security and survival. Here, I matched them with the three temptations:
Power and control = “All these I will give to you…”
Esteem and affection = “Throw yourself down…”
Security and Survival = “Command these stones…”
Many of us are unknowingly ruled by these desires, and they manifest themselves outwardly in ways which keep us from loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors fully. I would argue that when we are faced with the temptations offered to Jesus, we often fold without even thinking about it because the decisions are made subconsciously unless we do something to put a stick in the spokes. And that stick in the spokes is time in the wilderness of silence and solitude.
So, if Jesus went to the wilderness and fasted for forty days, what are we to do? Most of us are not going to fast for forty days straight, but we should try to find that solitude in everyday life and mindfully sacrifice things that are cluttering our minds and hearts. In The Way of the Heart Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.”
In our society, solitude is sometimes viewed as a place of rest. It can be, but according to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, many of the Mystics, and arguably Jesus, solitude is the place of refinement. Nouwen writes that solitude “is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place of conversion… where the old self dies, and the new self is born.”
Solitude humbles us, by revealing what lies beneath the surface. This humility allows us to love others better by seeing our own faults before the faults of others.
Solitude is where we meet our darkness, but it is also the place where we meet God. Moses and Elijah both went to the mountain, and Jesus went to quiet places to pray. In solitude we are met with the sound of God’s silent voice and hear God’s silent song. In solitude we are comforted and convicted, called in and sent out.
But we don’t need to travel to the mountains, go to a retreat center, or float in a sensory-deprivation chamber to find silence and solitude, though these are all good options. We can create our own wilderness by removing some chatter from our daily lives. We might not be able to leave the place of physical security in our home, but we can remove the protective buffers we’ve built between us and solitude. We can turn off the radio in our cars and pray in silence. We can sit quietly in our living rooms instead of reaching for the remote. We can put down our phones… seriously… we can do that. In order to be refined, we need to leave the comfort of our noise machines and hang out in the uncomfortable silence, where we will find our deepest thoughts, temptations, and, surprisingly, comfort resting in God.
If you really want to wipe the slate clean daily, spend 40 minutes (2 – 20 minutes sessions) in centering prayer or another form of silent prayer (I’ll post some resources and books below). If that is too much for you, start with less time and work your way up, or try some guided mindfulness to build the practice. Any solitude you can build into your day is worth it.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying. For this Lenten season, I encourage you to consider 40 minutes for 40 days (a few less now) of doing the same. Unplug, sit down, and let the Spirit of God speak and work in the silence.
Resources and references: