There are many reasons why we might find ourselves in the wilderness. When my mother died, I spent a year in a wilderness of grief. In a way I was lucky, because I could point to some loss, some reason for me being there. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the wilderness without a reason that we can name. We are simply there. The world has become thin and arid. We feel lost and alone.
Whether we can name the reasons or not, the Gospels are clear that the wilderness is necessary to our spiritual life. Being in the wilderness is a step along the path of awakening, of realizing the divinity within ourselves. Much of that awakening has to do with stripping away – losing our sense of insecurity and our craving for protection, surrendering our need to assert our status, setting aside useless shame and the stories that we have allowed to define us.
The wilderness is a place where the clutter of life is stripped away so that we can learn to pay attention. Attentiveness is the first thing that the spirit is inspiring in us and that Jesus is modeling for us. His attentiveness was sharpened by fasting, and anyone who has ever fasted knows that it concentrates one’s attention on the body. Within Christianity, fasting has always been a primary form of body spirituality, a way of getting us to listen to our bodies, a way of bring our minds and spirits into alignment with our physical forms. It is, of course, also a form of self-denial, of setting aside the demands of the flesh and the mind so that we can focus deeply on God and God’s creation.
So the wilderness teaches an attentive, embodied, self-denying spirituality, and most of us are poor students. I don’t think I’m alone in being afraid when I enter the wilderness, and continuing in fear as I consider what each of the wilderness’s lessons will reveal about me – about the person I’ve been and about my limited capacity to change. At the end of Jesus’ wilderness sojourn, when Satan inflicts three trials upon him, those trials enact our usual responses to fear, and assure us that those responses can be overcome.
Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. When we are afraid or threatened, we reach for those things that normally give us a sense of security. We might stuff our bodies like squirrels preparing for a long and dangerous winter. “Eat, eat” our fear shouts at us, “because you may not know when you can eat again!” We are tempted to satiate our bodies so that we can go back to ignoring them, and curl up into a kind of hibernation until the reason for fear goes away again.
Jesus was tempted to assert his sovereignty over all of the kingdoms of the world. When we’re afraid, we might take our security from a sense of power and prominence. Surely we are too powerful and important for anything to hurt us, and we should remind people of that just in case they get any funny ideas when they see us in a weakened state. More than that, we should remind ourselves that we’re still in control, that God is only there to help us get through this, not to change us or show us the limits of our strengths.
These first two temptations are basic and recognizable, and we all fall prey to them. But if we follow Jesus’s example and get past them, there’s still one tough temptation awaiting us. Because the very fact that we overcame the fears that wanted us to fall back on our old patterns of security is going to make us feel pretty good about ourselves. And it’s then that we might begin to feel that we’re better than other people. What enlightened spiritual beings we must be, to have resisted the first two temptations so well! Surely other people must recognize our exalted state and find us just the teensiest bit worship-worthy. This, too, is in the end only a scrabbling after security. We tell ourselves that if we can’t fall back on ourselves and our known patterns of behavior, we can at least fall back on our community. But we secretly suspect that they won’t take care of us, even when we know that they’re good and they love us. We need to give them other reasons for caring for us, we need to earn their love and admiration, or show them that we have earned it by our spiritual goodness.
If we avoid these temptations, then we emerge from the wilderness awakened and transformed. Or, more accurately, we emerge with some wisdom gained that can help us as we continue down a path of more profound awakening and transformation. Many things have changed in us, and there are many difficulties still ahead. We might, even, find ourselves returned to the wilderness as we move through life. But always with the awareness that we’ve come through it at least once, and with a better appreciation of our ability to imitate Christ.