The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
-David Foster Walace
Entering a Desert
In 2011 I was diagnosed with depression and nearly hospitalized for suicidal tendencies. As I look back on it, it is terrifying. Terrifying that I was so hurt that death seemed like the only option for relief. Terrifying that my children could have been left without a father, Laura without a husband. I think about the grief of my parents to see a child in so much suffering and to feel like there is nothing they could do. Mostly I think about Laura and the difficulty of loving me through it, the strength she showed, the faith she had for both of us.
But when I was in the thick of depression I didn’t think about any of that. I thought about one thing. God screwed me. I felt God had screwed me because I tried to follow him in faith and the floor seemed to fall out from beneath me. It is a long story but here is the cliff notes version:
In the summer of 2008, I lost my job. And instead of going out and finding a new job Laura and I decided to spend some time seeking God’s direction for out lives. We prayed, alone and with trusted friends. We received prophetic words from multiple sources. I took personality and gifts inventories. And when we felt like we had a direction, a solid word from the Lord, that I should pursue more education and a career in academic teaching, we put out the fleece of selling our house. Not an easy task in 2009, just a year after the markets collapsed. But we got a contract on the house. I quit my job (a job I hated with a boss who was one of the worst people I have ever known personally). We packed everything we owned into boxes and stored them. Our step of faith into God’s calling was being rewarded. Or so we thought. Two days before our scheduled closing date our buyer lost his job. He lost his mortgage. The sale was off. And since the sale was off so was my plan of continuing graduate school.
I don’t know what the hardest thing was during that following month. Telling my dream grad program that I wouldn’t be attending in the fall despite their generous financial support package or going back to a sales manager who had cheated me out of 18 months of sales commissions to ask for my job back.
But as surly as I had known God’s call on my life just a month earlier, I knew that God had screwed me. I stepped out of the boat in faith and he let me sink. And things went from bad to worse until I was daily hoping I would get hit by a bus or train.
Why the Desert?
Matthew tells us that Jesus was fasting forty days and that he was hungry. Aside from being one of those classic biblical hyperboles, DUH Matthew, we know he must have been hungry, this tells us that he was at the fullness of his fast. He was tired, ready to go and refresh himself. And things went from bad to worse. At this point of total depletion Satan comes and tempts him.
Why does this happen? Why is it when we feel like we are at our worst, like we’ve been in a spiritual desert for way, way too long, like we can’t take one more day of this trial, that we don’t get angels coming to minister to us? Instead we meet temptations that cause us to doubt the very core of our identity in God?
I believe that all of the synoptic writers put this story at the beginning of their gospels not only because it is chronologically correct, but because it is a truth so foundational to everything about the Christian life that if we miss it we will constantly be doubting God’s calling in our lives, we will be frustrated and angry when trials come across our path, and we will be crippled and self-centered in Christian ministry. Do you want to see the fullness of God’s promises made known in you life and the life of your family, in your church and in your community? Than we need to understand that the desert is not a place where God deserts us. But where he affirms his calling in our life and prepares us to join him in ministry.
We Survive the Desert by Remembering God’s Word to Us
Let me suggest that if we dive headfirst into the temptation narrative looking for answers about how we can be faithful during hard times we are like the man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. If you’ve been in the spiritual desert you know that it has this power of making you second guess everything you thought you knew. For one reason or another we are so comfortable letting pain, suffering, and failure become the anchor of our identity. In the same way if we let the temptation narrative be the defining portion of text here we are going to miss the bigger picture of Jesus modeling for us the Inspiration of Love, Preparation of Love, and Perspiration of Love.
Inspiration, Preparation, Perspiration
If we start in Matt 3:13-4:1 it tells us about the Inspiration of the Father’s Love
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
First, Jesus hears a word from the Father. He is the beloved son. We all know how much a word of affirmation from someone we love or respect means. We also understand that the words of our fathers have great power over us. Even as we grow up and have our own children we are often encouraged by their words of encouragement or hampered by their words of disappointment, or even at times hate.
But the word of God the Father give us the inspiration of love. This isn’t inspirational in the hokey motivational poster way. Think inspiration like the words God spoke in the beginning that brought forth all of existence from nothing. God’s word spoken to our hearts DEFINES us as children loved by our father and plants in us the seeds of love for him and others.
The seed of this love is immediately germinated by the Holy Spirit. The text says Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. The inspiration of Love doesn’t keep just affirm us where we are and leave us as is. It sends us forth like seedlings in the wind of the Holy Spirit to find root.
Moving now to Matt 4:1-11 we see the preparation of God’s love.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. 4 But he answered, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
NT Wright brings up a great point about this passage:
If there are in this story echoes of Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering plausible lies about God, his purpose and his commands, there are also echoes of Israel in the wilderness. Israel came out of Egypt through the Red Sea, with God declaring that Israel was his son, his firstborn. There then followed the 40-year wandering in the wilderness, where Israel grumbled for bread, flirted disastrously with idolatry, and put God continually to the test
Jesus has also been told he is God’s son. He passes through the red sea of baptism and despite temptation, hunger, fatigue affirms his sonship. He shows us that this time is not a place of abandonment by God but is where the Preparation of Love happens.
The million dollar question is how is the desert a place where Preparation of Love happens. How is it that something we find to be an abandonment of God or a failure of his promise is actually the proof of that very promise?
Let’s reconsider my story. I purposefully left it hanging in 2011 to set up our discussion. Two years of elapsed time have given me more perspective on what was happening.
As I look at it now I can see how those years of struggle, frustration, and anger have humbled me, I know today more confidentially than I ever have that I’m desperate for Jesus; it taught me patience, two years of watching all of the things I valued in life get stripped away has taught me that God’s work is an incredibly long game; finally it showed me that God is faithful to his promises to me regardless of how angry or dispondent I become. The summary is that I have not left that desert crippled and bitter. I am more desperate for God’s love in my life and I’m more confident that his love will meet others than I’ve ever been before. A friend of mine who battled cancer once said, I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go through that again. But I wouldn’t take two million to have never gone through it. That’s the truth if I ever heard it.
To paraphrase Paul the preparation of love happens when we “know Christ in the power of his resurrection and participation in his suffering.” When we are invited with Christ into the desert for the preparation of love we can know that we haven’t just gotten excited about Jesus but have received the inspiration of the Father’s love, an invitation to become more like Jesus, to embody him.
Inspiration, Preparation and finally we come to the Perspiration of Love. Matt 4:23-25 says that
he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.
Why the heaven rending inspiration of love? Why the gut wrenching preparation of love? So that we can join in the work of love. We are being transformed not so that we can become perfect shining examples of humanity shedding our mortal coils and slipping into the eternal bliss of nirvana. No, the Christian Gospel invites us to participate in the work of Jesus. Proclaiming the kingdom, bringing healing to the sick, freedom to the captive.
Words from a Man in the Fire
For most of us, we are pretty confident that we are loved by the Father when we are in the Inspiration or Perspiration phases of life. We are being encouraged or engaged in our gifts. That feels good. It feels productive. It is pretty obvious to us and everyone around us that God loves us during those times. The bad news is that lots of times we feel like we are in the desert. Jesus might have gone into the desert once. We seem to go several times. So I want to offer some suggestions from my time out there.
1. Do not let the desert define you. As the Isrealites traveled through the desert the Lord told them over and over to remember. They were to remember that God had redeemed them from slavery. That memory of how God had freed them was to be the foundation for their compassion for the disenfranchised in their nation.
Remember what God has spoken over you, ask friends and family to remind you of it. Remember your baptism through the eucharist. Remember Christ’s own suffering in the desert place as you pray and fast. You are not alone. You suffer with Christ.
2. The desert is not an absence of God’s promises it is place where he prepares you to join him in his work. The most striking characteristic of Christ’s ministry to me is his compassion. The desert can be steroids for your compassion levels if you do not let the desert define you.
3. David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” That’s true of the desert. There’s no escaping it. That can sound horrible or wonderful depending on how you think about it. if you see yourself as a prisoner being coerced into a new lifestyle, it is pretty horrible. If you see yourself as a patient in the hospital it is good to know the doctor won’t send you home until you are well.
4. Don’t shut down communication with God. A huge grace for me when I thought that God had screwed me was my one prayer that I repeated every week or so. “God, I have nothing left to say about it. Your turn.” That’s not a model prayer life. The point is I left the line open. There is room for us to get angry at God, to be bitter about our situation, to scream and yell and spit and swear. But do it with God.
Over the past several years I’ve found level. I’ve had a ton of support from friends, family, a kind psychologist and a compassionate psychiatrist, as well as a spiritual mentor. I can look back and see how God was at work protecting me while I went through a crisis that some don’t survive. The recent suicide of Matthew Warren was a reminder to me that we don’t all make it. For much of that time I still wasn’t hearing God. At least, not in the way I was open to attributing to God.
It’s like we were a married couple on the fritz. He wasn’t talking because it would have turned into a shouting match. But he still made the metaphorical coffee and left me breakfast, which I would eat begrudgingly. And then one morning I came down for my coffee and breakfast and he was still there, waiting for me. And I realized I had been a jerk. And as I was about to apologize he looked at me and said:
You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.