When Jesus spent his “Lent” in the desert, I think he went into the wilderness to face the utter absence of anything that was familiar, to experience being saved in his vulnerability before he went back into a world fraught with attachments.
When I was pondering this after Ash Wednesday, I had a surprising image come up in my mind. I remembered visiting western Oklahoma with my family, the very towns in which my father grew up. Receiving that image was almost like the Holy Spirit drawing me back into the wilderness of my father’s life and the emptiness from which I came. My mind went back to the time we stood in Old Foss Cemetery. Our steps on the brittle grass invaded the hush as we explored. My father found a family plot enclosed by an old iron fence. The rusty gate creaked in the wind as big black storm clouds blew in. The place was silent, desolate, and I felt the ache of my silent, desolate father. I felt his unmet yearning. I still feel his yearning like I felt my unmet yearning for him. I think Jesus was feeling that absence and yearning in the desert.
I think Jesus was in the wilderness to experience the yearning all people feel and to enter the ache of their wilderness, the pain of their emptiness. And in that vulnerable place he was tempted by the devil like we all are. He went there to do battle, like we all are doing battle in our most vulnerable places where we long to attach, to be loved and to love. Most of us will do almost anything to avoid going to that hurting place, so the devil often wins the battle because we don’t even show up.
I have been to the geographic desert many times to try to show up, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Not too long ago Gwen and I made a return visit to St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo where Gwen, especially, had some significant experiences of grace as she battled her temptations with Jesus. For most of us, spending time in the geographic desert can be rare. Our geographic deserts mostly take the form of temporary, silent, solitude in a simple yet comfortable retreat center or hermitage. For everyone, however, the desert of the heart remains unchanged. And we can visit it anytime we dare. It is not comfortable. I have visited parts in me that are like a desolate, abandoned graveyard in Oklahoma.
The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness are an intentional parallel to the Hebrews’ forty years of exodus. Lent is an intentional parallel to both. We are led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. There, while hungry and vulnerable, we are tempted by Satan. The three temptations Satan offers Jesus are all about desire, about yearning, and we will meet those same kinds of temptations ourselves. Because everybody has an inborn desire for God, whether you are consciously religious or not. This yearning is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. Some of us have repressed this desire under so many competing interests and fears that we are mostly unaware of it. Or we may experience it as a longing for wholeness, completion or fulfillment of our potential. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. We hunger to love and to be loved and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of what people call the human spirit. It is the origin of humanity’s highest hopes and dreams. (Read Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace, please).
We describe this desire as God given. So Paul says in Romans 5: “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” The Bible is full of people yearning for God and God yearning for his people. Because in an outpouring of love God created us and planted the seeds of this desire for love and loving in us. Then God nurtured this desire in us toward fulfillment of the two great commandments: Love God with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
But something gets in the way of God’s desire. We don’t fulfill the commandments even when we want to. We are usurped by forces that are not loving; we are captured. Our desires get repressed and stifled. Repression is one thing, but something even worse happens, our desire attaches to something or someone other than God, something other than true love. We get addicted.
Addiction enslaves the energy of desire to specific behaviors, things or people. The objects of attachments become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives. They become gods. The psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of addiction are actively at work in every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addictions to ideas, work, relationships, power , moods, fantasies and so on.
The temptations that the devil presents to Jesus in the wilderness or to us in our wilderness, in the emptiness we choose or the emptiness in which we are stuck, or which we inherited, all have to do with desires being attached, being nailed to something else.
Throughout these temptations, Satan was hoping Jesus’ desire in his vulnerable state would lead him to attach it to meeting his own needs, using his own power, or relying on the material world. Satan was trying to lure Jesus into the “I can handle it” trap, and Jesus could have handled it. But instead of giving in to the massive power of temptations to convince him to attach to something other than His true self in the love of God, Jesus stood firm in his own freedom, in his faith and in grace.
Jesus was truly vulnerable, but the way he responded to Satan’s temptations reveals how people attached to God get through their deserts and get home. 1) He stood firm. He met the adversary, faced the temptation, and did not run away or rationalize. 2) He acted with strength: he claimed and used his free will with dignity. 3) He did not use his freedom willfully. None of his responses to Satan were even his own autonomous creation. He relied upon the truth that had already been revealed in love by quoting from the Torah. We are all working on being that free every day.
We go off into our wilderness of Lent to keep practicing being free, because we are still tempted. What’s more, like me realizing at a very young age out on a hill in Oklahoma, I have an emptiness in me yearning to attach and I need to be careful about what it latches on to.
It is an uncomfortable process to not merely avoid the pain. We have a proverb around Circle of Hope that speaks to that: We are all recovering from the sin addiction, expect conflict.
Recovering causes problems. It puts us in conflict with the whole society, which has notable addictions, en masse. I think, in general, the nation is addicted to fear, to carbon-based everything, to narcissism, to war, to radical self-reliance — even for poor people who aren’t allowed to be self-reliant, to freedom based on earning power. We live in a wilderness we did not choose in so many ways.
There is going to be trouble every day. As if where we live was not tempatation enough, we all have our own personal drugs. Some are substances or habits like alcohol or sugar or painkillers or porn or Facebook. Some of them we don’t even see as addictions yet, because our desires are so trained by them, we are so enthralled to them, that they just seem like “us,” nothing else.
We need to get disentangled. Lent is a great time to face it all like Jesus in the wilderness, a great time to talk back and act back. Lent is a great time to exercise some freedom as members of an alterantive society by going without addicted behavior we can recognize or to exercise some freedom by taking on new habits that come from grace, not bondage. Lent is for suffering the wilderness with Jesus, for aching. It is hard to show up for that battle, but losing by default is worse.