There were soldiers and tax collectors and beggars and even a few outstanding citizens standing around on Jordan’s bank that day when Jesus went into the river, when the voice from heaven came, when it dawned on Jesus who he was, when he felt just how loved he was, when he learned how infinitely delightful God found him, when God told him, You are my Son.
There was someone else there too, watching the moment unfold, listening to that voice, musing about whether this would be an opportune time, or whether to wait, to wait and see. When the Spirit led Jesus from the Jordan directly to the wilderness, the devil on the bank went right along with him into desolation.
He abided with him through the forty-day fast. Then, when Jesus was famished, he struck up a conversation with that Son.
At the Jordan, a voice from heaven spoke; in the desert, it is a voice from hell. But not the hell you imagine. Not flames and pitchforks, but the expanding torment of a pinprick of doubt.
You, God’s son? Well, if you are… if you are… if you are.
The temptations in this story are three: to be spectacularly useful (turn the stones to bread), powerful (serve me and I will give you everything) and immortal (throw yourself down). But there is only one temptation really, one embedded in these three: to wonder who you are. To entertain the question, Am I who God says I am?
What we need to take very seriously is that Jesus was really tempted to try the stone-into-bread trick. He thought for a moment and maybe more than a moment about taking that suicidal leap from the pinnacle. He wondered what it would be like to acquire all that delicious power and wealth, all that glory, through the agency of evil.
And that means that he also entertained the idea that the voice from heaven had been a chimera or a lie. It means that he wondered about what he had heard at the river and worried that even if it was true, maybe God’s delight in him wouldn’t be enough, maybe it wouldn’t last, maybe it could be taken away, maybe it had to be earned and re-earned over a lifetime.
This was the temptation in the wilderness: to disbelieve that he was the apple of God’s eye. To fashion a life on some other grounds.
Too many of us know intimately what doubts like these can do to you. They torment you. Too many of us know what a life on other grounds feels like. It feels like hell.
Isn’t this the hardest thing? To embrace ourselves as chosen and cherished? To believe God when God says we are loved and disbelieve the devil’s lies when the devil says we are not—at least not loved like that? That God has duped us and will get us in the end? That our worthiness is no foregone conclusion? That we had better get busy and find some other identity, some other shape for our hearts, some other satisfaction for our hungers, some other way to make our mark?
Isn’t this the hell out of which the tempter rises to address us, the horrible striving place in our souls and psyches, even in our bodies, where no love is ever enough love for us because we are so unable to credit the First and Final Love?
And if I harbor doubts about me, there is little chance I will think of others as beloved of God. I will more likely see myself in competition with them for the scraps of the devil’s promises. I will not be alone in this, either. We will all kill each other over who will get to be most spectacular and useful and daring and powerful and, we think, therefore loved; and we will all try hard never to die. Hell, indeed.
Our inability or unwillingness to know ourselves beloved may be a psychological problem, a socially-conditioned problem, a family history problem; but it is also a temptation, maybe more than anything else, a temptation; a reasonable voice that says ‘If…” and offers to help us out of the wilderness of our longings by providing attractive substitutes for the ‘one thing necessary.’
Honest to God, there are times when, contemplating my own struggles to believe the river voice and not the desert voice, contemplating the painful lives of so many people I know who struggle with the very same thing, I seriously wonder whether what we need in order to save our Christian lives may be fewer psychologists and more exorcists.
Jesus didn’t give in to the temptation of the devil, we know. The scripture tells us that he bested Satan at the game of dueling bible quotes, he trusted God, he emerged from his ordeal victorious over the devil and took up a powerful ministry of mercy that led to his death and to his vindicating resurrection.But it was never a given. It could have been otherwise.
Don’t be a docetist and think that Jesus serenely sailed over the temptations in a divinely easy way. Such a Jesus would be a bloodless, aloof God-in-a-man-suit performing an act for our benefit, giving us an heroic ethical example of righteous resistance, but nothing more. And if that’s the case, there’s no reason to follow him anywhere, let alone to stake our lives on him.
It wasn’t the case. Remember that in one of the gospel accounts, God even has to send angels to tend to him, he is so exhausted and beat up by what he’s been through. It was an ordeal, not an example.
And then there’s that sobering last line. The devil left him, it says, defeated for a while; he left him ‘until another time.’ Until an ‘opportune’ time—that is, any time he spotted a promising opening. Which means there may well have been some. Which means that the Tempter revisited Jesus when he was at a low ebb, and Jesus had to undergo the torment all over again.
I sometimes read the gospels and try to imagine just what those opportune times may have been. What was Jesus doing up on those mountains when he went off to pray alone? Was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem more tempting than we think?
Whatever they were, it’s never quite settled. Not for him, not for us.
I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to let it calm me down into a more humane acceptance of the chronic nature of this question of belovedness and the pain it causes. Other than to let it normalize a little the experience I and many others have of a two steps forward, one step back rhythm in the life-long journey of letting God speak to our hearts a word of tenderness we can finally believe. Other than to say—and I find this immensely helpful—‘At least he knows.’
At least he knows.