The problem with Jesus’ testing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is how quickly we switch the focus from Jesus’ trials to our own temptations — as if we could withstand the kind of inquisitions that Jesus faced. As if we would be able to pass these three enticements and fare as well as our Lord. Of course, the liturgical timing for Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness tends to exacerbate this comparison. Lent has its history of suggesting that the next five weeks should be about examining those things in our lives that tempt us — and to give them up accordingly. And, if you don’t give up something for Lent, well, just what kind of Christian are you?
But, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is Jesus’ temptation alone, not ours. A sermon that is faithful to this story, even faithful to Jesus himself, will not devolve into a hot mess about our own trials. People can give up what they want for Lent, but they don’t get to use Jesus as a reason for doing so.
At the same time, perhaps there is one takeaway from Jesus’ temptation that might make a difference for a life of faith, besides being reminded of the fact that Jesus is Jesus — and we are not. Perhaps the one parallel between Jesus’ testing in the wilderness and the tests of our own lives is the identity test — that who you are, who you have chosen to be, who God has called you to be, seems to be a truth that is tested often. In fact, every, single, day.
Others seem to have a better perspective on who you are. Others seem quite eager to comment on who you need to be. Others seem to have answers for or advice about who you should be. And we have a tendency to put our faith in those others rather than ourselves, rather than God.
Holding on to and having confidence in the truth that is yourself is a full-time job. There is so much that pulls you away from trusting in who you are. There is so much that pulls you away from believing in yourself. There is so much that pulls you toward those voices that speak only about conformity, generality, and obedience. One of my favorite quotes is by Howard Thurman, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that someone else pulls.”1
There is no shortage of persons or things on the other side of those strings. And sometimes, we get so used to this reality that it’s nearly impossible to see it, and even more impossible to imagine doing something about it. Perhaps a Lenten discipline this time around could be naming those persons and things who think they have you all figured out, who want you to be someone you are not, whose only true interest in you is how you might benefit them — and maybe giving up those persons and things for the next five weeks, if you feel like you need to give up something for Lent.
This won’t be comfortable. More often than not, it is simpler and easier to manage and meet the expectations and to avoid the ramifications of disappointment. You might not have to end the relationship, but the relationship will change. You might not have to leave the thing behind — whether that’s a job, an institution, an activity — but how you continue to navigate that thing will change. And yet, it will be worth it — you just might get your life back.
Lest we get too far afield from the text at hand, the identity test for Jesus is not so much a test of who he is, but how he will live out his identity as Son of God. The devil knows perfectly well who Jesus is. The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is — and Jesus does not fall for it. It’s no accident that Jesus’ genealogy is narrated just before this identity test.
But I suspect we do — fall for it, that is — doubting our identity as one claimed by God; wondering if God really meant what God said, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” To claim to be a Christian means that a significant component of your identity is that you are a child of God. Do you believe it? Does it make a difference for your life? Or, do you allow the strings of others to pull you away from living in and embodying your identity, this identity determined not by the intentions of others but by God’s love?
Don’t give in. Don’t fall for it. Instead, trust that you have already passed the identity test and decide that this Lent your life will be different because of it.
- From Howard Thurman’s 1980 commencement address at Spelman College. http://www.dailygood.org/story/1846/the-sound-of-the-genuine/