Written at the start of Lent 2020, as the church remained blissfully unaware of the impending COVID crisis. This year, I feel the power of these words once again.
A week into your Lenten fast, you may find yourself having taken on a burden too heavy for you to bear. This Lent, I intentionally set a relatively low bar for myself as a way to compensate for the spiritual self-flagellation that is normally my downfall.
Sometimes we need a reminder: Jesus does not want us to suffer for the sake of suffering.
Yes, the Christian life will often lead us through times of wilderness, trial, temptation, and suffering. Yes, we should engage in acts of piety and mercy that help us to empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering in a real way. But these times in the wilderness should never cause us to lose sight of the good news.
Cain, after killing his brother, was ready to go into the wilderness with a target on his back, ready for his certain death. Yet, God placed a different kind of mark on Cain, that no one would dare kill him (Genesis 4:15).
Moses, after taking justice into his own hands and killing an Egyptian slave-master, fled from Pharaoh and his Hebrew kinsfolk through the wilderness into the land of Midian. This young man who had been full of promise became a lowly shepherd. Yet God did not abandon him. From the blazing bush that would not burn up, God called out to him and made him the shepherd of his people Israel.
The people of Israel, having followed Moses on his “damn fool idealistic crusade” (to quote Ben Kenobi), found themselves in the wilderness, fearing the uncertainty of food, water, and shelter. Time and time again, they cried out, wishing to have died in Egypt. In fact, when they got to the promised land of Canaan, the place of their deliverance, they refused to go, fearing the challenges that laid ahead of them. They remain in the wilderness for forty years, but God never ceases to provide for them.
David, after being called out on his sin by the prophet Nathan, is disgraced publicly for his private sin. David confesses his sin and is told by Nathan that he will not die. Yet, he had to endure the illness and death of his child through Uriah’s wife. His servants thought he might kill himself in response. But after he fasted and prayed, David returned to the house of the Lord and ate once again. Through Bathsheba, having endured the loss of their first son, Solomon is born and David is remembered as the anointed one, through whom God’s everlasting kingdom would come.
Elijah, the great prophet, was so zealous for God that he slaughtered the prophets of Baal by the sword. As word got to Jezebel, the prophet of Baal, Elijah’s life was threatened with the same fate: an eye for an eye. Elijah ran into the wilderness, afraid for his life. It was all too much for him so he sat under a bush and prayed that he might die. God didn’t leave him there, he didn’t allow Elijah to return to the dust. An angel appeared to him and gave him bread and water that would strengthen him for his journey to the mountain of God.
Time and time again, God’s people are called out into the wilderness. On quite a few occasions, their time there causes them to throw their hands up expecting death, expecting things to only get worse.
God sends Jesus into the wilderness, not so that we might follow him there to get stuck in our own suffering and self-pity. Not even so that we might give up enough things to be holy. God sends Jesus ahead of us to prepare a way for his people out of the wilderness of sin and death.
You know what seems to be the main barrier to the assurance of salvation by grace through faith for most Christians I talk to? Trying too hard. Starving ourselves of grace that we might turn God’s face to us. Beating up on ourselves that God might come and save us from our own self-flagellation.
The Satan tempts Jesus with that very thing. He took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told him to throw himself down that God might save him. Wisely, Jesus answers, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Maybe this Lent you need to fast from starvation, fast from trying to be enough, fast from testing God. Take the mark of protection. Take up your staff of leadership. Face the challenge in front of you head on. Eat, worship, and rejoice in the Lord’s blessings. Eat the bread, drink the water.
“I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)