In the last few years, there has emerged a whole new genre of television shows on the Discovery and Science Channel. A series called Man, Woman, Wild was about a married couple (one, a Special Forces operative, the other a journalist) who teamed up to face the wildernesses of jungle, tundra, and desert. Another great series is called Dual Survival that pairs a naturalist skilled in Aboriginal living skills and a U.S. Special Forces operative, and they are dropped into some very difficult, wild places and forced to survive off the land.
My favorite survival series is called Survivorman,” which stars naturalist Les Stroud, who is not a Special Forces operative, nor aboriginal expert, nor is he specially trained survivalist. Stroud is a regular guy each week he goes up against some of the most difficult survival wildernesses known. The most interesting part of this show is that Stroud is always alone: no camera crew, no backup plan, just himself, a few cameras, and the elements.
Stroud is a self-assured and independent kind of guy, and despite his skills and rugged individualism, things do not always go his way. His show is the “real deal” because sometimes he fails at surviving, and he does so at his own peril. Christian discipleship in the 21st century can often seem like a survival television series. In this journey of discipleship, we think we are like Stroud, out there all alone in the spiritual elements, trying to rely on our self assured, rugged individualist, attitude. Sometimes as Christians we fall short, and just crash and burn because we try and do it all alone. I have even heard people say, “I really do not need to go to church to be a good person do I.” Jesus was all alone in the desert trying to survive the temptations many of us face, but by his example and faithfulness, he taught us something we could never learn watching a television survivor shows.
Ultimate Survivor Showdown
Listening to today’s gospel reading, can you picture Jesus’ wondering around for 40 days in the desert like “Survivorman.” He was out there in the arid climate with no disciples around, no camera crew catching his every word, no knapsack filled with energy bars and no magnesium flint fire starter. It was just Jesus, the elements, and the temptations that often come in the weakened state of hunger, fear, and being left to the elements, of our own character.
Scripture tells us, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit.” From the baptism in the Jordon, from the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus was led into a desert place and at his weakest, a situation in which, he was deprived of sustenance, he was without the aid and protection of others. There in that condition, Jesus engaged directly with all that the “oppressor” could bring upon him..
Jesus faced the same challenges we face, when it comes to the choices we have with the freedom we carry. This freedom gives us the option to choose an easy path of discipleship; a more fulfilling road, a more self-comforting option. We also have another choice, which is the one that will test our faithfulness, our character, and our metal. Let me give you an example. Three times, the devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God.” Jesus was being challenged with the truth of who he was in the wilderness. If you are this, then test God by doing this. Our temptations in life come when we face the uncertainty of who we are and whose we are.
Maybe we face the temptations to cheat a little on a work project, talk about a sister or brother behind their back, plot to undermine someone, or scheme to get our way, and at those moments we must ask, “As a follower of Jesus, how do I respond?” Jesus knew what it is like to be human, because he was both divine and human. It was there in the weakened state of temptation that he showed us how to face those desert moments faithfully, by understanding whose we are and who we are. We find the strength to survive the trials, when we surrender and become reliant on God, knowing the Holy Spirit is with us, and we are never really alone. In those moments of temptation, we must trust thatGod is not trying to trip us up.
Some of our brothers and sisters in the faith believe that being a Christian is like a survival showdown. They believe our hardships, uncertainties, doubts, and tragedies come to us so from God, so we might be tested and tried by God, all to experiment whether we are faithful enough and worthy enough. Remember, it was Satan who was tempting Jesus in the desert, trying to trip him up.
Maybe we get the idea that it is God trying test our metal, from the story of Job. That story seems like a showdown between God, and Satan trying to see whether Job will succumb to the test. Satan fails with him as well. Maybe we get the idea God is trying to trip us up, from that part in the Lord’s Prayer, that states, “And lead us not into temptation,” as if God would lead us to sin. Franciscan priest and monk Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and the whole notion of God’s test is really about who we are and whose we are. Rhor asserts that it means, ‘Lead us away from any illusions about ourselves.” 2 In other words, God would never tempt us to sin, God wants us to learn that we are God’s children and to reject any other identity we might desire.
Like Jesus, in our deserts, we seem to find ourselves in a weakened state of a deception that in this life, we are able to rely on our own spiritual survival skills—that somehow, we are capable alone, to deal with the wilderness temptations of our own freedom. The truth is that as Christians, we face spiritual survival, fueled by the freedom to follow the illusions of ours own grandeur. In other words, we are deceived into believing that we can survive this life without God.
Surviving those spiritual caverns of self-assurance, those thick jungles of rugged independence, and that frozen tundra of a “git-er-done” attitude, will require us to accept that in all things, we must rely on God and not on ourselves. When we embark on this journey of faith, what we have to bring along with us will never fit into a backpack, but is carried in our hearts and souls. That survival skill training happens when we spend time each day with God, especially in those desert places.
Lent, is a forty-day wilderness journey, in which we like Jesus have the opportunity to face head on, our own human frailties. Lent reminds us, “what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”1 Lent is like the ultimate spiritual survival series, because it is intentional time to follow a spiritual discipline. “Giving up” or “taking on” during Lent is virtuous, and I commend wholeheartedly a discipline of self denial or spiritual practice, however, these things alone do not a wilderness journey of spiritual growth make.
You can prepare for this rugged spiritual mission by transforming your minds and hearts. You can ask God to go with you into deep valleys of your need for God’s grace. In the next few weeks, I encourage you to trod through those unexplored caverns, thick jungles, and frozen tundra of your very soul. Explore the depths of those never seen crevices, those illusions of character, and those places where the fear of our own vulnerability lie.
Commit to a practice of daily scripture reading: poke around in the psalms or Old Testament, take a hike in one of the gospels, or wander around in one of Paul’s letters. Take a leisurely stroll with God in prayer by committing to a few minutes a day to quiet your spirit with God. Invite God’s Spirit into your present moment, and seek God’s movement in your life. Share that experience with another sister or brother in Christ. You can also attend our Thursday night “Soup and Study” where we will do just these things together.
If we are going to be intentional about entering the desert places with God, we have to remember that God is more than merely a guide. God is our survival partner from whom we obtain our strength, sustenance, and wisdom in our weakened and vulnerable places. In God, we find out who we truly are because with God beside us, we release the illusions of our own self-reliance.
I have to warn you though as you embark on this sojourn in the deserts of the soul, it will be tempting as the days of Lent wonder on, to cast it all aside for an easier path. You may want to grab the remote control and turn off the survival show, because it is much easier and less treacherous to just watch a more relaxing movie on the Hallmark channel. Please for this Lent, stay in the desert awhile. It may not be easy, it may become uncomfortable, it may even be treacherous, but if you truly rely on God to lead you, and if you let go of the illusion that you can do it all alone, then I promise you this, you will survive Lent and maybe survive the temptations of our own delusions of our own self-reliance. Remember, the Psalmist promises, “You will live in the shelter of the Most High, and abide in the shadow of the Almighty, and you will say to the Lord, “(you are) My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” Trust God, and go take a walk in the desert this Lent.
1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Settling For Less.” Christian Century 115.5 (1998): 169-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.