By John Newton
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, he was hungry… (Matthew 4:1)
The wilderness isn’t supposed to be nice. It is barren and harsh. It is emotional and overwhelming. A soul can feel very lost in the wilderness. And yet a soul can also be found there.
When I think of a wilderness, I think of the desert Southwest of the United States. Out in New Mexico, my second home, there is square mile after square mile of sand, lava rock, cactus and scrub bushes. Summertime temperatures soar to 115 degrees while precipitation averages six or seven inches a year, usually spread over just four or five months.
This physical wilderness is harsh to humans. It is unforgiving and can test every resilience of the soul. But the wilderness can be something more subtle, more everyday in every location. It can be a place and time of emotional, spiritual or medical suffering. The wilderness can be brokenness, hardship, or pain. I’ve been through those wildernesses. Have you? How did you fare? Did you just barely survive or, somehow, grow stronger?
In Matthew 4, Jesus entered the wilderness and, I’m convinced, experienced all the wildernesses I mentioned above. Usually no sane person chooses to enter the wilderness. Not intentionally, anyway. Matthew writes that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days in order to be tested. Tempted by the devil.
And so the devil offers to Jesus three propositions, all of which are intended to test His soul. Satan wants Him to fail.
In the first test, Jesus is confronted with the fact that He has unlimited power over nature. He could use that power to feed Himself (and all of the world’s hungry!) by turning stones into bread. The wilderness has very little food to eat. At least in the desert, stones are usually plentiful. Jesus replies that His power on earth will depend on His Father’s command and not His personal need.
The first key to living in the wilderness is refocus your heart in order to rely on God’s provision for your every need. Food, water, strength, encouragement, faith… all these things find their origin in God. We become wayward of heart and mind when we forget that we owe all things to our Creator and that He lovingly gives all these things to those who seek Him. He is a loving Father who freely gives to His children. Look for His provision every day. Sometimes it is in places (or with people) you never thought to look.
In the second test, Satan tries to get Jesus to do something foolish in order to prove God’s protection. But jumping off the temple ledge was no way to show God’s care, so Jesus told Satan to not test God. There is no wisdom in entering a wilderness just to prove a point. Giving up something for Lent, for example, is done to right one’s heart with God and prepare it for remembering the sacrifice and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus during Easter season. However, the wilderness can certainly also prepare a heart for whatever God has in store for life.
The second key to wilderness survival is to refrain from acting (or thinking) foolishly. When we get backed against an emotional or mental wall we tend to act out of instinct and not wisdom. But wisdom is more valuable than gold. When the wilderness seems to have you pinned down, seek wisdom from God and from those who walk with Him. Foolish actions will lead you astray and they can make your wilderness much harder to survive!
The third proposition was that Satan could give Jesus the kingdoms of the world and all the glory therein if Jesus would just worship the former angel. The wilderness often makes you want to compromise your core values and strains at your moral compass in order to either a.) stay alive or b.) find a way out. God is Sovereign over the wilderness. Jesus again rebukes the devil.
The third key to enduring the wilderness is to realize that God is Sovereign over all things — and situations — and He has the power to help you in your time of need. There is no situation you face in life that God is unable or unwilling to rescue you from. Remember that we have a merciful and gracious Hevenly Father who loves to bless us in our time of need. We need to seek Him during those times and do so in expectation that He will help us. He is bigger than the wilderness. And certainly more loving!
Matthew’s account ends with angels ministering to Jesus. Don’t overlook that part! There is always help available when you endure the wilderness.
The wilderness may be any period of time that you encounter unusual hardship. Please remember that God is always there as a loving Father to help you in your time of need. And He will bring you through it safely by His grace.