The Christian season of Lent commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His public work. The wilderness was not just a physical location – empty, barren desert – but also a psychological state, when all the familiar supports and signposts of life seemed to have been withdrawn. Jesus was on His own, facing a new and uncertain future. It was a time of testing, a time of questioning easy certainties and wrestling with new doubts, fears and temptations.
In that sense the wilderness is an experience we all have to endure at some time. The death of a loved one, the collapse of a precious relationship, the loss of a job, the onset of a serious illness can snatch away some of the most important props of our life. Suddenly great voids appear; suddenly there seem to be no pointers to guide us. We are on our own and feel very vulnerable.
It is at times like this that we discover what inner resources we have – or lack. Sometimes we have not been aware of them, but they can truly come to our rescue. Perhaps these are the modern equivalent of the angels who ministered to Jesus at the end of his time in the wilderness. Sometimes we find new supports – friends, counsellors, interests – or develop new personal strategies to cope with this strange new situation. All these difficult – and sometimes terrifying – situations can be occasions for personal growth and development, but it is achieved only through struggle and uncertainty.
The story of Jesus in the wilderness offers us two important insights into these situations.
One is that when the crisis comes we can fall back only on the resources we have already built up inside us; there is little chance to build up our inner character once the blow has fallen. When the race is on, the athlete discovers the real value of all the years of training; only a fool would enter the race without any training. The first thirty years of Jesus's life, of which the Gospels tell us nothing, were His time for developing His own personal strengths and morality.
The other insight is of Jesus's openness to God, which gave Him access to a strength beyond His own. For Jesus to turn to God in the wilderness was not a panic response to an emergency: it was the continuation of a long-established relationship of prayer, through which a deep friendship helped Him to understand what God would have Him do, and brought Him the renewing power of God's Spirit, enabling Him to face the trials and to win through to a new sense of purpose and self-worth.
If Lent commemorates Jesus's struggle in the wilderness, it is a time for all of us to take to heart the lessons it teaches us, and re-equip ourselves to face whatever struggles may lie ahead for us. And if you are enduring a "wilderness period" just now, may God grant you His comfort and His guidance. MALCOLM
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About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.