I’ve always been curious about this particular verse in Matthew chapter 4:
“And then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”Matthew 4:1
I would ask myself, why did Jesus have to go into the desert? Why did the Spirit lead him into temptation – something that we actively pray against in the Our Father: “lead us not into temptation.” I kept these questions in my heart for several years, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I finally began to understand this verse. I have always been a very devout and religious person – never missed mass on Sundays, wrote songs in prayer, read books on spirituality, etc. However, in the midst of being isolated from my routine and life due to COVID-19, I realized how dry my spiritual life had really become. I rarely prayed, and when I did, I felt like it was just a waste of time. I did not feel God’s presence with me, but I began to become aware of a deep thirst for God within me. It was as if the less I felt God, the more I desired Him. I felt like the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John who would set out to draw water each day at the time when it was hottest outside:
“Sir, give me this living water so I will not be thirsty and have to come all the way over to draw my water.”John 4:15
So, when I returned to this verse, I was shocked to see that it was God who led Jesus into the desert. Was God purposely making me suffer? Was he intentionally testing my faith?
The desert in the bible has very powerful symbolic meaning. It is a place of wandering, a place of encountering God, a place of depending upon God. There is a beautiful passage in the book of Genesis that speaks to what I want to discuss.
In Chapter 21, after Isaac is born from Sarah, she demands of Abraham to cast Hagar and his son Ishmael (who was Hagar’s son and not Sarah’s) away into the desert. They are banished and soon run out of water. Hagar then sits in the sand, begins to weep, and cries out in prayer. But an angel calls out to her:
“Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”Genesis 21:17-18
Then Hagar finds a well of water and they are saved by God. In the desert of our spiritual life, we are stripped of everything and left with only our thirst for God accompanied by the feeling of abandonment. This abandoment and doubt is not a bad thing. Jesus experienced this same feeling of abandonment when he was suffering on the cross.
“Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”Matthew 27:46
However, God gives us the opportunity to resist the temptation to despair so that we can grow closer to Him, learn to surrender to Him, and give Him our trust. When Jesus goes to the desert, he encounters the devil, who tries to convince Jesus that he doesn’t need to depend on God. However, Jesus refuses to give in and continues to profess that his life is in the hands of his Father.
There is a beautiful lyric in a song by Brock Human: “When I breathe, I admit that I need you.” Think about that – every time you breathe, it is because God has allowed you that breath. He has given you that breath. When we are without, we are so much more aware of what we need. When you are stranded in a desert, you aren’t thinking about the new iPhone, or that nice pair of shoes you saw at the mall; you are only aware of your need for water, food, and shelter. When we are led into the desert, we become stripped of our wants and aware of our needs – our thirst for God. Our soul cries out to Him. The Spirit is not leading Jesus into temptation, but rather leading him into a place where he can understand how much he depends on his Father. The temptation is already within us – to complain, to envy, to despair. The desert is a place where we can leave that devil behind.
The best thing about the desert is that we are not alone. Christ enters the desert with us. When he was led there by the Spirit, he consecrated the sign of the desert just as much as he consecrated the sign of water. He has joined us in our thirst.
“I thirst!”John 19:28
Heavenly Father, may we be willing to be led into the desert where all that distracts us and misguides us can be stripped away so we may see only what is necessary. May we ignore the desire to despair, especially in this pandemic, and turn to God in trust. May we join our thirst with that of Christ’s and beg him for living water just as Jesus told the Samaritan woman to do.
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”John 4:10
O Spirit of life and love, lead me into the desert that I may grow closer to God therein. We praise and glorify Your name; one God forever and ever. Amen.