The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Luke 4:3 ESV)
Personally, this has never been a temptation for me. I have never thought that I could, much less that I should, perform miracles of alchemy or transubstantiation. No, this particular temptation, in its particular form, is unique to Jesus.
We need to pause here for a moment to think about that fact. How quickly we want to wring a moral for our own lives out of this story. The gospel, however, is not first of all an admonishment to live a noble life. The gospel is the proclamation of God’s victory in Jesus Christ. Here, in the temptation narrative, Jesus wins a victory over Satan through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
That does not mean, however, that there is no connection between our lives and Jesus’ temptation. Jesus was tempted to act out of his own neediness, his own hunger, and so am I.
Jesus fasted forty days. He was hungry. Physical deprivation of this extent has severe effects on the body.
Every college student who has taken Psychology 101 has learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While I’m not sure reality corresponds to a nice little pyramid, I am certain that our brains and bodies are connected. Our physical circumstances do affect the way we think.
Before I first experienced training with CS (tear gas), I had no idea of the panic that would ensue when I removed my mask. It was terribly difficult to keep control of my actions; my body rocked back and forth and I stomped my foot on the ground so that I would not give in to the almost irresistible impulse to flee the room. Even though the rational part of my brain knew that there was no real danger, the rational part was having difficulty being heard over the more primitive parts.
While the memory of that experience dramatically illustrates the mind-body connection, most experiences of that relationship are much more hidden and subtle. It was during Clinical Pastoral Education that I became aware of how often I act out of my own neediness – my own pain, my own anger, my own fear, my own loneliness, my own wounds, my own longings – my own hunger. Most of the time, I’m not even aware that I am doing this. I can rationalize all sorts of need-filling behavior and disguise all sorts of self-interest in altruistic language. Truly, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
This is true for me, and it is true for others. While self-interest – both hidden and apparent – does not always create problems, it often does. Some of the sickest, most hurtful relationships within the church occur when people manipulate others out of some hidden need within themselves. Sometimes our neediness leads us to manipulate or attack others. Sometimes is prompts us to run away, hide or build walls. It always tends to make us look at our relationships with other people as somehow the answer to our own problems.
Many years ago, I heard Henri Nouwen speak. Nouwen is the author of The Wounded Healer, a book I read early in my development as a Christian and a pastor. The title of that book pretty much says it all: those who themselves are wounded have the means to bring healing to others suffering from the same wound.
In his lecture, Nouwen took another tack and spoke of the passing of wounds from one generation to another. This is pretty much common fare in family therapy theory. Friedman’s Generation to Generation comes to mind. Nouwen said that so much of our child-rearing our comes out of our own neediness, our own hurts, and our own inner hunger that we inevitably wind up passing these needs down to the next generation. Most of my maladaptive parenting comes not from my ignorance, but from my neediness.
Nouwen connected this observation from family theory to the problems of the wider world. If we all act out of pain, neediness and hunger and thus pass it along to the next generation, what hope is there for the world? What hope is there for any generation yet to come?
It is one thing for me to become aware of how much I and others act of our own need. I can try to change that, and work really hard at it, I can – maybe – just a little, sort of. But the problem is how deeply ingrained that self-interest is. Like those paper finger “handcuffs” I played with as a child, the harder I pull away, the firmer its grip. Excessive introspection is the ultimate narcissism. Self-interest is subtle, hidden and deceptive.
Jesus fasted forty days. He was hungry. Jesus’ decision not to act out of his own hunger reminds me of just how strongly my own hungers grip my life.
Jesus’ temptation, however, not only reveals our own situation as needy, self-interested people, it offers a cure, and that cure is Jesus himself.
Jesus is the man for others in a way that I am not. Only by the power of the Spirit and the Word incarnate can my life even begin to move in that direction. The season of Lent calls me to immerse myself once again in the story of Jesus so that the spirit might work. Perhaps I, too, will learn something of the truth: humankind does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3). Only God can fulfill my deepest needs. When the Lord is my shepherd, “I shall not want,” or as the Good News Bible puts it, “I have everything that I need,” or with the Holman Christian Standard Bible, “there is nothing I lack” (Psalm 23).
And remember, the Son of God who overcame the devil in the wilderness won an even greater victory in his cross and empty grave. His victorious life, death and resurrection hold out the hope of a world in which hurts and hungers no longer hold creation in their deadly power.
The Lord be with you.