Have you ever been pushed to the limits of your abilities?
Tested beyond your reserves?
That’s what happened to Jesus in the desert!
The readings on that First Sunday of Lent are always on the temptation of Jesus. In the desert, Jesus confronts Satan after 40 days of fasting. He’s weak, he’s at his limit and he’s tested.
Why do we read this every year before Lent? What’s the Church trying to teach us?
What’s up with the desert?
In the Bible, the desert is a place of testing. Moses and the Israelites were tested there for 40 years. There were pushed to their limits–taken to the edge.
Survival was hard. There was no food or water except what God gave them.
They learned about themselves in the desert–what they were made of. How strong they were. How weak they were…mostly weak!
God needed them to have this knowledge of themselves. They were haughty and self-sufficient. They needed to learn to rely on him. That was the only way they could physically survive in the desert and spiritually survive in relationship with God.
St. Anthony and the demons
In the year 385, St. Anthony went into the desert and did battle with demons. No doubt some of these demons were real. But some were internal.
In the desert, Anthony confronted himself. The demons that tormented him were his own weaknesses and temptations to turn from God. How devoted, how loving, how disciplined was he at his weakest…when he was pushed to the limits.
Anthony needed this testing so he could know his limits. He emerged from the desert full of strength and spiritual wisdom. You need this testing too! You need to know this about yourself.
My Desert Experience
I had my own desert experience in the Navy. In the high desert of California, I went through SERE. That stands for Search Evasion Rescue and Escape. Military pilots and aircrew go through this training. It teaches how to avoid capture after being shot down and how to survive being a prisoner of war.
For days I was in a survival situation with no food or shelter, evading capture. Eventually I was put in the prison camp. This was a total immersion experience. Everything was very real and there was no joking around.
Cold, tired, hungry, mistreated and stuffed in a tiny cell, I was taken to the edge. That’s where you really come to know and understand yourself–at the edge.
There in the desert, I learned learned exactly what I was made of–how brave I was, how well I could handle interrogation, how much I was willing to risk mistreatment to stand up for what was right. Sometimes I did well. Other times, not so well.
Most importantly, I became aware of my strengths and my weaknesses, and with that knowledge, I was much better prepared if the real thing came along.
What the Church teaches us during Lent
During Lent, you enter into the desert with Jesus to be tested. In denying yourself with a Lenten penance, you’re taken a little closer to the edge. You learn about yourself there–what you’re made of.
How strong or weak is your devotion? Are you able to carry out your penance or do you cut corners? Do you avoid temptation or easily give and rationalize your decisions.
Most importantly, what do you learn about yourself?
Lent is like the entire Christian life in miniature. To live as a Christian, you’ll have to deny yourself some things. You will be tested! You will confront your weaknesses! How will you handle them?
During Lent, we take up small sacrifices and deny ourselves in little ways so we can be prepared when the big things come.
To grow in the interior life, you have to be aware of what’s going on inside. You have to learn about and understand yourself. In learning we’re able to grow. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.
Don’t think badly about yourself if you fail. You’re human! You’re going to fail! What counts is that you fix it and move on, knowing you’re prepared for bigger trails down the road.
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