Of course it's easy to believe these words when things are going well – when we witness those angels bearing us up, when we feel honored, rescued, when our lives seem long and we feel saved. Faith is easy in the good times.
But any of us has times when our faith is tried and tested. There are times when, no matter how well we try to love and honor what is holy, we not only do we stub our toes, we trip, fall, and hurt ourselves. There are times when we feel far from being honored, rescued, deliver, and protected. We are hurt, ill, and feel the absence rather than the presence of God. These are the times when faith is difficult, when it is hard to trust these appealing words. So what are we to do?
To answer that question, let me turn to the story of Jesus being tested in Luke 4:1-13. It starts with him testing himself, going out to be alone in the desert, fasting for forty days. This time of trial echoes the 40 years his ancestors spent in the desert. The number 40 keeps cropping up in the ancient scriptures because it has a special meaning. Forty is associated with a period of trial or testing followed by the fulfillment of a promise - 40 years in the desert followed by the Promised Land, or 40 days in the desert followed by a powerful ministry of healing and courageous truth-telling.
Given that he has just been testing himself for forty days, Jesus would seem to be a weakened state. In comes the devil, which you can think of as representing temptation. What a set of temptations! First is the temptation of food – “turn this rock into some bread.” Ever been on a diet? Have you ever fasted? Imagine you could turn rocks into bread! That would be pretty tempting. But Jesus doesn’t stoop to parlor tricks, a misuse of his powers. He may have been starving physically, but he has spent those forty days nurturing his spiritual strength. He turns aside this temptation.
Then comes the temptation of riches and power. Now that is a mighty temptation. We know that when people give in to such temptation, it goes pretty badly. In keeping with his ancestral covenant, described so beautifully in Psalm 91, Jesus says he honors and loves only God.
And then comes the third temptation - to test promises like those in the psalm by throwing himself from a cliff. Once again, Jesus refuses, saying he will not test his God in such a way. This is a statement of respect, again honoring God’s nature and God’s name. We may know how it is to test the divine in a similar way, saying, “If you’re really there, then do this, or that. Prove it to me.” Jesus gives a more humble example.
What could this story offer us when our faith is tested and tried? One preacher says this story about Jesus being tempted tells us that trust and faith in God do not ensure a life free of difficulty, pain, deprivation, or illness. So many in the hospital I serve know this all too well. If even faithful people like Jesus suffer, is it any wonder that we do as well?
You see, I don’t believe Psalm 91 promises protection from physical harm, illness, pain, deprivation. I think it may be about protection from spiritual pain, illness, harm, and deprivation. This happens, too, of course. Perhaps the most important promise in Psalm 91 is that the Holy will be with us through all those sorts of trials, which can mitigate some of that suffering. If in the midst of trial and testing we strive to love and honor what is most sacred, our spirits may make it through, whatever the physical outcome.
And yet we suffer in body, mind, heart, and/or spirit we do wonder. Often we wonder, "Why? Why me? Why now?" The Buddhist tradition tells us that suffering is part of the nature of our world. Rabbi Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People) agrees with this assessment and suggests that the question should perhaps be “How?” rather than, “Why?” How can I get through this time of trial and testing?
We have all known people who deal with poorly with adversity - who complain, or take out their pain and frustration on others – even hurt them. We may know such people, and at times we may BE such people. We may also know people who cope with it amazingly well, who manage to be patient and kind despite being in pain – who even keep a sense of humor. In doing this they honor the divine spark in those around them, and in themselves. We may know such people – and at times we may choose to BE such people. The choice is ours – will we have the spiritual strength to make that choice?
Christians are now observing the 40 days of Lent. We can use these 40 days to wrestle with those realities of pain and suffering, those desert times when the holy seems so far removed from us. We can use those 40 days to build our spiritual strength to resist temptation and to withstand the harsher realities of our world. We can remind ourselves that God does not guarantee us an absence of suffering – only that God’s grace and love can help bear us through it spiritually. In this Lenten season, let us work to strengthen our spirits so that we too can withstand the trials and testing we encounter in our lives.
Source of All, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. Guide us now, so that we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give. Amen.
This meditation is based on two of the scriptures for Sunday February 17th. Here are links to the readings.