Few scenes in Scripture give us as vivid a picture of sin. The trouble with sin is not that it is ugly, although we say “ugly as sin.” Rather, the trouble is that it is so often so attractive and appealing. We’re so busy looking out for the figure in the red suit with the forked tail and the pitchfork, trailing clouds of sulfur, that we fall into the easy rut of sin without even realizing it. What Jesus knows, what the Tempter has forgotten, is that “sin comes about because of its middle letter,” as Jan Karon says. “It’s the seeking of our will instead of God’s.” When we put I first, we fall to the sin of Eve and Adam, we decide that we know best, and we desire to become like God.
Throughout this scene in the wilderness, Jesus is shown at his most vulnerable, his most human. Having just been baptized as a beginning of his public ministry, he has devoted forty days to fasting and prayer in the wilderness, and he is understandably exhausted and famished. It is vital to remember the humanity of Christ. It shows us, in his weariness and his hunger, that God is not distant from you and from me, that he is beset by temptation even as each of us wrestles with it.
“Think of yourself,” the Tempter purrs. “Think of I, think of what your ego desires. Bread for your hunger, power for your yearning to be appreciated, protection from your folly.” And Jesus, fully human and fully vulnerable, refuses to yield to his fully human desires.
In the Garden, tempted by the serpent, Eve begins to look at the Tree of Knowledge with new eyes. This is what I can be, she thinks. This is what I can do. Sin comes about because of its middle letter. When you and I put our own desires, our own immediate wants, our own importance above that of our brothers and sisters, we turn ourselves inward and become blind and deaf to the will of God.
There’s something about eating the fruit that opened the eyes of Adam and Eve, that gave them a new awareness, that awakened them, and brought them to a new level of consciousness. So maybe they didn’t fall into sin as much as they fell into consciousness. They experienced something of themselves and the world in the same way as does God. They knew good and evil. They saw it all. Life and their world just got a whole lot more complicated, and potentially more real and beautiful.
How often has that happened for you and for me? There’s been a new awareness, a new awakening, a new consciousness, and we see the world and ourselves in a brand new way. But as with Adam and Eve, more often than not that seems to follow some sort of stumbling and falling, a failure, a turning away from God, another, or ourselves.
With that new consciousness we might see beauty and goodness – but also pain and disfigurement. We see the places of wholeness and integrity, and the places of brokenness and disintegration. Not just in the world around us but in ourselves as well. We see our contradictions. We are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. We are both. That’s why life gets complicated. That’s why it’s not enough to just say no.
The garden experience brought Adam and Eve to self-knowledge. By the same token, if we look beyond Jesus saying no we can see his wilderness experience as having brought him to self-knowledge.
Immediately before Jesus goes to the wilderness he is baptized. While Jesus is standing in the baptismal waters a voice from heaven speaks and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Then Jesus is led by the Spirt into the wilderness to be tempted. He goes to the wilderness having been told that he is God’s son. He goes to the wilderness having heard that he is beloved of God. He goes to the wilderness knowing that his Father is pleased with him. And all of that is a given before Jesus ever faces the first temptation.
So maybe Jesus’ time in the wilderness wasn’t so much about proving or giving something to God as much as it was about Jesus learning and experiencing something about himself, that he really is God’s son, that he really is God’s beloved, and that God really is pleased with him. Maybe there was something Jesus needed to learn about himself so that he could come out of the wilderness knowing who he was, knowing to whom he belonged, and knowing his message for the world. The self-knowledge Jesus will have gained in the wilderness formed and shaped his public ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching.
If the wilderness was a place of self-knowledge for Jesus might it not also be for us? If the garden and their failure to say no was a place of self-knowledge for Adam and Eve, might it not also be for us?
So what if we took these next forty days of Lent and sought self-knowledge – the kind of reflection makes us face and examine ourselves; not to make judgments but to seek healing and new life? The gift of reflection in Lent can be a deep self-knowledge that turns us back to God.
If we choose the path of self-knowledge, then we’ll need to observe ourselves, be watchful, and ask difficult questions. What are the painful and wounded places in me that cause me to act out in ways that are not good for me or others? What are the buttons in me that get so easily pushed, that cause me to react with words or actions that I really do not want to say or do? What are the ways in which I have contributed to the pain of the world, and how might I now begin contributing to the healing of the world? Do I truly believe I am God’s beloved child?
This self-knowledge will take us so much further than will self-denial. The doesn’t means self-denial is not important or that it does not have a positive and necessary role in our lives and in Lent. I just want to give self-knowledge a higher priority and put self-denial in service of self-knowledge.
The Rev. Michael Marsh is the pastor of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, Texas. He writes that he has a mentor and friend he calls every couple of weeks to check in. His mentor asks him two questions: “What are you learning about yourself?” and, “What do you need from me?”
What if we let those two questions companion us through Lent? What if we heard God asking you and me those questions? That just might be the start of a Lenten season in which our eyes were opened to the truth about ourselves, who we are, and what we do. It would be a Lent in which, despite things done and left undone, we would rediscover and maybe hear for the first time that we too are God’s beloved children with whom he is well pleased.
Have you ever thought of yourself as the glory of God? Most of us probably don’t. Maybe that’s because we don’t really know ourselves in the way God knows us. Maybe if we did we might see, think, speak, and live differently. “The glory of God,” said Irenaeus, a bishop of the third century, “is a human being fully alive.”
What are you learning about yourself? And what do you need from God? Let’s be God’s glory. Today, tomorrow, for the next forty days and beyond.