There was once a short-lived reality TV show called ‘SAS: are you tough enough?’ in which ordinary people undertook SAS style training and were, one by one, eliminated from the programme. I remember watching one episode, and reflecting on the title that no, I really really wasn’t.
There’s a strand of the Lenten tradition that teeters on the brink of being all about whether we are tough enough. Fasting, strict disciplines, and onerous rules for Lent can, if we’re not careful, become a matter of will power.
But that’s precisely the opposite of what Lent is really about. The Eucharistic Prayer for Lent speaks of how we are to “learn to be God’s people once again” – in other words, we are on a quest not for self-improvement, but for a deeper rootedness in our identity as people of God.
If we give things up for Lent, we do so so that our usual props – the things we think we are relying on but are really just cosmetic, with no real strength – fall away, and we are left with only the real, structural, load-bearing columns that really are keeping the building standing. Sometimes it takes some time in the wilderness to find out what those columns are.
In Jesus’ time in the wilderness we see a process of stripping away. Jesus fasts, giving up the comfortable feeling of having enough. And he heads out alone, giving up the tangible signs of support from his family and friends. And he goes away from the towns, away from the trappings of human civilisation, and from the sacred places of his Jewish practice. And there, he faces temptations to make himself comfortable, to take the easy route to power, and to test the love God his Father.
So what is it that enables him to survive this brutal wilderness experience? Is it simply that Jesus was “tough enough” when we are not? Undoubtedly Jesus was strong spiritually, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, but if we make him out to have some sort of souped-up will power, then we deny his full humanity, and ignore all the evidence from the rest of the gospels that he was “tested as we are”.
When I read this passage it seems to me that we see Jesus finding, in his battle with Satan, that even without many of the things that he had relied on, there were certain things that were deeper sources of strength and courage in the face of adversity. He turns to scripture, refuting each of Satan’s advances with his own, deeper understanding of the Bible’s witness to the eternal and irrepressible love of God for his people. And, I suspect, he also went into the wilderness with the words of God his Father ringing in his ears at the day of his baptism: “You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.”
It is a fundamental need of each human being that they know they are loved unconditionally. This applied to Jesus just as it does to all of us. It is the foundation of our psyche, the ground of all our loving, the sound basis for our risk-taking, our growth and development, and the central core of our ability to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Jesus shows us that it is not, and never was, about being tough. It is about being human. And to be human is to be loved for ever by a God who reveals that love through scripture, and through his calling us by name at our baptism, and through his presence with us in every one of our life’s wilderness challenges.