(Re)Discovering God in the Wilderness

by Julie Ball

by Julie Ball

Although many artists through the ages have depicted the famous story of Jesus in the wilderness found in Luke 4:1-13 (and also in Matthew 4:1-11 and Mark 1:12-13), I particularly love how nineteenth-century Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi interpreted this passage. 

Jesus is all alone, sitting on a rock in a landscape of nothing but rocks. His bare feet, side by side, stick out beneath his robe. A cloak or shawl is draped over his shoulders, as if perhaps lovingly put there by one of the ministering angels mentioned by Matthew and Mark. From its folds emerge his hands, locked tightly together as though with intense worry, the ligaments on his forearms standing out with strain. His beard and hair are scraggly, like it’s been forty days since he’s seen a barber, or even a comb. His cheeks are sunken and he has dark bags under his eyes. He is hunched slightly forward, and he is staring at nothing in particular, somewhere on the ground in front of him, as if he’s watching something on the inside of himself rather than on the outside. And interestingly enough, his rocky perch is not in a valley, or even on a plain; it’s on a mountaintop.

Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), "Christ in the Desert." Image source: WIkimedia Commons

Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), "Christ in the Desert." Image source: WIkimedia Commons

As certain as I am that Jesus was without sin, I am just as certain that he had dark places within himself. He knew no sin, but he knew hunger and pain, fear and loneliness, insecurity and rejection – because those are very human things, and Jesus was very human.

The voice of the devil pinpointed those dark places with frightening accuracy. The voice of the devil preyed upon any self-doubt Jesus may have had: “If you are the Son of God.” The voice of the devil preyed upon Jesus’ physical pain and hunger: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The voice of the devil preyed upon Jesus’ need to be loved and to belong: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority.” The voice of the devil preyed upon Jesus’ very human desire to be taken care of: “Throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” The voice of the devil used the very words of Scripture to prey upon Jesus and probe the dark places within. 

As we journey toward the cross through the book of Luke this Lent, the question we’ll ask of each scripture passage is, “What does this reveal about God?” If Jesus is our clearest, best look at who God is, how do these stories define, or redefine, our understanding of who God is?

When I read this story – this story that has inspired countless artists to depict Jesus struggling, either with a physical devil or with the unshakeable voice within himself – I rediscover a God who knows how it feels. God knows how it feels to be me: aching to belong, afraid that I never will, tired in my bones and in my soul, starving for purpose and meaning, paralyzingly afraid of doing the wrong thing, brokenhearted with the loss of hopes and dreams and homes and friends, caught between the competing voices of the devil and the Holy Spirit within my own heart and mind.

And I rediscover a God who is there, a refuge and a fortress, who doesn’t excuse me from facing the dark places, but who gives me a safe place to do all the spiritual and emotional wrestling I’ll ever do in my life, and a safe place to rest in between. I rediscover a rescuer and deliverer, a companion in the wilderness, a caregiver who drapes a shawl over my weary shoulders, who loves me completely, dark places and all.

We all have to face the dark places in ourselves and in our world. The season of Lent reminds us of that, and even calls us to it. 

When we do, it often feels like we are utterly, thoroughly alone. But it’s the voice of the devil telling you that, my friends. God is there, and God knows how it feels. And God loves you, in the wilderness and on the mountaintop, during Lent and at Easter, in all the year, in all of life.