Temptation in the Desert

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15, NIV)

We are in the season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we take a forty-day journey, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. So, the church remembers this event with the season of Lent. This is the time of year in which Christians are to give awareness of the temptations we face on a regular basis. We intentionally seek to fast or give up something for six weeks so that we might see how much we attach ourselves to other things and rely on them, instead of trusting in God.

Just as it was important and significant for Jesus to be in the desert, it is necessary for us, as well. Jesus retraced the steps of his ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years. They had an extended time in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land because they needed to re-connect with God after having failed in their faith. Their trust had to be strengthened and developed before they could ever be ready to receive God’s promises.

Jesus faced down the devil and overcame temptation in the desert. The forty days were a necessary preparation for the upcoming three years of ministry that would culminate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But before any of that could happen, Jesus had to experience the desert.

We, like Jesus, need to have a desert spirituality. If we are not formed into followers of Jesus through learning to overcome temptation, then we are at risk to be shaped into followers of Satan. God desires to strengthen our faith. We, like Jesus, need to face down the devilish temptations which would impede our spiritual development.

In every sport, weightlifting has become a necessary part of athletic training. Athletes now know their muscles must be properly developed for their respective sport. Through weight training the muscle fibers are broken down with stress. Then, with proper hydration, nutrition, and rest, the muscles are re-built as better, stronger, and more agile. 

Christ in the Desert by Julie Lonneman

As Christians, the desert becomes the gymnasium where we are broken down through the stress of temptation so that we might become spiritually stronger in our faith. Without this kind of spiritual training, we become vulnerable to satanic accusations and become easy targets to demonic seduction.

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit “sent” him into the desert. The word is perhaps better translated as “thrown” or “hurled.”  It is an extraordinarily strong word conveying that the Spirit flung Jesus out into the desert.

Being tossed into the desert demonstrates how important spending time there was for Jesus. It was in the desert he learned to resist temptation in his ministry. There was real danger in the desert, wild animals, and vulnerability to the elements. Yet, put in that situation and having come through it, Jesus was able to deal with the crafty pursuits of Satan to distract him from his mission. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, after tossing demons out of people, Jesus would tell the unclean spirits not to tell anyone who he was. Part of what was happening is that Satan wanted to tempt Jesus to gain fame and power through popularity and accolades. And that was not the way of Jesus. Our Lord was not going to bring in the kingdom of God through the usual avenues of careful marketing and brand recognition.

Another practice Jesus kept up throughout his ministry was to seek places for solitude and prayer. The needs Jesus daily saw and dealt with were large and vast and never ending. Jesus resisted the temptation to continually work without any rest or guidance in prayer. It was through solitude and prayer that Jesus connected with his Father and would move from place to place traveling and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Jesus never gave in to the temptation to settle in one place and build a petty kingdom of his own, apart from the Father.

As Jesus went about the countryside telling people to repent and believe the good news, he often spoke in parables designed to encourage thought and reflection. He did not succumb to the temptation to always be black and white about everything, giving just the bottom line of his teaching to people. 

Jesus did not teach to get immediate results or to let people know which side of the fence he occupied concerning the issues of the day. Instead, Christ understood his business – a ministry of building something permanent that would far outlast his mere three years of ministry. Because of the desert, and through his Father’s affirmation, Jesus lived a unique three years on this earth that has never been equaled before or since.

Some years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. We had to be continually vigilant to not attract bears. The wilderness can be a dangerous place. On one of the days in that week, we were each dropped off on our own personal islands for an entire day, alone. Being face to face with yourself can be hard to deal with, which is what a desert experience does – it exposes the idols of our hearts and the ways in which we are tempted.

A person need not be in the Canadian wilderness or in a real desert to experience the effects of desert life. The Holy Spirit has a way of throwing us into the desert through changes of circumstances so that we will flex our spiritual muscles to get into spiritual shape.

The top three temptations of people today are worry, procrastination, and gossip. So, how do we face down those temptations (and others) and retrace our steps back to the path of God?  Here are some lessons I have learned in my own wilderness experiences through God’s Word:

  • Know your weaknesses. Know yourself. Know the temptations of Satan. The three temptations just mentioned all come from a tendency toward perfectionism. We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly. We procrastinate saying or doing things for fear of screwing up and not being perfect. And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others. However, perfectionism is slavery. 

We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So, stand strong in that freedom. Do not go back into slavery again. (Galatians 5:1, ERV)

  • Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest, at your most vulnerable time? What triggers you to sin?  We know that when our kids and grandkids act up, we first wonder if they are tired, hungry, or have some other need. It is the same with us. Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals, or eating poorly because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.

Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

  • Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think you ought to resist temptation all by yourself, all the time. Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples. During a time of intense stress, Jesus said:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:38-41, NIV)

  • Have a plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work. One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3, NLT)

  • Overcome evil with good. If we apply this to the top three temptations people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute. It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountable relationships. It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21, NRSV)

  • Realize you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus. Even the Son of God was never on his own.  Whatever you are facing is likely not unique to you. Others face similar struggles. Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let the desert shape and strengthen your faith. If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ. 

The Good Enough Pastor

            I got into this gig of pastoral ministry because I love the church, wanted to teach and preach God’s Word, desired to make a difference, and to help people move along in their path of discipleship with Jesus.  Sounds noble; yet, if I am honest, behind those words is not just some genuine altruism, but a significant dose of hubris that thinks I can, even ought, to change people’s lives.  Eee gads!  Even as I write that statement I hear the pride that believes church ministry success is up to me.  I have come a long way, but still have a winding and stretching journey ahead.
            I think many of us need to confess that our dreams for the church are this strange gooey mix of godliness and selfishness.  I’ve always thought it weird that many pastors, para-church ministry leaders, and church elders’ aspirations for the Body of Christ line-up so well with God’s will for their lives.  I just want us to entertain the notion that our dreams of lots people in attendance, big budgets, slick programs, and hungry disciples eating up the crumbs that come from our well-dished teaching may not exactly be what is in the mind of God for our ministries.
            Allow me, instead, to introduce an alternative thought for us:  being a good enough pastor.  Yep, I said it.  Just be good enough for the people in your charge.  And if you are a parishioner, allow your pastor to be good enough without having to be the next Tim Keller or Billy Graham (or whomever your favorite celebrity preacher is).  If we dwell with this fantasy of attaining some sort of great and impactful ministry long enough, we will inevitably be disappointed.  And when that happens, the next prideful step is the belief that if I just do things perfectly, everything will turn out the way I, uh-hem, I mean God, planned all along.  Oh, I certainly believe in the God of miracles and that Jesus is Lord over all.  But I don’t always believe that God is into the dramatic.  He seems more likely to show up, like with Moses in the cleft of the rock, in a still small voice in the quite ordinary and mundane quiet of the daily grind.
            Not every sermon has to be a home run.  Every conversation does not need to be a powerful encounter.  Not every meeting and decision really has to be researched and prepared to death so that there is some sort of wow factor that impresses everyone with my superior skills… that is, God’s mighty power.  You and I can do a good enough job in order to be faithful stewards of the gifts God has given, and obedient followers in the way of Jesus.  Give everyone a break and let the Holy Spirit show up and do his job; we don’t have to do it for him – he is competent to accomplish what he wants to do whether we are awesome or not.
            If this makes you worry, then you are not alone.  But we all do have a choice.  We can lay aside the anxiety and perfectionism and simply ask God for help to change what needs changing, especially in our own hearts.  God cares a whole lot more about our humility; he can work with that.  But if we hold onto our stubborn pride, God might end up breaking our wills, maybe even destroying our “godly” dreams before he will finally use us.


            Can you be a good enough church worker?  Can you live your life without everything having to be at the highest level of performance?  Will you invite the work of God into your life so that he can bring the deep change he wants to bring?  For this next year, let’s agree to drop the resolutions and sheer willpower, and allow God to make us into the leaders he wants us to be.

Confessions of a Perfectionist



            Hello, my name is Tim and I am a recovering perfectionist.  There was a time in my life when perfectionism ruled all areas of my life.  The need for consistent daily routines with no ability to deal with anything outside that terrain of the familiar caused me to have the illusion that I was in control, competent, and, well, perfect.  To fail at anything meant I was a worthless person, which made me unacceptable to myself and fed a constant stream of beating myself up emotionally for my imperfections.
            A wise professor once said to me:  “Tim, can you be a good enough pastor?”  He was asking me if I could be responsible and do what needed to be done without being an obsessive-compulsive mess about it.  He was pointing out to me that to do my best was good enough, period.  That was solid stuff for me.  The pastoral vocation is one in which, even doing something to the height of perfection, may lead a parishioner to complain about what you did wrong or fault you for some perceived deficiency.  If a church leader is not secure in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, it is a prescription for burn-out, strained relationships with family, and depression.  Perfectionism is not something to embrace as a virtue; it is the sin of working for approval and acceptance, instead of relying in the identity of being hidden in Christ.
            The pathology of my perfectionism was a bent toward all-or-nothing thinking – having complete control or no control at all.  If I could not do something perfect, I did not do it at all.  I have since been learning to live in the in-between world of little-by-little, day-by-day change, where most of life is actually lived.  Most of our daily existence is lived in the mundane, in the constant rhythm of a three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward kind of life.  It is simply unrealistic to think that the Christian life can be some sort of unending progressive path of perfection.  It would be like a baseball player thinking he should be able to bat 1.000 without ever striking out.
            Becoming holy along the road of spiritual sanctification means we will, little by little, day by day, one step at a time, have our sinful desires exposed, our wrong thinking and feeling patterns revealed, our self-protective styles of relating, our avoidance of conflict and pain, all seen for what they are.  Without seeing our sin for what it is, we will never see God’s grace for what it is.  To slowly and deliberately learn to live in the faith and grace of Jesus is our greatest task, and our highest joy.  Living in this space of grace is what helps us to recognize the whispers of Satan:  “You’ll never be good enough,” and “You should never make mistakes.”  The devil is into trying to make us feel ashamed for whom we are; God is trying to help us confess our idolatry and turn to Jesus.


            Can you think the thought that God delights over you?  Can you believe that you have been created in God’s image and likeness, and are, therefore, precious to him apart from what you do or don’t do?  Can you accept that you are loved by God?  Can you live with yourself?  Grace is the key that unlocks the door of salvation.  Use it.

Hope for the Perfectionist


            Perfectionism, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest maladies affecting the church today.  One of the reasons for this is that it perpetually goes un-diagnosed.  After all, the church servant who will go over and above putting in hours to make the ministry team successful is hailed by others.  The pastor who will drop everything at any time for a parishioner receives accolades as one who cares.  The teacher who crafts a lesson in such incredible detail awes her students.  It goes beyond the walls of the church, as well.  The woman who keeps a perfect physique garners the respect and attention of both men and women.  The man who works tirelessly for the company and his clients may receive awards and promotions, and the praise of his boss.
            But it all has a steep price:  the inability to distinguish between excellence and perfection, and the cost of becoming hopelessly depressed.  Perfectionists constantly “should” and “ought” themselves to death.  Their work, no matter how good, is never good enough.  “I should have done better.”  “I ought to be able to do better.”  “I must be, do, and look better.”  Instead of viewing life’s opportunities as challenges to be welcomed, the perfectionist sees life as one unending insurmountable mountain to climb, never quite reaching the top.  The constant companions of perfectionist people are disappointment, condemnation, frustration, and perceived failure.  It is an internal world of self-deprecation based on the lie that I can’t just be good enough – I have to be perfect.
            People might like to always have a perfectionist doing the work (which is why they continually get asked to do everything!) but, to put it both biblically and bluntly, perfectionism is sin.  Perfectionism is a nice shiny way of saying legalism.  Legalists rigidly overemphasize external results, do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations, and have expectations for themselves and others that can never be attained.  Sound familiar?  The perfectionist fits right into this sinful way of thinking.  In other words, the legalist/perfectionist has a fragile spirituality dependent on personal performance.  They have such a finely tuned sense of guilt that it is literally impossible to ever meet their own standards.  No wonder many perfectionists struggle mightily with anxiety attacks and depression.
            There is only one antidote to perfectionism:  unconditional approval from God.  That is, grace is the elixir of life.  Grace is the only thing the perfectionist can’t work to obtain.  God’s grace is freely given, not dependent on abilities, and un-repayable.   God’s loving acceptance of us has nothing to do with our worthiness.  Recovery for the perfectionist can only occur by a radical acceptance of grace.  Perfectionists have been so programmed by themselves to impossible performance and conditional love that this extreme gift of grace is hard to take.  Change won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay.  It’s okay because God deals with us according to grace, not by earning spiritual merit badges.  The renewal that brings transformation of the perfectionist mind is typically a process.  Here is a really radical idea and thought for the perfectionist:  enjoy the process.  When you have caught yourself going back to the pig sty of perfectionism, instead of beating yourself up, go ahead and laugh at yourself and your own fallibility.  Perfectionists take themselves way too serious.  Anytime they can lighten up, it lights up the face of God (in a non-performance sort of way!).
            Jesus said that we should come to him because he will give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30).  He said that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  It isn’t anything like the heavy yoke of legalistic perfectionism.  So, take that good news from Jesus and enjoy a better way to live.  Jesus will never leave you, nor forsake you, even when you screw up.
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands, before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.  –Charles Wesley