There was a television commercial that was so popular that the sponsor reran it by popular demand. Perhaps you remember it; it was a commercial for light bulbs that stressed the unreliability of lesser brands. It opened with an elderly couple eating soup under a hanging light. “The magic’s gone,” the woman reproached the man, “every time the light goes out, you fall asleep!” Just then the light bulb blew out. The screen went black, there was a crash, and then the blubbering sounds of the man sleeping in his soup!
Many of us can empathize with that woman, because we have had a similar experience with God. We started out with this wonderful experience, this intimate knowledge, this almost chummy companionship with God—and then the magic was gone. It was as if God had fallen asleep or left us beside the road in pursuit of some other, newer convert.
I don’t know if this is any consolation for you, but this experience is universal. In fact, not only was Jesus tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (as Hebrews says), He also experienced what it was like when the magic was gone:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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 desert and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
—Mark 1:9-13, NIV
Let’s look at a few interesting aspects of this passage:
The uplifting experience only lasted a few seconds. How long can it take to look up, see the sky, feel the Spirit descend, and hear a voice? Most of us began our spiritual lives or periods of spiritual reawakening with similarly brief experiences. After the experience is over, we are left with something that sounds quite odd or even ridiculous: here Jesus sees heaven torn open, He sees the Spirit descend like a dove, and He hears a voice. A friend of mine told me he quite unexpectedly felt a presence come up from behind him and touch him, and he was overcome with joy. In my case, when I was drowning, I was absolutely convinced that Jesus stood in the water behind me and held me so I could float waist-up in the water. Perhaps your experience was like that. If you share it with critical, skeptical people, they probably say something like, “Well, I can understand how stress would cause you to think that happened,” and you either protest that it really did happen, or you are puzzled about whether it really did happen, or you allow yourself to be convinced that your mind played tricks on you. Then you resolve to be careful whom you tell the story to, to avoid being carted off to the loony bin.
Nevertheless, there was a time in your life where you were convinced you had intimate, immediate, and unmistakable contact with God, even if it only lasted a few seconds or so.
Afterwards, you spend forty days in the desert, trying to figure it out, wondering where the magic went. It seems that every spiritual breakthrough is followed by a long, almost unbearable spiritual drought! You go from your wonderful cuddly experience with God to a long, dry period, when your spirituality seems mechanical and you wonder why you are bothering to attend church. Or you refuse to acknowledge the desert, burying yourself in the scripture, theology, or church work; yet deep inside you mourn the fellowship you think you have lost. You might even think that you have sinned somehow and cast God out of your life, and you pray bitterly, asking God to remove what you perceive as your hypocrisy.
During this time, you are tempted. You are tempted to become rigidly doctrinaire, or judgmental, or ritualistic; depending on whether your natural tendency is towards intellectualism, moralism, or religiosity. You bury yourself in the books, in moral crusades, or in ritual devotions, as if to conjure the experience once again.
Mark does not record them, but Luke tells us of the temptations of Christ. Satan tempted Him to turn the rocks into bread, but He refused. In the same way, we are tempted to use our spiritual gifts for personal gain. Satan tempted Him to an improper shortcut, “Worship me, and I will give you the world!” But Jesus resisted, because even though He came to save the world, Satan didn’t have it to give to him. Satan tempted Him to leap off the parapets of the Temple, to be caught by an angel before He crashed to the ground, to win over converts by spectacle; but Jesus knew (and was proven correct) that miracles do not convince those who will not be convinced. Jesus overcame these temptations, but many others succumb to them. They use their gifts for personal gain, bringing themselves into public scorn and into jail. They try to take a shortcut through evil, thinking that any means to a righteous end will do; only to find themselves embracing evil and losing the prize. They attempt to win people over with spectacular deeds, only to be rejected by skeptics who would not be convinced even if a man came back from the dead to tell it to them. The insidiousness of Satan’s temptations is that even if you take him up on them, they will not work.
Then it turns out that it was of all things the Spirit who sent you into the desert!
This is really the annoying part. After your wilderness experience is over, you find that it was none other the Spirit of God who sent you into the wilderness and permitted Satan to tempt you! Part of you is annoyed about that, another part of you is overcome with God’s providence, for it turns out that what you thought was the wilderness was actually your classroom, and that the satanic temptation was used by the Spirit as your curriculum! For by resisting the temptation to enrich yourself, you learned to commit yourself fully to service. In resisting the temptation to take improper shortcuts, you strengthened your resolve to see things through. In resisting the temptation to invoke the spectacular, you learned wiser ways of carrying out your commission in life. In resisting Satan during this practicum, you learned that his claims are false, his promises are never kept, and that he flees from the Word of God. In waiting this time out, you learned to keep faith in God’s providence even when it is not immediately apparent.
There were wild animals in the desert, but there were ministering angels also.
Now here’s the kicker: there were wild animals in your wilderness, and you were afraid of them. There were people who tried to refute your religious convictions, your experiences, and your devotion from every angle: from philosophy, from atheism, from other religious systems, and they tried to get you to agree that your religious experience was only a psychological phenomenon. Different wild animals frighten different people, depending on what your weaknesses are; you’re most aware of the ones that scare you the most.
But during your time in the wilderness, there were angels who ministered to you. The little old lady who confirmed your faith after church one day. The desperate person who thanked you for the spiritual comfort you gave and made you feel real again. You didn’t recognize them as angels while you were in the wilderness, because your cynicism blinded you; but now in retrospect you see the Spirit was very busy and they were all set-up jobs.
It is only when it is over that we see the purpose of God in sending us into wildernesses: because if we remained in our wonderful experiences forever, we would become puffed up, conceited, self-centered, overbearing; insufferable to others and useless to God. The wilderness is necessary to hone the rough edges off our fleshly natures and transform them to fine instruments of God’s will!