The season of Lent in the Christian year is a period of forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, not counting Sundays, when we are invited to enter deeply into the paschal—from death to life—journey of our Lord. It is for the purpose of our formation in prayer and fasting, that we might draw closer to the Lord and be further shaped in Christlikeness.
This season recalls the wonderful nineteenth-century hymn of Claudia F. Hernaman, “Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days.” The first verse says,
Lord, who throughout these forty days
For us didst fast and pray,
Teach us with thee to mourn our sins
And close by thee to stay
The hymn has in view the desert temptation of our Lord as told in the Gospels. When we look to the Bible texts that the church gives us for the beginning of Lent, it is interesting to note that the Lectionary always has us start with the story of the desert temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:9–15; Luke 4:1–13). The story of the devil tempting Jesus is set into a period of fasting and prayer that serve as preparation for his ministry and eventual suffering and death.
As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,
So teach us, gracious Lord,
To die to self, and chiefly live
By thy most holy Word
Lent is popularly known as the time when Christians make a sacrifice of something in their lives as part of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter. There is potential danger in allowing this familiar practice to become trivial. Lent means to do much more than merely give up chocolate or some other indulgence. It means to press upon our hearts the radical claims of the gospel. Lent confronts us with the disturbing words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NRSV).
Lent means to do much more than merely give up chocolate or some other indulgence. It means to press upon our hearts the radical claims of the gospel.
In Mark’s Gospel, the story of the Lord’s wilderness temptation is linked closely to the story of his baptism. In the baptism narrative, we hear that Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.” And then the voice: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (1:10, 11). The identity of Jesus as the Son of God is confirmed in a profound way. What else would one need for the work of ministry? Yet we hear immediately that the Spirit “drove him out” (v. 12) into the wilderness. Dr. Roger Hahn notes that the word here suggests “throw out,” the way we might throw out the trash or throw someone out of the house. It’s a stark, nearly violent, but perhaps accurate way to talk about how temptation feels.
The image of wilderness—a place void of resources and where “wild beasts” range about—tells us that desert work is dangerous work. This is not for the casual religious person. Crucible work will be done here, and we need to note that the Spirit puts Jesus there. Why? Could it be that an important matter in learning to resist temptation is to know who we are? This is about identity. Jesus’s wilderness confrontation with Satan presses him most at the point of identity: Is he reallythe Son of God? Will God really provide for him and protect him?
Here is the place that temptation gets a foothold in our lives. When our identity as God’s children is questioned, when our value is threatened, we are tempted to believe we must take care of ourselves, protect ourselves, and provide for ourselves. In these critical moments, a core question must be answered. It’s the same question coming to Jesus in his encounter with Satan himself: Who am I? Who will I be? And whose will I be? Facing down temptation successfully must get deeper than choosing right over wrong. It must go down to the core of who we are—our identity as children of God.
As a teenager, whenever I was getting ready to go out with my friends, my dad had the wisdom to move deeper than giving me a list of do’s and don’ts. He simply said to me, “Son, remember who you are.” Sometimes I would find myself in situations that I knew I really shouldn’t be in, faced with choices and pressures to do things and act in ways I knew were not consistent with my walk with Christ. If, in those moments, all I had been given was a list of things not to do, it would have been easy to rationalize discarding the list, but I was given more than that. I carried with me into those situations an identity—an image rooted in Christ and modeled for me by my parents and the congregation that raised me in the faith. Therefore, in the heat of the moment of decision, I didn’t have to say, “Oh, wait a minute, let me check just my list!” That would never have happened! My father didn’t give me a list; he gave me his heart.
This is what God gives to us. The Lord Jesus models how to access the powerful reality of our identity as the beloved children of God that keeps us from believing the lies of this world. Trust in God that keeps us true during temptation comes from a secure sense of who we are in Christ. This is what spiritual disciplines seek to form in us. It’s why we enter this time of fasting and prayer. Let us use the gift of “these forty days” to invite the Holy Spirit to shape us into that which is “holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Child of God, remember who you are!