Week One: Tried and True
Before you read this chapter, I would recommend you do the following:
Take three deep breaths to center yourself for the journey ahead. Take some time to pray by saying something like, “God, help me understand what you have prepared for me today.”
Read the Scripture slowly. Read it with questions such as, Why did Jesus do this? How did Jesus respond to the three temptations? What can I learn from today’s reading?
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
4. Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5. Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6. saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7. Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9. and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10. Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11. Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
What was going through Jesus’ mind when he decided to embark on a forty-day fast in the wilderness? After all, he had just received public affirmation that he was the long-awaited One. According to the Gospel of Matthew, it was just publicly announced that “This is my Son, my Beloved; with whom I am well pleased” right after his baptism (Matthew 3:17). With such a heavenly endorsement, shouldn’t he have launched his ministry? What more assurance did he need? Was he in self-doubt despite the voice from Heaven? Is it possible that even the Son of God may have struggled with the weight of his mission and the path that lay ahead? What was his heart’s desire that led him to the place of loneliness and hunger?
What’s the point of fasting, anyway? Doesn’t God want us to live a happy life? Nowadays, some believe that fasting could be a form of detoxification for the body, as it enables the gastrointestinal tract and metabolism to slow down, which is believed to strengthen natural healing. Others, however, argue that there is no scientific evidence supporting that fasting can have any significant benefit for our health. What we do know is that some types of fasting for a certain period of time could be helpful to some extent for people with certain conditions. For example, if you need to lower your cholesterol level, it’s better to abstain from eating foods that contain high protein levels. However, it’s hard to find anything positive about the kind of fasting Jesus did. This type of extreme fasting is more self-destructive than self-restorative.
Yet, despite questions about the benefits of fasting, many religious traditions still encourage it as an important practice of piety, citing exams of historical spiritual giants who achieved profound spiritual growth through fasting. For instance, in the 14th century, St. Francis of Assisi spent his Lents completely alone on a small island in the Lake of Perugia, eating nothing more than half a loaf of bread for 40 days and nights. Many Catholics still have great reverence for the spot where St. Francis spent his Lent and attempt to follow the example of Jesus and other saints who fasted. Buddha is known to have practiced extreme fasting, although his great awakening occurred after he abandoned it. Nevertheless, various Buddhist traditions encourage different forms of fasting as a way to practice self-control.
In Islam, Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has been observed by Muslims around the world following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching, “You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God (Quran 2:183).” Meanwhile, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) practiced fasting not only to free himself from the constraints of the body based on Hindu teachings but also to protest against the violence committed between Hindus or between Hindus and Muslims in his time. The bottom line is that many religious and spiritual people today still consider fasting an important and revered practice of piety that can bring great spiritual benefits.
So, is that why Jesus went to the wilderness? Did he choose to sacrifice bodily benefits in order to earn spiritual benefits? It is highly unlikely that Jesus felt the need to earn merits or spiritual benefits, as he had already experienced the Holy Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. I don’t think he was seeking great awakening or enlightenment either. His understanding of God’s laws at the age of twelve already exceeded that of the religious leaders. It was certainly not a hunger strike nor seeking self-control. The Gnostic dualism belief, which suggests that the body is defiled and hence needs to be controlled and disciplined, and the soul is pure and needs to be detached from the body to connect with God, is condemned as a heretic idea in our Christian tradition. We believe that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the Word became flesh. Therefore, It is not our belief that we need to deny our body in order to be closer to God. Then, why did Jesus fast?
I wonder if Jesus’ compassion for the suffering people under the Roman Empire led him to the wilderness. It is important to note that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of the Jews in his time. Just like his great ancestor Moses, who fasted for forty days and nights before he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28), perhaps Jesus felt called to walk this path of suffering to prepare himself for his journey toward the cross. I wonder if it was his heart’s desire to save people led him to the place of loneliness and hunger. Perhaps he was practicing his self-giving and self-sacrificing way of love, which would be fulfilled on the cross.
In this perspective, we can understand the three temptations as Jesus' struggles with the selfish desires that we all humans have. The temptations of Jesus can be summarized with this question: Why do you care? The devil says, “turn these stones into bread”, which could be understood as this: “Feed yourself. Use your power to take care of yourself.” The second one, “throw yourself down, the angels will bear you up” could be paraphrased as, “Show the world what you can do. Use your power to earn fame for yourself!” Finally, the devil takes him to a high mountain and says, “if you will fall down and worship me - the god of abundance and prosperity - I will give you the whole world.” Jesus resists these temptations by the Word of God. He overcomes our most persistent desires to be self-caring, self-uplifting, and self-righteous, and says, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
You see, it’s not easy to fast even for one meal. If you ask me, I have a hard time functioning if I miss a meal. I can be a better person with a cup of coffee and some sweet treats. If you want me to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, you’d better not take good meals from me. Yet, I understand now that fasting is a tried-and-true spiritual practice for reminding myself that my life does not dependent on coffee. My life journey relies on nothing less than God’s guidance. It reminds me that the goal of my life is not to live a happy, satisfying, and successful life but to share God’s love with all people, especially with those who are forgotten, lost and abandoned.
During this week, I would encourage you to look into your heart. What is your heart’s desire that drives you today? What can you do not to be swayed by your selfish desires for more money, power, and fame? Instead, how can you rekindle your compassion, your innate desire to love God and love others? What do you need to fast to feed your hunger for something holy? What kind of temptations do you need to resist on your life-long journey to become more like Jesus? May our heart’s desire become more and more like that of Jesus.
Have you ever fasted for a certain period of time? What did you gain from that experience?
What is your heart’s desire today? What negative desires would you like to trim out, and what positive desires would you like to nurture?
What are the temptations “the devil” presents to you? How can you overcome them?