Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2 NIV)
Being led by the Spirit is a something that we Christians long for. It implies personal communication from the Creator of the universe to us as individuals, which is an extraordinary concept, and proof for many non-believers that we are deluded, bordering on insane. I remember hearing a talk years ago when a doctor was speaking about a standard psychiatric examination – Do you believe in God? Do you speak to God? Does God speak to you? – with a positive response in each case raising suspicion of mental instability, the last question the clincher. All of this comes of course from a particular scientific rationalistic worldview that says that God does not exist, that to speak to a non-existent person is at best fantasy and at worst delusion, and that to hear that non-existent person speak back is a sign of psychosis.
But here in Luke’s gospel we see the man Jesus being led by the Spirit, which implies clear direction by a supernatural being of a natural being. Luke the doctor seems not to have doubted the truth of this story, though it involved a cross-over between these two worlds – natural and supernatural. Indeed, Luke’s presuppositions and beliefs are radically different to a modern western doctor’s worldview. He writes quite publicly and without apology about things which we often prefer to leave in the realm of personal and private and not for rational consideration. It is a challenge for modern doctors who count themselves as Christians to adopt Luke’s approach rather than the approach of the medical culture of which we are a part.
But this passage is about much more than just the reality of the Spirit’s direction in the life of the believer. It speaks about a specific case of the leadership of the Holy Spirit in a person who has placed their trust in that Spirit. Jesus was not in this case led into joy and peace and happiness and fulfilment. Rather he was led into the wilderness. He was there for forty days and during that time he had nothing to eat. Matthew’s gospel indicates that he willingly gave up eating, that he fasted. Luke does not specify whether it was a decision that he chose or whether it was simply the circumstances. It simply says that he was in the wilderness and that he had nothing to eat. for almost six weeks!
I remember seeing the film, Into the Wild, years ago, based I believe on a true story about a young man who in his search for meaning decided to do what Jesus did – to go into the wilderness. There was, however, no supernatural guidance involved in that story, simply a desire for a better and purer life. One thing I remember from the film was how food became the daily obsession of this young man, who had decided to “live off the land.” His desperate hunger eventually led to his death when he unknowingly included some poisonous plants in his diet. It is a sad and somewhat hopeless story.
The story of Jesus’ six weeks in the wilderness is very different, but one thing that is common to the two tales is that long periods without food produce desperate hunger, and that the only sensible solution to that is a source of food. Severe weight loss and weakness would have been Jesus’ experience, and the background to his battle with the devil. But surely the smart way to go into battle is well fed and strong. It makes fighting easier and victory more likely. A starving army is already beaten, if the enemy is by contrast well prepared with food and training. Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness and deprive him of food if the goal was victory over the enemy?
Different answers could be suggested, but perhaps the main lesson I have learned as I have reflected on this question is that we should not look primarily at our circumstances if we are wondering whether we have really been led by the Spirit. Circumstances can look pretty bad and we can still be in just the place that God wants us. Our experience can be pretty desperate and we are still following God’s leading. We can feel under major attack from all sides and too weak to fight, but we have not gone astray.
This passage tells me that suffering and desperation are as much a part of the Christian experience as that of the non believer, that even if suffering is not something that God inflicts on us, he does actually lead us into it at times. I don’t believe that God enjoys seeing any one of us suffer or that suffering is a sign that God has abandoned us, or that he doesn’t love us. After all, just before Jesus was led into the wilderness God had spoken words of love and affirmation over him. God allows his own Son to suffer, and he allows us to suffer too.
I don’t imagine that I can understand suffering. So often it seems so wrong, so meaningless, so stupid. How can I write that a loving God lets suffering happen, to those who love him as much as to those who don’t. It is easy to understand a God that inflicts pain on his enemies, but on his friends? These are hard questions.
But when I find myself in those places of pain and desperation, when I am hungry and weak and least able to resist the attacks that come at me thick and fast from every direction, I try to remember that Jesus, never doubting the Father’s love for him, has been in those places too, and I try to follow his lead.