Temptation and Testing

In two brief sentences, St Mark informs us, in a rather matter of fact way, what happens to Jesus after his Baptism in the Jordan. St Mark’s Gospel says: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:12-13).

How odd to hear that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the desert! What kind of car did he “drive?” A Mercedes or a Mazda? But, of course, I am being deliberately facetious. There was no vehicle for Jesus to travel in and I don’t even suppose that a camel or a donkey was involved!

Still, the image of two people driving sticks in my mind. Somewhere in my memory, I remember the day when I did my driving test, and the driving instructor brought me to the test centre to meet the driving inspector.

And I think of the Holy Spirit, just recently sent by the Father down on his Son confirming his identity and commissioning him to begin his public ministry. Jesus has been preparing for this special moment for thirty years, but before he begins, there is the final test to check that he is ready to carry out his mission.

To change the image ever so slightly, think of the duty each car owners to have their vehicle tested annually to ensure it is road worthy and safe to drive. Or consider the person who decides to go for a general medical check up.

All these examples point to a vital distinction between the meaning of temptation (using the word from the Gospel) and the meaning of testing, a distinction that applies in important ways to our Lenten journey!

Mark tells us that Satan “tempted Jesus, but he is “tested” by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel goes on to speak of the company the Lord keeps in the wilderness, a motley crew indeed – wild beasts and angels.

But do not forget the Spirit! When he “drove” Jesus to his test, did he “drive” away again leaving him stranded? How could that be? For the Holy Spirit, the incarnate love of Father and Son is always with Jesus. Satan may be the tempter, but the Spirit is the tester!

So, in Lent, we may think of it as a time of temptation or instead, as a time of testing. And I like the testing side of Lent, with its positive senses of checking our spiritual roadworthiness, our moral dependability, and our fidelity to our Baptismal promises.

When tested, your strengths are brought out as much as your weaknesses, though we cannot boast of them, as they are the fruits of grace. God never tempts us (see James 1:13), but he loves to test us, to make us stronger, to challenge us to be the best self that we can be.

It is not unlike a young athlete or footballer whose talent needs to be brought out by putting him or her in with the seniors to test their mettle, to encourage them to strain further in order to develop their God given talent.

This is surely one meaning of Lent as a favourable time, a time of grace, a Kairos time, when the Spirit is waiting to drive you and me into the wilderness.

And look out for the wild beasts and the angels who are sent to test us to the utmost, for our own good and the good of others. They may be your best friends, ministers of God’s Holy Spirit!

May you enjoy a Blessed Lent, dear friends.

Kieran OFM