We wish our culture was a community that was radiant with the love of Christ, but that would be imagining heaven on earth. Instead we live in a world filled with a dangerous network of domination and manipulation into which we can become easily entangled and fear losing our souls. Have we become so molded by the seductive powers of this dark world that we have become blind to the state of our souls and have lost the motivation to strive for change?
In this war for our souls our very identity is at stake. We often do not realize how much we lean into the world to be affirmed for who we are rather than leaning into God for our identity. The questions we often ask ourselves seek to determine whether we are liked or disliked, admired or despised. Whether we are an engineer, businessperson, teacher, or counselor, what matters most to us is how we are perceived by the world. There is a lurking fear in our hearts that we will be rejected or regarded as a failure, and so we try to prevent this through working harder and striving more.
Our dependence on the world for acceptance and approval can cause the sour fruit of anger and greed. If our sense of self depends on what the world thinks of us, then anger would be a natural response to a criticism. Anger settles into an underlying resentment that slowly robs our hearts of generosity toward and love for one another.
How do we escape the seduction of the world? In Matthew 4:1-10 Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. After Jesus had fasted for 40 days, the great tempter came to Him and tempted Him in three ways, the same three ways that the devil tempted Eve in the Garden in Genesis chapter 3.
- The first temptation related to physical appetites.
- The second temptation was to personal security.
- The third temptation was to power and position.
Jesus ends his time in the desert telling Satan to be gone and affirming God as the only source of His identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone”). The solitude of the desert is the place where we struggle against our selfish temptations and encounter the Lord who offers us Himself as the substance of our identity.
The thought of solitude in our culture is distorted into a negative lonely place devoid of all things positive and profitable. Solitude is a place where the strivings of the old self die and the new person emerges. It is in the solitude that we fight the urges to run back to the to-do-list, texts, email, and every other thing that distracts. It is in this place that we fight to get our monkey minds to stop jumping in the trees and make our restless minds quiet. It is in this place we wait upon the Lord until we hear Him tell us He is with us, Emmanuel. We enter this quiet space to meet with our Lord and to be with Him alone.
It is as Henri Nouwen says in his book the Way of the Heart, “Our primary task in solitude, therefore, is not to pay undue attention to the many faces which assail us, but to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine savior. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God.”
We do have to find our own desert place of retreat where we can go and shake off the compulsiveness of our thinking and rest in the presence of the Lord our God. Without this sweet rest in Him we will lose our own souls while trying to minister to others. When we take time to find our rest in Him we will find ourselves increasingly conformed to Him. It is as Mother Teresa taught: we can only have a fruitful ministry to another as it grows out of direct contact with the Lord.