In Matthew 4, Jesus faces three temptations to rely on his own strength to elude suffering and to seize power for his own. It’s a temptation that we face every day. We make choices every day to ensure that we won’t have to feel weak or inferior; we’ve figured out ways to keep ourselves satisfied and operating at max capacity.
But during Lent, we are called into the wilderness with Jesus, rediscovering the value of weakness, of need, of brokenness. We need this time not only to stir us to repentance and rekindle our reliance on God in all things. But we also need this time so that we will remember that when we are made weak we have something unique to offer our world.
When we live as if suffering is to be avoided at all costs, we turn a blind eye to much of what it means to be human. We lose the ability to speak truthfully with others, fully embodying their pain ourselves. I mentioned Annie Dillard’s great book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (not exactly a Christian book, but certainly one charged with spiritual significance), which makes the case that we cannot “wail the right question” or “choir the proper praise” until we have seen and felt this world in all its glory and all its horror.
In leading up to this statement, Dillard talks about witnessing a frog, who seems to deflate before her eyes. As she discovers, she has just witnessed a giant water bug quite literally suck the life from the helpless frog. It’s a grotesque sight, one that makes you want to cry out: “God, could you really have made such a thing as this?” Then she describes the quick descent of a mockingbird, who dives off a branch with suddenness before unfurling its white wings and lighting on the ground with a grace that seems so beautiful and frivolous that we would be moved to imagine God made such a creature out of his sheer delight, his joyful whim.
We have all had moments that take our breath away—both the beauty and the heartbreak. Lent reminds us that we must hold onto both. Lent reminds us that this precisely what Christ was doing when he stretched out his arms upon the cross.