The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent takes us into the desert—the place of testing. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness recall Israel’s 40 years’ sojourn in the desert. What was the purpose of this long journey through the wilderness? Moses told the people that God brought them there so that “he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart” (Deut. 8:2).
The testing of Israel entailed more than seeing if the people would obey God’s commands. Their trials in the desert were intended to test their hearts.
And when we experience our own deserts –when we experiences trials in life or struggles in prayer—we should remember that God may be doing the same with us. He may be testing our own hearts: Are our hearts truly for God and God alone? Or are they committed to the Lord only for what He does for us. This was the kind of testing Israel faced.
In Egypt, the Israelites benefited from God’s spectacular signs and wonders. They saw God’s might hand inflict the Egyptians with plague after plague. In Egypt, they were liberated from slavery and they witnessed God’s triumph over their enemies. They sang God’s praises and rejoiced in the Lord their savior.
But when taken out in the desert, things became very different. The people were humbled, taken out of all that was familiar, traveling in the wilderness without food and drink, unsure where the Lord will lead them next, and wondering if they will ever get to the Promised Land. Shaken, the people began to doubt. They began to fear and complain. They even were tempted to go back to Egypt—at least that was familiar to them.
What would they do now? Would they truly allow the Lord to guide them? Would they entrust their lives completely to God?
Or would they strain to remain in control—afraid to let go, trusting in their own plans and timetables, failing to allow their lives to be led by God’s Word?
This was the critical moment of testing the heart. As Moses explained to the people, the Lord “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you on manna….that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”
As we ourselves enter the desert at the start of Lent, we should realize that God often tests our hearts as well. When we face moments in life like Israel did in the desert—moments of uncertainty, confusion, trial or doubt—what will we do? When our world is shaken through unexpected changes and suffering, we can feel disoriented and unsure of where our life is going. Or when we experience dryness in the spiritual life and our regular forms of prayer and devotion don’t seem to be working well anymore, we can wonder, “Where is God in all this?”
When thrown into the desert, we might be tempted to panic or to become discouraged in life. We might even be tempted to go backward, desperately trying to recreate the life experiences that brought us joy in the past or clinging to spiritual practices from which the Lord may be weaning us.
In these seasons of life, it can be helpful to remember that God is present with us in the desert. And he wants to lead us through the desert to the other side, where there is growth, maturing in the spiritual life and a more profound understanding of how our lives are completely dependent on him and him alone. Through the desert, he calls us to surrender ourselves more to him, to trust his guiding hand. He wants us to experience his presence in a deeper way in the darkness of our prayer and supporting us in our sufferings. In the desert we are reminded that “man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”
In the desert, God is testing our heart.