We’ve heard the story many times: following his baptism by John, Jesus spends forty days in the desert. What strikes us is the juxtaposition of the two events.
The baptism is a spiritual high point. All those present witness a manifestation of the Father who affirms his relationship with Jesus – “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17).
In the spiritual life, it doesn’t get much better than this! To be affirmed as belonging to our creator Father and loved as his precious child … the human heart longs to know and be assured of this.
From this peak experience, Jesus is led “by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). From an encounter of profound spiritual consolation, he goes into a state of extreme deprivation.
But the devil picks his timing carefully. After fasting for forty days, when Jesus is physically weak and vulnerable, the devil presents his lies and empty promises.
Despite his weakened state, despite weeks of loneliness and isolation, Jesus chooses to trust in the Father’s love. He stands firm in his identity as the Beloved Son and rejects the Father of Lies.
Finally, after three failed attempts, the devil leaves him, and Jesus is consoled by angels.
Our marriage has also experienced periods of consolation and desolation. Seasons of joyful intimacy and seasons of dryness.
Like most couples, our wedding day was a bit like Jesus’ baptism; a public manifestation of our devotion and love for each other. We affirmed that we belonged to one another, that each was to be the other’s beloved spouse, and that we were indeed “well pleased” with each other.
From this marital high point, we were led into a wilderness period. For immediately after our honeymoon, Byron began work with a client in another city for three months.
The separation was painful. We pined for each other and counted the days and the weeks until we could begin a more normal married life.
In all this, we were sustained by the memory of our declarations of devotion on our wedding day. We did not doubt the other’s love, but simply looked forward to the future.
It was the first of many wilderness experiences. In these seasons, the temptation to withdraw from each other to protect our hearts increase.
Just when we most need to lean into habits of appreciation and affection to strengthen our bond, we least feel like doing them. Deprived of time and positive interaction, we grow further apart and vulnerable to spiritual attack.
We begin to question the other’s devotion and motives. We start to doubt that the intense bonding and attraction we had experienced in our early years was ever even real.
What had seemed so sure, so manifestly true, over time and tested by life’s mishaps, becomes a memory of questionable accuracy.
In this state, misunderstanding and arguments flourish. The silliest of situations, the most innocuous comments, are misinterpreted as an attack by the other.
Both of us are good people, seeking to love God and love each other. Neither of us is wilfully seeking to harm the other yet our thoughts drift towards suspicion.
This is a common spiritual phenomenon: when we are weakest and most vulnerable in our spiritual life, temptations to sin (i.e. to distance ourselves from God), intensify.
In a marriage, that translates as the temptation to distance from each other. If we give in – if we listen to the lies and empty promises of the devil – it gets worse.
If, however, we resist temptation to withdraw, if we exert our will over our emotions and choose to trust in the other’s love and goodness, we can be confident angels will console us.