“Your Wilderness Exam”

Kurt Jacobson
8 min readFeb 26, 2023

February 26, 2023

Matthew 4: 1–11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. ***

This is one of the longer and more intense dialogs in all the Bible. It might be the most instructive for us in living faithfully in these days.

Right away we read “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Wow. Lesson one. The Spirit does things we would not choose on our own.

The devil has center stage in this story, but he is a peripheral personality for many Christians. We don’t read much of him in the bible. Each Sunday we say a prayer asking God to deliver us from evil and confess that Jesus descended into hell, the home we ascribe to the devil. But beyond that, the devil doesn’t get much notice, until this first Sunday in Lent.

Right off, we learn the devil knows the Bible. His literacy level permits him the exact verses he needs to put Jesus to the test. Score one. Yet, Jesus shows He knows more about what the Bible says and knows how to do what it says. Therein he passes his wilderness exam.

Notice that every time the devil offered Jesus more bread, more power, more protection, Jesus turned him down. Jesus says he is full up by worshipping God and serving only God. By the end of the story, the devil still has all his bribes in his bag and Jesus is free to go.

This passage is an all-you-can-eat buffet for preachers who want to focus on what Jesus and the devil said to each other. But what I want to focus on is where the test took place because I have an idea that every one of us has already been there.

Think about wilderness places you’ve experienced. Maybe it was a hospital waiting room, or the apartment you had to move into when you split with your spouse, or the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job. It may have been a desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but your own breath.

Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection — just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.

Needless to say, this is not a situation many of us seek. Rather, we spend a lot of time and money trying to stay out of the wilderness; but I don’t know anyone who succeeds at that entirely or forever. Sooner or later, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness exam, our own trip to the desert to discover who we really are and what our lives are really about.

Perhaps that sounds like bad news, but I don’t think it is. Rather, it is good news because even if no one ever wants to go there, and when we end up there we want out again as soon as possible, the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be. Take Jesus, for instance.

How did he end up there?

The Spirit led him.

What was he full of?

He was full of The Holy Spirit.

What else did he live on?


How long was he there?

Almost six weeks!

How did he feel at the end?

He was famished.

What did that stretch in the wilderness do to him? It freed him from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose. After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.

The value of the wilderness seems lost in American culture today. That may also be true of Christian tradition charged with preserving it. For Christians who still participate in churches that observe Lent, you get a dose of wilderness every year at this time, even if it is reduced to cutting down on how much you drink or putting a dollar in a jar for every dessert you skip. The nugget of the wisdom is still there: that anyone who wants to follow Jesus all the way to the cross needs the kind of clarity and grit that is found only in the wilderness.

In Lent, many Christians think they must do without some things they are perfectly capable of having and take on some things they are just as capable of avoiding — such as a moral inventory or a lunch date with someone with whom you have been having a spat.

The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning “spring” and is not only a reference to crocuses emerging before Easter, but also to the greening of the human soul — fertilized with fasting, misted with self-appraisal, mulched with prayer. Until my 20’s I didn’t understand that Lent wasn’t about punishing myself and giving up coffee, beer or chocolate. I know people who have given up their smartphone for a week in Lent (can you imagine?) and others who give up Amazon prime ordering, television, Facebook, Hulu and eating while standing up. I do not blame anyone who has decided to give Lent a pass.

If you have expended energy on Lenten “fasts” in hopes of growing your soul and love for God and come out with no new buds, then maybe a spell in the wilderness is worth a try. Maybe a few weeks of choosing to live on less, of practicing subtraction instead addition, not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is the one you long to be living. This can be difficult to do when you are living on self-satisfying acquisitions, dreaming of your next pursuit, or constant activity.

The difficulty is furthered because almost everyone has a favorite anesthetic or pacifier: murder mysteries, diet Coke, reruns of The Office, Bombay gin martinis, hours a day at the gym or tik tok videos. I’m not saying such things are bad. But they are distractions, things to reach for when you are lonely, sad, stressed, bored or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment to wonder what it’s really about and what is behind the feelings.

The challenge is that it is impossible to go straight from setting down the cell phone to hearing the still, small voice of God in the wilderness. If it worked like that, churches would be full and Verizon would be out of business. If it worked like that, Lent would only be about twenty minutes long.

What we have instead are forty days for finding out what life is like without the usual painkillers or pacifiers, which is how most of us learn what led us to use them in the first place. Once you take out the ear buds or turn off NPR Classics, or leave the gym, silence can be really loud. Once you turn off the TV or computer, a night can get really long. After a while you start thinking the quiet emptiness is a sign of things gone wrong; an AWOL God, insurmountable temptations and a spiritual insufficiency.

But if you remember to breathe and say your prayers, then nine times out of ten you can make it through your first night with no extra bread, power, or protection. You can get used to the sound of your own heart beating and whatever it is that is yipping out there. You may even be able to sleep a little while and wake up happier to be alive than you can remember.

After you have reached for your anesthetic or pacifier a few times and remembered it is not there because you made a conscious decision to give it up, then you may discover a whole new level of conversation with yourself.

Are you hungry?

I am famished.

Well, what’s wrong with that? Are you dying?


Can you stand being hungry for a while longer?

Maybe. I guess so.

Okay, so what else? Are you lonely?

Yes, I am! I am terribly lonely!

What’s wrong with being alone? Will it kill you?

I don’t like it.

That’s not what I asked. Can you live through it?

Probably not, but I’ll try.

Our minds are geniuses at telling us that losing our pacifiers is going to kill us, but it’s almost never true. All that’s going to happen is that we’re going to suck air for a while, then we’re going to hiccup, then we’re going to look around and see things without that blue plastic circle under our noses, which is going to turn out to be a good thing both for us and for everyone else in our lives.

But it is not my place to describe your wilderness exam. Only you can do that, because only you know what devils have your number and what kinds of bribes they use to get you to pick up. All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the wilderness this Lent is a great way to practice getting free of those devils for life — not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again, ready to worship the Lord your God and serve no other all the days of your life.

Image credits: 1) Wikimedia.org; 2) Catholic World Report;

(Thanks to Rev Barbara Brown Taylor for the inspiration on this passage)



Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.