Franciscan Spirit Blog

40 Days in the Desert: A Lenten Meditation

Dunes in the desert

Some years ago I heard a psychologist give a talk in which he shared this insight: A loving relationship is a relationship of trust. And if you allow a relationship of trust to become one that always demands proofs and evidence, you run the risk of undermining that relationship.

If your husband, wife or dearest friend, for example, were regularly to demand from you alibis, tests and airtight evidence to explain why you arrived home late from work, etc., your relationship could well be in trouble. Such attitudes can transform a relationship of trust into a relationship of distrust. And the relationship—as a love relationship—could be doomed. We can apply the same insight to our relationship with God—a relationship that many of us are seeking to renew and deepen during these days of Lent. Our love relationship with God has one of profound trust rather than one that demands proofs and tests from God.

Jesus in the Desert: Keeping Trust

We apply this to Jesus’ relationship of love with his Father as he goes into the desert to be tested. The three temptations of Jesus in the desert are attempts by the devil to entice Jesus to place his trust in something other than God. In the first and third temptations the devil tries to persuade Jesus to respectively put his trust in bread and in worldly power. But Jesus chooses to place his trust firmly in God alone.

In the second temptation the devil urges Jesus, more specifically, to put God to the test by creating a situation that would “force” God to rescue him. The devil takes Jesus to the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem and says to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus sees God as a trusted lover, not as a puppet he can control. Jesus answers the devil: “Again, it is written, ’you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’” (see Matthew 4:5-7). Jesus refuses to replace a relationship of trusting love with a relationship that puts God to the test by demanding a miraculous sign or proof of God’s love and care.

Moses’ Failure of Trust in the Desert

When Jesus replied to the devil that one should not put God to the test, he was quoting directly from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:16) and referring to the famous incident where Moses committed a great sin of mistrust and of testing God at a place called Meribah, or Massah, in the desert.

A good description of the Moses event is in Numbers (20:1-13). Here’s the story in brief: The whole Israelite community has come to a place in the desert called Kadesh. And being without water and many other things, the Israelites begin complaining to Moses and Aaron bitterly and relentlessly. “Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place where there is neither grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates? Here there is not even water to drink” (5). In desperation, Moses and Aaron prostrate themselves in prayer before the Lord.

God appears to Moses and says, “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron, and in their presence order the rock to yield its waters…for the community and their livestock to drink (8).” Instead of immediately doing what God has asked, Moses turns to the people and scolds them harshly: “Listen to me, you rebels. Are we to bring water for you out of this rock” (10)?

lent with saint clare

Then Moses proceeds to strike the rock twice with his staff, “and water gushed out in abundance for the community and their livestock to drink“ (11). A footnote in the new American Bible indicates that the reason Moses struck the rock twice is “perhaps because he had not sufficient faith to work the miracle with the first blow.” The footnote says “perhaps” because not all scholars agree on the precise significance of Moses’s striking the rock twice.

The next footnote, however, makes a more important point: “The sin of Moses and Aaron consisted in doubting God’s mercy toward the ever-rebellious people.“ The passage from Numbers is not clear in every respect, but the fact that Moses and Aaron “were not faithful” to God while God was always faithful toward them is indisputably clear in the biblical text: “Because you were not faithful to me in showing forth my sanctity before the Israelites,” God says, “you shall not lead this community into the land that I will give them” (12). Moses had failed to believe and trust in God’s “sanctity,” that is, in God’s great gift of mercy and goodness toward a rebellious people–a gift that was as overflowing as the water, which “gushed out in abundance” from the rock.

We also find an earlier version of the story of Moses striking the rock in Exodus 17:1-7 but with some different nuances. In Exodus more blame seems to be placed on the Israelites themselves because of their complaining and testing of the Lord, especially with the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (7). It’s good for you and me to ask that question of ourselves—as a way to assess honestly our own level of trust regarding God.

To Trust or Mistrust—An Ancient Problem

Maintaining a love relationship with God that is fully based on trust has never been easy. Already in Genesis, Adam and Eve ran into trouble in this regard. At first, their love relationship seemed to be a relationship of complete trust. It was soon, however, to turn into a relationship of mistrust and suspicion. When God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent craftily sowed seeds of distrust. The serpent led Adam and Eve to believe that God did not really have their best interests in mind. In fact, God was deceiving them. The fruit would not harm them. “Certainly you will not die,” said the serpent. “God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Genesis 3:5).

Just as a failure in trust was a strong element in that primal sin of Adam and Eve, so it is somehow present in each of the sins we, their children, continue to commit.

For Further Meditation

As we continue our Lenten journey through the desert—the traditional place of testing—we might do well to meditate on the following two quotations from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament:

1) “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not; in all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

2) “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works” (Psalm 95:8-9). A prayerful reading of the whole psalm can help build up our relationship of trust in the God of overflowing mercy.


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