by Marjorie George
Jesus was in the wilderness. He was to spend 40 days listening for the voice of God and discerning the way forward for his ministry, recently launched at his public baptism (Matthew 3-4). Angels ministered to him, but the devil was also about, offering helpful suggestions. “If your ministry is to feed a hungry world,” proposed Satan, “why not just turn these stones into bread?”
“How about this: jump off the pinnacle of the temple and see if angels catch you mid-flight. If they do, you’ll know that you truly are called to this ministry.”
Ah, there it is – the temptation to certainty. The seeking of the imprimatur.
“Here I am, Lord, send me,” we proclaim with all sincerity. “I’m yours, Lord, show me the way. “And since I’m a little bit stupid (doubtful, afraid, hesitant) please make it abundantly clear.”
It’s a valid question: How do we know if we are called to a particular ministry serving God’s people both within and outside of the walls of the church?
Let’s go back to Jesus. Scripture tells us he was led – some translations say driven – into the desert by the Spirit (Matthew 4:1). He spent 40 days concentrating on God, not even eating. He knew his Scripture. He was accustomed to prayer. Those were the foundations of his life; those were his daily habits – even before he was tapped by the Spirit in baptism.
We will say, “Sure, but he was God – He knew everything.” But we must never forget that Jesus was also fully human: he hurt just like we hurt; he doubted just as we doubt; he knew times of sorrow, and anger, and joy just as we are sometimes sorrowful and angry and joyful.
But Jesus practiced holy habits. Notice that throughout his ministry, Jesus did not squeeze into his busy life time for personal prayer, meditation, and Bible study. He did not proclaim that his ministry was his prayer or rely on personal charisma to get him through.
What started with his baptism – withdrawal from the world for time alone with God – continued throughout his life and ministry. When he learned that his friend and cousin, John, had been beheaded, he went away to a deserted place by himself (Matt14:13). After feeding the five thousand, Jesus immediately “went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt 14:23). When the night of greatest temptation was at hand, Jesus was found in the garden, praying (Luke 22:42).
It was his custom to go away and pray, for Scripture tells us that he would often “withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16).
He encouraged his disciples to do the same; after a time of intense ministry, Jesus, recognizing that his disciples were tired, invited them to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
By this, Jesus was filled with the Spirit. In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster says, “Nothing is more satisfying to observe than how Jesus lived and moved in the power of the Spirit.” As he rose from the waters of baptism, points out Foster, “the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove” (Luke 3:22). After the temptation encounters, Jesus went back to Galilee “filled with the power of the spirit” (Luke 4:14).
We have already noted that Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). “Such is the refrain that echoes down through his entire ministry,” says Foster. “Full of the Holy Spirit . . . Led by the spirit . . . Filled with the power of the spirit . . .”
Do we see the connection? Being more in touch with God’s Holy Spirit occurs in direct proportion to spending time alone with God in prayer.
Will we then be certain of the way forward? Sometimes. Sometimes we will know in our heart of hearts that we are in the right place at the right time and that God is with us. Sometimes we will be absolutely sure, though others may try to dissuade us. Sometimes we will be given clarity.
And sometimes not. But there is a prayer for that, too. It is the prayer of Thomas Merton; you have heard it before, but I am telling you again. Say it with me:
“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
“But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire . . .” (From Thoughts in Solitude).
Everybody ready? Hold hands and jump. Or head for the desert with me.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Spring/summer 2013 issue of Reflections magazine is now online with a focus on the Holy Spirit. Click here to read the entire issue or individual articles.