In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In the original Greek language, the word for “led” in the first verse is anagō which means “to lead up” or “to bring to a higher place.” Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness was a higher place. I take comfort in that small detail of Scripture. I take comfort in knowing that when God leads me to dry, desolate, lonely, and solitary places it’s because He wants to take me higher spiritually. He wants me to reach new heights of Spiritual growth that only the wilderness can develop.
Think about a tree – the deeper the roots go, the higher the tree grows. But the deeper those roots go, the darker it becomes. That seed, when first placed in the ground, doesn’t know what’s yet to come. The seed doesn’t understand the purpose of being placed in the soil. The seed doesn’t see the tree it will become. There’s a saying I love that says, “Sometimes when we think we’ve been buried; we’ve just been planted.” It’s so true! Don’t negate those wilderness seasons of your life. Don’t lose hope in those dark days under the soil. There is a purpose yet to be revealed once you’ve endured this dark and lonely season.
In the wilderness, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He became hungry. And then Satan came to tempt Him. What does it tell us about Satan that he came after Jesus had fasted, after Jesus was hungry? It tells us that Satan comes to us when we are vulnerable. Jesus may have been physically weak for lack of food, but He was spiritually strong. Psalm 73:26 says, “My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” We can be at our strongest spiritually when we are at our weakest physically because it is in those times that we are fully dependent and trusting on God to be our strength. Satan will choose to come against us at that very time, because it’s in those moments of spiritual strength that we pose the greatest threat to him and his demons.
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. This number is significant. It’s a number we see consistently throughout Scripture. When God flooded the earth and saved only Noah and his family, it rained for forty days (Genesis 7:17). When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, he fasted for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 34:28). The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before reaching the Promised Land (Numbers 14:34). The number “forty” represents trials and testing. It represents a probationary period. It represents a time of preparation for what will come next. Consider the context of Jesus during this testing of His faith in the wilderness. Immediately before being led to the wilderness, Jesus was baptized. Immediately following His temptation in the wilderness, He began His public ministry. God leads us to wilderness seasons to prepare us for where He is taking us next.
Satan’s primary weapon of attack in the wilderness is deception. He deceives us by trying to get us to misinterpret God’s Word. He wants us to doubt God’s truth. He wants us to question God’s goodness. When he came against Eve in the Garden of Eden, he asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in garden?” When he came against Jesus in the wilderness he said, “If you really are the Son of God, tell theses stones to become bread.” His subtly is his strategy, so we have to be attentive. He wants us to question our identity. He wants us to doubt who we are and who God is. He wants to doubt that we truly belong to the family of God. He wants us to doubt that God truly is good and has our best interest in mind. It’s easy to be swayed by the lies of the enemy if we aren’t firmly grounded in the truth of God’s Word. We have to cling tightly to Word of God and hide His Words in our heart, because that’s how we endure the wilderness. We combat the lies of Satan with the truth of God.
When Satan tempts us, he also appeals to our selfishness and pride. He tempts with instant gratification. Why wait when you can have what you want right now? Why give to others when you can keep for yourself? With Jesus, he urged Him to feed Himself, to save Himself, to take the kingdoms of the world for Himself. With Eve, he told her she would be like God. Jesus is the only One who actually IS God, but He resisted the temptation to prematurely put His divinity on display. Jesus was not thinking about Himself. He was thinking about us and about our need for a Savior. He faced the same temptations we do, but He sinned not. He was more concerned with our eternal salvation than with His own temporary satisfaction.
The first temptation Satan tried to lure Jesus with was food. Food is not sinful. Hunger is a perfectly normal and natural desire. But there are times when we are tempted to satisfy a perfectly normal or natural desire in a wrong way or at a wrong time – and Jesus resisted that temptation. Satan was tempting Jesus to use His divinity to satisfy the needs of His humanity. Looking forward to the cross, Jesus knew He would be faced with this same temptation. He could have used His divinity to save Himself from the physical pain of the cross, but He didn’t. In the desert, Jesus hungered, and on the cross one of the last words He uttered was “I thirst.” His humanity was fully on display in both instances. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. He sacrificed His human life to offer us eternal life, and He defeated death to show us how to truly live.
Satan’s next lure was mankind’s attention and awe. Once again, the longing for human affirmation is not sinful in itself, but when we live for that longing it becomes sinful. When we live to seek attention and applause, it is both self-serving and short-sighted. Jesus could have jumped off the highest point of the Temple and saved Himself, but He was looking ahead. He was looking beyond Himself. He knew He was there for a greater purpose. Instead of making a spectacle of Himself by performing this great feat, He chose instead to begin His ministry as a relatively unknown Rabbi, the son of a carpenter, a friend of sinners. Instead of capturing the attention and awe of the people in single moment, He chose instead to be hated and rejected by the people He came to save. He chose the path no one else would have chosen, to fulfill a purpose no one else could fulfill.
And the final temptation Jesus faced was the temptation of earthly power and possession. This temptation appeals to our innate desire for influence and authority. We all want to make a difference in this world, and Jesus could have done immense good with the power and authority Satan gave Him, but Satan was offering something that was not his to give. Satan is the prince of this present world, but Jesus had come to save the world yet to come. In the book Anonymous, Alicia Britt Chole writes, “Jesus had come to suffer for sinners. Satan suggested that He sin to avoid suffering. Jesus had come to die for the world. Satan offered him the world without dying… He tempted Jesus to give up His soul permanently to gain the world temporarily… Satan asked Jesus to trade the eternal for the visible, which is something he still invites us to do every day.”
Jesus counteracted the temptations of Satan with Scripture. The exact verses He used were Deuteronomy 8:3, Deuteronomy 6:16, and Deuteronomy 6:13. When you go back and read these verses, you realize how important it is that these are the verses Jesus used. Deuteronomy 8:2-5 in particular is Moses reminding the Israelites that God led them through the wilderness for forty years – testing them, and humbling them. The fact that Jesus chose this Scripture reveals His knowledge of Scripture. He knew exactly what verse He needed to recall to mind to resist the temptation, to endure the wilderness, and to remind Himself of the greater purpose of God at work.
Jesus was prepared for the wilderness because He practiced cultivation in His hidden years.
I first heard this phrase “practice cultivation” in a letter I received from a 14-year old girl named Grace who lived in Kenya and it has stuck with me ever since. I received a letter from Grace via Compassion International, and in this particular letter she was telling me all about the crops her family had been planting and harvesting that year. Then she asked, “Do you practice cultivation?” The question was so simple and beautiful. My honest answer was no – I’ve never tilled up a ground, never planted a seed, never waited and prayed for rain, never worked dawn to dusk in a field, never sweated and labored to produce a harvest of food. When I get hungry, I usually get in my car and drive around a building for them to hand me an already prepared meal out a window. Or maybe, I’ll walk into a building with shelves lined with food that has already been labored over and is packaged and ready for me to take home and prepare. I don’t practice cultivation, and it pained me to admit that. In a sense, it felt like I was making a confession of guilt.
And then I thought about it on a spiritual level. Do I practice cultivation? And once again, my honest answer would likely be no. Not nearly as often or as much as I should. I go to church and listen to the Pastor, but then I go home, and what happens? Maybe I’ll get in a a good routine of prayer and study for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, and then it will dwindle away again. Maybe I practice cultivation, but I don’t do it well. To cultivate means to “prepare and use land for crops or gardening; to promote or improve the growth of a plant by labor and attention.” If you’re in a wilderness season of your life right now, a season when you feel lonely and God feels distant or quiet – till the ground. Start practicing cultivation. The wilderness you’re in is a gift, an opportunity to prepare and use the land. It’s a blank canvas. We practice cultivation by practicing spiritual disciplines. When you practice spiritual disciplines, you are making an investment in your future and in the Kingdom of God. You are investing your time and energy towards producing a harvest of spiritual growth that will feed generations to come. God wants to use you in this season.
One of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had when reading the Bible was when I read Jeremiah 29:11 in full context. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of my favorite verses. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” During this time, the Israelites were in exile in the wilderness and they were starting to get defeated and discouraged. They were losing hope that they would ever make it out alive. A false prophet came and told they would be free in two years. It gave them hope, but it was a false hope. They were being comforted with a lie. Then Jeremiah came with a word from God. He told them to get comfortable in the wilderness – to build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children. He told them they would be there for another 70 years, and then God would come and fulfill His promise. This was a hard truth, but it was truth nonetheless. Imagine their disappointment if those two years had come and gone and they were still not free? They would have lost complete hope and trust in God’ promises. They would have wasted two years of their lives waiting for a deliverance that would never come. Instead, they were able to practice cultivation in the wilderness. They were able to live full, expectant, and hopeful lives for those 70 years.
When you think about cultivation, how is it that you cultivate a relationship? Relationships are cultivated through communication – by talking, and listening, and asking questions. Relationships are cultivated by spending time together – you pick up on the other person’s likes, interests, and personality traits when you are interacting with them on a regular basis. Relationships are also cultivated by establishing trust. Trust is established by a lot of little moments that add up over time. Trust happens when you show up and do what you said you were going to do. Trust happens when you follow through with your commitments consistently.
So, with that in mind, how do we cultivate our relationship with God? It’s simple: Communication, Spending Time Together, and Establishing Trust. Silence, Solitude, and Secrecy. We communicate with Him in our silence. We spend time with Him in our solitude. We learn to trust Him when He consistently shows up in the secret places and spaces our hearts.
Silence is an important part of the way we communicate with God because we learn in 1 Kings 19:11-13 that He speaks in a still, small voice. I once heard a message by Steven Furtick in which He talked about why God whispers – and that’s because you only whisper to someone when they’re close beside you. God is close to us. That’s why He whispers. It’s intimate. It’s personal. It’s between Him and us. Another reason silence is important is because faith comes through hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17) and we can’t hear His Words if we’re distracted by all the noise around us. When we’re silent in His presence, we’re more attentive. When we’re more attentive, we’re more receptive. God is speaking, but are we really listening? Can we really hear?
Have you ever noticed that we’re afraid of silence? Why is that? I think it’s because we don’t like being alone with our own thoughts. We always tend to fill the silence with music, tv, and mindless chatter. In our society and in our culture, we are never truly in silence. Even with no music, no TV, and no one around me talking – I can still hear the hum of the AC, the passing of cars outside the window, the ticking of a clock in the other room. To be in complete silence would be such a stark contrast from our daily lives that it would throw us into a state of shock and panic. As Dallas Willard writes in Spirit of the Disciplines, “Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.”
The quieter we become, the more we hear. When we get quiet, we listen better. The less I talk, the fuller my words become. We need to learn the art of thinking before we speak. That’s why practicing silence and getting into a quiet place with God, is considered a spiritual discipline. We need to embrace the quiet. Lamentations 3:26 tells us to “wait quietly for salvation from the Lord.” In Psalm 62:1, David writes, “I wait quietly before God for my victory comes from Him.” Isaiah 30:15 tells us our strength is found “in quietness and confidence.”
Solitude is how we spend time alone with God. Jesus Himself would often withdraw to quiet, solitary places to be alone with God. Mark 1:35 says, “Before daybreak, Jesus got up and went to an isolated place to pray.” Matthew 14:13 says, “He left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.” In Luke 5:16 we are told that Jesus “often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.” And He invites us to do the same. In Mark 6:31-32 He told His disciples, “Let’s go by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” In Matthew 6:6 He says, “When you pray, go away by yourself and shut the door.”
Similar to silence, we tend to fear solitude as well. In fact, one of our worst forms of punishment in the Western world today is solitary confinement. Dallas Willard describes our fear of solitude by saying, “In solitude, we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others… It serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us… We can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.”
Secrecy is not one of the well-known spiritual disciplines, but it is a discipline nonetheless. Secrecy is one of the ways we build trust and intimacy with God. Throughout the Gospels, have you noticed that Jesus often told His followers to “tell no one” of the miracles He performed? We see this in Mark 1:40-45 and Mark 7:32-37. Why do you think Jesus would say this? I don’t know the answer for sure, but one thing I do know is that when God heals us, our lives reflect it. Our testimony speaks for itself. Our newfound joy seeps out in our words and in our actions. Jesus wanted to be known for the message He spoke, not simply for the miracles He performed. He wanted people to follow Him because of who He was, not because of what He could do for them. He wanted followers of genuine faith, not superficial faith. After all, true faith is believing without seeing. Secrecy is an important part of our relationship with God, because if you’ve ever prayed a prayer that was only between you and God and then you saw that prayer answered, then you know how powerful that is. You can’t help but be amazed. It’s such a bolster to our faith, because it shows us that we are seen, and loved, and heard by God. We walk away from those moments knowing that only God could have come through in the way that He did because only God knew the true desire and plea of your heart.
There are countless times throughout Scripture when reference is made to a “secret place.” Psalm 139:15 says we are formed in the secret place. Those 9 months when we are hidden in our mother’s womb are essential for our growth and development. Psalm 27:5 tells us we are protected in the secret place. He shelters us in His Temple and places us up on a high rock where out of the enemy’s reach and safe from the storms around us. Psalm 91:1-2 tells us we find rest in the secret place. If we live in His shelter, we will find comfort and security in His shadow. In Exodus 33:20-23 we learn that it is in the shadow where we can experience God’s presence. Moses had to remain hidden in the crevice of a rock while God’s Spirit passed by – and still His face shown so brightly that everyone knew He had been with God before He ever spoke a word. As Dallas Willard writes, “In the discipline of secrecy – we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known… As we practice this discipline, we learn to love to be unknown and even to accept misunderstanding without the loss of our peace, joy, and purpose… Secrecy rightly practiced enables us to place our public relationship department entirely in the hands of God, who lit our candles so we could be the light of the world, not so we could hide under a bushel. We allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed.”
Be silent before Him.
Be still in His presence.
Dwell in the secret place.
In that stark aloneness – in that silence and solitude that only wilderness seasons reveal – build a house, plant a garden, and get comfortable. Practice cultivation in the wilderness. Practice spiritual disciplines. Lift your eyes, heart, and hands to the Heavens – and know that He is God. He is preparing you through this season. He is preparing you for greater things that are yet to come.