Forty days. That’s the length of time Christ spent in the Judaean Desert, fasting and praying in solitude. In the accounts contained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the devil appears, bearing temptations that cut to the very heart of Jesus’ desires – to turn stones to bread to relieve His physical hunger, to summon angels to break His fall if He jumps from a cliff, and to worship the tempter in return for dominion over the kingdoms of the world.
In this passage, one sees how the devil toys with Christ’s conceptions of the divine power bestowed upon Him and the seductions of the soul that might goad Him into self-indulgent displays of power for its own sake. In the midst of profound physical and spiritual strain, facing a malevolence designed to rattle His very conception of Himself, one might imagine Jesus becoming bitter toward his circumstances. Yet, He does not allow this bitterness to overwhelm his responses to the tempter and to succumb to the cynicism of embracing such displays of power. Refuting temptation at each moment, He emerges from this period of intense preparation mentally and emotionally equipped to begin His public ministry. If there was any trace of bitterness, we find it enveloped by the relief of rest as angels come to attend to Christ, and the invigoration of conviction to proclaim the Good News to a weary world.
In the midst of the toil and trouble that we face globally, communally, and individually, it can be easy for bitterness to overwhelm the mind. When dark forces that envelop us rattle a sense of self, it can be easy for resentment, against God, against others, against our circumstances, to take root and to flourish. Such a profound challenge was not foreign to Jesus, nor was it foreign to His ancestor King David, for whom the reality of opposition found not only a spiritual but a militaristic form. In Psalm 27, David crafts a cry for help:
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me
even then I will be confident.
(Psalm 27:1b-3, NIV)
For Christians who live in relative safety and comfort, roofs over their heads and food in their pantries, it can be easy to regard these psalms as having only metaphoric significance for our lives. Of course, we assume that the ‘wicked’ forces in question are merely spiritual in nature. Likewise, the word ‘army’ becomes merely a figure of speech, representing sinister spirits that threaten an identity stable in faith. Yet for many faithful around the world, this psalm cannot but be read literally. As we consider those who suffer military violence in Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, and recently, Ukraine, we cannot help but pray that the words of David will bear true: that their ‘hearts will not fear; / though war [breaks] out against [them].’
Confronted by physical danger, David’s response is to turn to the Lord,
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
(Psalm 27:4-5, NIV)
Against the terrifying reality of military encroachment, David articulates a desire to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and to ‘gaze on the beauty of the LORD.’ The imminence of suffering is entwined with David’s desire to behold God’s beauty and to reside in Him. A counterintuitive response, surely, but a necessary one. For God is not merely a comforter, but a protector; one who the psalm exhorts to keep ‘safe in his dwelling’ in ‘the shelter of his sacred tent’ in ‘the day of trouble’. The beauty and presence of God are not distractions from the realities of violence, nor do they underpin a passivity in the face of violence but rather, they embolden David to respond knowing that God will keep those who draw near to Him safe.
It is in this moment of desperation, in articulating a desire for the beauty and safety of God, that David makes another plea:
Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior.
(Psalm 27:9, NIV)
The sharpest fear of the speaker is not just the absence of God, the sense of His being temporarily distant, but a fear of God’s abandonment. As he contends with turmoil and danger, the possibility of a wrathful God willingly leaving his followers isolated and vulnerable is the lowest point that David envisions. It is at a point of extreme desperation, confronted by a visceral sense of mortality, that David most dreads the rejection of God. What more can be said about the shame of such rejection? As such, the psalmist insists:
Teach me your way, Lord;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
(Psalm 27:11-14, NIV)
Confronted by existential threats, the pressure to eschew obedience to God and act with brutality may seem justified, yet the psalmist begs for God to ‘lead [them] in a straight path.’ The psalmist prays for protection from the malicious intent of opposing forces, as well as vindication from falsehood. This necessarily emerges from an unshakable belief in a God of justice, one by whom those who pursue evil will not go unpunished. And it is out of the detritus of such a situation that the psalmist remains ‘confident’ that they will ‘see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living’, where God will persist as the author and guarantor of life.
If such a reading of the psalm that insists on justice against oppressors seems eager to cling to a vision of divine retribution shaped only by the wrath of God, it may be helpful to examine what the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians. Internal evidence indicates that the epistle was composed while Paul was in Roman custody, likely facing execution. Given the circumstances of its composition, the letter’s assertions are striking:
For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ
(Philippians 3:17-20, NIV)
It is through belief in the figure of Jesus that the way of aggression, petty anger, and destruction must come to an end, for the way of restitution for Christ was not one of retaliation and violence, but a sacrificial taking on of violence on Himself. Paul insists that we trust in the retribution of a just God amidst the profound injustice that exists through oppression, violence, and degradation on earth. Like David in Psalm 27, Paul emphasises the importance of waiting upon the clarity, presence, and return of the Lord.
Again, this is not wishful inaction nor passivity, not a call to look coldly upon the things of this world and rely on divine intervention. Rather, to wait upon Jesus is to trust in a deliverance of the soul that transcends what is material. In remembering that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’, Paul insists to the believers of Philippi that the ultimate allegiance of one’s conscience must be to God. Considering how wars being waged today degrade the value of an earthly citizenship, the promise of a citizenship in heaven provides a glimmer of relief. Paul calls for us to stand firm in prayer and obedience to Christ in a world of vicissitudes, to pursue mercy and justice in our communities, and to reflect the ultimate, eschatological shalom, the radical peace of God, that is promised through the Cross.
As we consider the many troubles faced around the world this Lent, as we cry out to God with our pleas and lamentations, let us remember that the living hope we have in Christ is sufficient to loosen the grip of bitterness. Even if we do not feel attended to by angels, nor feel hidden and safe in his sacred tent, a moment of prayer may provide, in the words of poet Derek Walcott, the pause ‘between fury and peace’. Let us consider the examples of Jesus, David, and Paul as we contend against the darkness that threatens our world and press into the hope that we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Jonathan Chan is an MA student in East Asian Studies at Yale. He will graduate in 2022.