Last week I took the train from Philadelphia to New York to see Last Days in the Desert, a new film written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Garcia focuses on Jesus' journey out of the desert toward Jerusalem, adding in an extrabiblical account of Jesus' encounter with a Bedouin family. This marks the final preparation for his upcoming ministry. The entire film is cast in monochromatic desert hues—creating a feeling of scarcity and isolation. There is no reprieve from the desert's harsh conditions or monotony. When I left the theater I was thirsty.
I don't always think of Jesus having needs like hunger or thirst. But seeing him portrayed like this brought Jesus' humanity to life. His skin was dirty, dark from the sun and chapped by the wind. The lines on his face were magnified. His lips cracked. As the movie progressed, I realized these were only physical symptoms of Jesus' internal struggle, which was just as intense as the desert's harsh elements.
As I sat in the theater—immersed in scenes from the desert—I began to think about Jesus' temptation in relation to his humanity. Why was this stage necessary in Jesus' life—as a person fully human and fully divine?
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus' time in the wilderness was a time of fasting and undergoing a series of tests from the Devil. The Devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, throw himself off the highest point of the temple so God's angels will save him, and to worship the Devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the earth (Matthew 4:1-11). Each temptation hooks into Jesus' human needs—hunger, protection, securing his future. These tests tempt Jesus to rely on himself rather than God. Feed yourself! See if God's promises hold true! Go after your own kingdoms! Follow your own devices! Choose your own course!
Jesus resists the Devil time and again, finally saying, "Go away, Satan! The scripture says, 'Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!'" Each time we see Jesus choosing allegiance to God rather than giving into the Devil's manipulative snares.
In this film, the Devil accompanies Jesus out of the desert, planting seeds of doubt and distrust at every opportunity. Interestingly, Ewan McGregor plays both characters. Blessings and curses come out of the same mouth.
This directorial choice intrigued me. How could Jesus and the Devil resemble one another? It reminded me of what psychologist Carl Jung calls "the Shadow." He suggested that many character traits are easy to see in others but difficult to see in ourselves—like pride, greed, or laziness. We normally don't like these parts of ourselves and even deny their existence! But Jung argues—drawing, perhaps unconsciously, on Scripture's teaching about confession—the only way forward is to recognize all of our characteristics. Draw them out of the shadows. Learn to see our impulses, desires, and behaviors. When we recognize even our negative attributes, they will have less power over us. "There's my impatience again," we can say, and hopefully choose a different course.
Perhaps the Devil's cleverest ploy is keeping things hidden in the shadows of our lives—unresolved, obscuring the intimacy we were made for. Rather than receiving God's truth, we are trapped in lies. After all, Scripture tells us Satan is full of disguises (2 Corinthians 11:14).
"Talking to your Father is like talking to a rock; everything matters more to him than you," the Devil chides in Last Days in the Desert. In Hebrew the word "Satan" (used interchangeably with "the Devil" in the New Testament) means accuser. Satan accuses God's people (see Job 1–2) and works against Christ's followers (Mark 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:18). From this perspective, the Devil can use temptation to pull us away from God. Driving a wedge between us and divine love. Foiling our God-given purpose. Enticing us to serve a lesser master. As we know from experience, the lies of temptation hook into our subconscious, twisting the truth. Like the Devil in Rodrigo Garcia's interpretation—who mirrored Jesus—we can become our own worst enemy. Soon enough the Devil can stop talking because the voice spouting lies becomes our own. We feed ourselves lines like, "I am not good enough," "I am too weak," "I am not loved." We accuse ourselves and prove our own unworthiness!
I began to feel the burden of temptation—not just as something that results in a sinful behavior, but as something that takes a psychological and spiritual toll. The temptation to listen to lies; to give into the tiresome voice that tries to seduce us away from God. But Jesus' testing in the desert reminded me that he also endured this part of being human. Jesus took on the entire human experience—having not only a physical body but also a mind with thoughts and unwanted impulses.
We often give into these temptations, but Jesus stayed the course. Even to death on the cross. He didn't give in to the final test, "Now come down from the cross and save yourself!" (Mark 15:30)—echoing with the Devil's taunts in the desert. How was he able to do this? Because the real preparation for Jesus' ministry happened before the desert, when Jesus heard God's voice speak clearly at his baptism, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17 ESV). When he encountered the Devil's trials, Jesus' identity was secure. He knew the love of his Father. I believe this is what let Jesus respond to the Devil in this film, "No, my Father loves me."
What else does the Bible say about withstanding trials and temptation?
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