Adversity and Authenticity

Wandering through IKEA recently I came across a display. There, in a plexiglass box, was a living room chair accompanied by a robotic machine that was submitting the chair, over and over again, to the rigors of being sat upon. By the time I saw it, the machine had “sat down” in the chair more than 10,000 times. The point of the demonstration, of course, was to impress upon customers how well the chair was made, and to give an indication of how long it would last.

The IKEA chair display points to an important life principle: Adversity is a test of Authenticity.

In Luke chapter 4 we read of Jesus, recently baptized and anointed for ministry, being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is first tested by an extended period of solitude and fasting, and then tempted by the devil. When he emerges tried and tested, he is ready for public ministry.

This lesson from the Gospel is not merely a retelling of what happened to Jesus. In these events we see a pattern for our own experience with regard to almost any calling or commitment: first comes an Affirmation, followed by a test of Authenticity, and finally the process is completed by the exercise of Authority.

This being the First Sunday of Lent, our focus is on the second part of Jesus’ call to ministry, where he is led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days (biblical language for “an absurd amount of time, until the job is completed”).

The first thing we notice is that this isn’t a matter of happenstance in Jesus’ life.  He didn’t just lose his map and wander off into the wilderness. The scriptures make it clear that the Spirit compelled him to this action.

Does it seem a dreadful thing to you that God’s Spirit would purposefully send us into a place in life where our energies flag, where we are alone, where we are tempted, where we are surrounded by wild beasts….and then leave us there for a long time?

But you know as well as I do that this really does happen. Figuratively speaking it happens to all of us at some point in life. One day everything seems to be going along just fine and then suddenly and unexpectedly we end up in a barren place, a place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and frightening. How we wish we could escape! How we long to prove ourselves and have things go back to the way they were before! Will I ever make it out of this space, or must I endure it to the end?

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Adversity is a test of authenticity. Have you declared your love for someone? That will be tested. Have you signed a contract or made a commitment? Trying days are ahead for you. Have you pledged your services to the community? Be wary of rejection. Have you made a 10-year plan for the next phase of your life? Good luck with that.

It is not that those things are immature, wrong or delusional. They are all very good things to do. But the Spirit of God is interested in something far more fundamental than our goals and objectives; the Spirit is concerned that we become mature, well-rounded individuals. Our projects we leave behind; our souls are eternal.

To follow the Spirit into the wilderness means opening ourselves to life’s challenges; to those difficulties that will leave us either bitter or better. We choose. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a reminder that all of us, even the greatest among us, can expect to have the authenticity of our callings tested by adversity.

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