Where is God?” was the refrain posed by a sister who ministers in Port- au-Prince as she recounted to a group of religious leaders stories of immense suffering and death following the earthquake in Haiti. Was God in the earthquake? Did God send it to test our faith? How can we recognize the voice of a loving God in such times of desolation?
Today’s Gospel shows Jesus during a similar time of struggle. He is returning from the Jordan, where he has just been baptized by John and had a powerful experience of knowing the certainty of God’s delight in him as beloved Son. He has also sensed the Spirit making a home in him. The contrast between this idyllic scene at the river and his bleak struggle in the desert is stark. Doubts come flooding over Jesus: Was that experience in the Jordan to be trusted? Is he truly loved by God? If God is so loving, then why do people go hungry? Why does the all-powerful one let the rulers of the world grab power and glory for themselves instead of looking out for the good of their people? Why doesn’t God save beloved ones from disaster? At stake in this struggle is both the question of who is God and who is Jesus as beloved Son of God. “If you are the Son of God...” taunts the tempter. And so it is with us, too, when great trials shake our self-understanding and cause us to question our reliance on God.
The readings today do not provide reasoned arguments in answer to these deep questions, but they do show us a way to engage the struggles as we are invited more deeply into the mystery of suffering, dying and rising as God’s cherished ones. The reading from Deuteronomy reminds us of the long history of God’s saving deeds and asks us to declare these, to remind us that our faith in times of trouble is not baseless.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus relying on the Word of God to guide and strengthen him. He engages in a kind of Bible battle with the devil, a sobering reminder that anyone can quote Scripture to their own purposes. Jesus shows that daily immersing ourselves in Scripture enables us to recognize the authentic voice of God and reject the traitorous lead of the tempter. Jesus unmasks the false allure of believing in a God who would prove divine love by acting like an indulgent parent, giving in to our every desire. He exposes the untruth of believing in a God whose power is displayed in ostentatious empires or in manipulating the laws of nature. His replies to the devil reveal that God does not send misfortune to test us, nor does God respond to “tests” that we construct in order to prove God’s loving nature. God is not a sadistic puppeteer, who dallies with us to see whether we will keep steady in our faith. God is continually drawing us ever more deeply into the mystery of the divine love, most especially in times of greatest adversity.
Lent provides us an opportunity to embrace anew such struggles as Jesus faced. Like him, we claim the power of the Spirit that has been given us in baptism and daily immerse ourselves in the word, which, as Paul reminds us, is ever near, in our mouth and in our heart. Clarity in hearing that word comes when we go apart to deserted spaces and when we fast so as to sharpen our hunger for God and for acting in solidarity with God’s starving people. Such practices prepare us to find God in the faces of those who suffer and to be ready for the final struggle, where like Jesus we readily pray, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46; Ps 31:6).