Testing and Temptation in the Wilderness

I have always wondered how Dietrich Bonhoeffer was able to go to his death in the Nazi prison camp offering words of hope and assurance. When the Gestapo came to get him—everyone knew it meant one thing–death. And Bonhoeffer took a friend aside and said:

This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.(Dietrich Bonhoeffer) (xxii-xxiii Letters and Papers from Prison: Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Bonhoeffer was so centered in Christ that he would pray calmly during bombing attacks on the prisons, while others around him were screaming in fright. Even the guards came to him for spiritual comfort and prayer. How does a person come to this kind of maturity and depth of faith?

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer outlines the elements of a “rule of life” for faithful Christians. He encourages us both to read the entire breadth and length of Scripture together in community, and also to meditate deeply on particular passages in our time alone with God each day:

In our mediation we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life…We expose ourselves to the specific word until it addresses us personally. (Life Together, 82).

I believe it is these “holy habits” that structured Bonhoeffer’s life in prison when everything else in his life had been stripped away. These habits of the heart allowed the Holy Spirit to work in and through him in a powerful way in his time of testing and temptation. I am particularly struck by Bonhoeffer’s practice of reading the Bible both for the broad sweep of the story; and deeply, dwelling on particular passages until they reshape the habits of our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The Bishop’s Bible challenge this year is to read the Bible chronologically—reading the whole narrative of God’s story with us and all of creation. This year I am dwelling in the Gospels, beginning with Matthew and using The Renovare/ Spiritual Formation Bible as my guide. Today, I reflected on Jesus’ 40 days of testing and temptation in the wilderness. The Renovare’ commentary notes that Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with testing and temptation:

By definition God tests (intending to strengthen the believer’s moral character) and the devil tempts (intending to destroy that selfsame character). Paradoxically, the same set of circumstances can be taken either as a test or a temptation depending on the response. Jesus responds as a believer….by relying on Scripture. (Renovare’ 16)

Even Jesus relied on Scripture to help keep him connected to God the Father! I had an epiphany. Dwelling in Scripture daily is a core way God equips us for the trials and tribulations that life (and the devil) bring.

How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer respond to Nazi Germany with such inspiring courage? Because he read the Bible daily. How did he have the guts to return to Germany when friends had secured him a safe place in New York to ride out the war? By dwelling in God’s Word daily and obeying what he heard God calling him to do. Shortly after arriving in New York, Bonhoeffer read this text:

Depart from me, you evil ones, so that I may obey my God’s commands. (Psalm 119:105)

After much prayer and reflection, Bonhoeffer made his decision: he would return immediately to Germany. He could not ride out the war in safety while his people suffered. His sponsors—who had worked so hard to find him a safe haven–were bewildered. Their human logic told them that Bonhoeffer should stay in New York: but Bonhoeffer heard a different Word through Scripture.

We are in our own season of testing and temptation in the United Methodist Church (UMC). The indifference and skepticism of our neighbors about Jesus and the church can be deeply disheartening…unless we dwell in Scripture and see that many did not believe even Jesus himself. We can succumb to dis-ease and anxiety about the future of our beloved UMC…unless we dwell in Scripture and see how many times God brought about great reversals and revivals for his people.

After Bi-District Training Day, I was surprised to get a hand-written note from Mike Slaughter, our keynote speaker. He was impressed at the turnout of both laity and clergy, saying:

It was great being with the folks from your District. I see some real vitality.

In this time of testing and temptation, I can think of no better companions than the laity and clergy of this District. I can think of no better guide than God’s presence through the Word. In my own wilderness journey, I am finding daily Bible reading to be a source of hope in difficult times: a way of “standing on the promises of God” (as the hymn proclaims). Matthew’s Gospel ends with this promise of Jesus:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

That’s a promise I am counting on. Amen.