by Sarah Carson—
It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I am Googling, “What does it mean that Jesus was led into the Spirit by the wilderness?”
I take a sip of coffee and hit the “back” button on my browser.
“What does it mean that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit?” I type.
I hit “enter” and am served 15,000,000 results. There are Sunday school lessons and calls to donate to international charities. I am told there are books I can buy and webinars I can register for. More than a few websites promise that everything I’ve been taught thus far has been wrong.
I conducted this research on October 19, 2021, which, it turns out, was International Information Overload Awareness Day. That’s right. While I was using the internet to look for information, I was presented with information about how I am regularly presented with too much information.
Of course, you didn’t need me to tell you that we live in a time of too much information. Everyone knows this. Everybody knows everything all the time now. We are connected to one another more than ever before in
history. We can access information about just about anything whenever we decide we want to. Yet studies suggest the quantity of connections does not match the quality.
Not only does high internet use correlate with feelings of separation rather than connection (a Cigna survey reports that 7 out of 10 heavy social media users report feelings of loneliness), but much of what we see online may not even be human. New York magazine reported in 2018 that half of all internet traffic was “bots”—automated software programmed to imitate internet activity.
If you, like me, find joy in learning new information, this can be exhausting. Most of us who use the internet know that without doing due diligence, at the very least we risk being misinformed—if not downright lied to. But the rate at which we are presented not-always-true news can be overwhelming.
The other day, for instance, I wanted to know more about recyclable options for packing my daughter’s school lunches. Someone must have invented something beyond zip-lock bags and Tupperware, I thought. Yet a Google search only served me blog after blog with photos after photos of healthier, cuter, more colorful lunches than I will ever have time to prepare. Then ads— for bento boxes and meal-planning newsletters—began following me around.
“I know I should just keep Googling,” I texted a friend, “but do you have any recommendations?”
She did. Recyclable and compostable options.
Then she added: “There are some things Google is not good for. We’ve been learning from one another for thousands of years! Google is an interloper!”
I felt her exclamation points in my bones.
I am not innocent here. I spend most of my waking hours contributing to our information over-saturation—I publish magazine articles, keep up a website, schedule emails. In fact, it’s why I’m awake at 4:30 a.m. As a working, single mother, early morning is my only time to think and write and reflect before I rouse my daughter for preschool. It’s also a lonely hour to have questions.
Perhaps this is why I want to know more about why Jesus wandered into the wilderness. As I stare into the face of my computer for hours on end, the wilderness seems inviting. I want a way out of this unending cycle, somewhere I can go not only for quiet but for real connection—a connection not to bots and algorithms, but to creation and awe.
I send a Facebook message to theologian Anna Madsen, thinking she might also be an early bird, but either she is not, or she has the good sense not to spend her early morning hours on Facebook. While I wait for her, I turn again to Google.
From my search results I learn that in the Bible the “wilderness” is often a place where divine experiences happen—think of Elijah and “the still, small voice” or Moses and the burning bush.
But these wilderness awakenings don’t just happen in the Bible. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is moved by the human suffering around him to wander, fast and meditate—ultimately achieving enlightenment while meditating alone beneath a Bodhi tree.
In several Native American traditions, young men were encouraged to undertake “vision quests” that often involved fasting at a sacred site in nature.
And in popular culture, stories abound of travelers finding enlightenment in the wilderness—for example, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, both of which were made into films.
Google “spiritual awakenings in the wilderness,” and you will be inundated with options for enlightenment: “Unlock your true potential” in Sedona, Arizona, or find a “refuge for your essential self ” in Oman.
The word “wilderness” in the Gospels comes from a Greek word, eremos, meaning “solitary, lonely, isolated, uninhabited.” Perhaps the urge to set out into our own personal wildernesses is not so much about place, but about a state of being—of getting away from that which distracts us—even if the thing distracting us is the thing promising to help us find our “essential self.”
If the wilderness is the place where spiritual seekers have gone for quiet and clarity, then what is my wilderness? Is there somewhere I can go too?
WHO OR WHAT IS YOUR GOD?
“The question being posed to Jesus, essentially, was who or what was Jesus’ god?” Anna Madsen finally answers. She is an early bird, it turns out, but she also values her own eremos time alone in the mornings.
When she responds, she is quick to point out that the key to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness is that it immediately follows his baptism. “Baptism gives us freedom—not least of all, freedom to be who we are called to be,” she says.
Jesus chooses his baptism. In the Gospel accounts, it is Jesus who approaches John the Baptist at the River Jordan. As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism, baptism means that “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned” and that a new person “should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness.”
As Jesus arises “to live before God in righteousness,” he declares his allegiance. He vows that his loyalty will not be to any of the thousands of other things that could keep his attention—but to God. Then, Luke 4:2 reports, “for
forty days [Jesus] was tempted by the devil.”
“Keep in mind that the ancient notion of Satan is very different from ours, which is linked to a guy in a cape with a pitchfork,” Anna says. “Instead, the Jewish notion of Satan—at least pre-Babylonian captivity— was more that of a (get this) building inspector. Think Job. The issue there was whether or not the creature whom God built stood up to the standards God said he did.”
Jesus is out in the wilderness having his standards tested. Anything could happen out there, yet he is willing to go, to follow where he is led, to trust that he has chosen rightly and that seeking righteousness will lead him where he needs to be.
And then, of course, he comes back.
“He always came back from the wilderness,” Anna reminds me. The point, she says, is not getting away and escaping. The point is to live up to the commitment we’ve made with our lives.
WHO DO WE SAY WE ARE?
In Matthew 22:34-40, we read: When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
More than 2,000 years later, the church commemorates Jesus’ journey each year during the 40 days of Lent. Some of us fast. Some of us spend a little more time than usual in prayer and contemplation. But do we allow ourselves to be tested? Are we willing to venture into the eremos having chosen a side in the eternal struggle between God’s way and ours?
If the temptation of Jesus was a way in which Jesus proved who he said he was, then what is it that we are proving each Lent? Who do we say we are, when we call ourselves Christians? Just as Jesus’ baptismal calling was unique to the circumstances of his place and time, our own lives may each call for a different way of living out what we say we believe. At the heart of it are the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This year for Lent, I want more than Google has to offer. I want to choose the way of eremos and walk out into the wilderness with my heart open. Maybe in reality we don’t get to choose the way we are tested. But as a starting point, I’ve made a list—40 ways I want to let myself be challenged to love God and to love that which God has created.
I’m thinking of it as a Lenten checklist—one I can keep on my refrigerator to remind myself to be who I say I am. You are welcome to use my list as your starting point—though perhaps the real challenge will be to create
Sarah Carson is managing editor of Gather.