Friday, April 3, 2009

Try Me

Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.

                        Psalm 26.2-3 

The Ultimate Test

On the brink of Holy Week, we who’ve struggled with Lenten fasts may be tempted to think of it as the home stretch, the last few days of sacrifice to endure. We see the wilderness’s edge and can’t wait to cross it. But here is where our attention turns from Jesus’s elective desert trek of self-denial to His surrender to God’s will. Right about now, He starts to realize rejection, injustice, and brutality He’s anticipated all along are imminently unavoidable. Jesus fixes His thoughts and discipline on gathering strength and courage to withstand what awaits Him: feckless praise; disloyalty among His closest friends; political and religious maneuvers; unlawful arrest; a roundelay from court to court; public scorn and outcry for His execution; inhumane torture and mockery; sadistic murder; anonymous burial in a borrowed tomb; and, worst of all, repeated blows of feeling He’s misplaced trust in a Father Who doesn’t care and isn’t there.

Yes, Jesus knows 10 days from now He’ll rise in eternal triumph over sin and death. He’s even shared this knowledge with His disciples, telling them in Luke 9.22: “[I] must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Being God, He knows He will come through this final wilderness, as He did with the first one. He will overcome its physical and mental torments and climactic temptations to abandon His mission and save Himself. What the divine Jesus sees, however, surely terrifies the mortal One. Unlike the rest of us, who are blessed to enter trials unaware of their specifics and extremes, Jesus is cursed with vividly explicit foreknowledge of coming events. He’s facing the ultimate test, the moment He’ll prove all He asks us to do—returning love for hatred, acquitting false accusers, and laying down our lives—can humanly be done.

Out of Earshot

The first part of the week proceeds with business as usual. Jesus enters Jerusalem with tremendous ovation and teaches in the synagogue. Meanwhile, background conspiracies take shape. By Thursday’s Passover dinner, it’s obvious His fate is sealed. He takes the disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray, but after they settle on a spot, Jesus leaves them—“about a stone’s throw beyond them,” Luke 22.41 reports—to kneel out of earshot. He confesses reluctance to be tested, yet He releases His desires in submission to God’s will. The answer comes by way of an angel administering strength to Jesus. The test will be taken. In verse 44, Luke says, “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Sopping wet with anxiety, Jesus leaves His knees and rises to the occasion, fully reconciled to face the coming ordeal.

Trial by Request

What often gets lost in our admiration of Christ’s obedience to God’s plan is how it inherently redefines the abuses He subsequently suffers. Telling His Father to do with Him as He wills strips Jesus’s adversaries of their menace and authority; it turns their conspiracy into His trial by request. He asks God to try Him: “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42) Clearly, this isn’t easy, given His emotional and physical reaction. What’s more, Jesus’s decision to pray out of His disciples’ hearing suggests concern about how the conversation might go; as a human, like all of us, He possesses the right to refuse. Reaching a place He can deliberately ask to prove Himself, though, alters the test. It transforms His enemies from overpowering haters working their agenda into unknowing allies of God’s will, bit players in an epic drama they start but can’t control or comprehend.

Among the many lessons Lent’s voluntary self-denial teaches, perhaps its most important comes at this pivotal moment on the Mount. Lent is ultimately a trial by request. We mount a symbolic fast to grasp the power and assurance won by asking to be tested. “Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth,” David prays in Psalm 26. “Try me” puts trials in an entirely different perspective. People intent on our defeat become unwitting aides in our success. Weaknesses they hope to exploit are answered by strengths we prove. 

The thought of asking for tests makes us break out in cold sweats. But, like Jesus, if we pray this earnestly, we’ll rise to the occasion, strengthened for what’s coming and alert to what enduring trials truly means. Tests we request have nothing to do with those who give them. They examine what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the content of our character," the faith and values housed in our hearts and minds. When we enter trials with the mindset that, in and of themselves, they're answers to prayer, they always end with proof God’s love stays before us when we walk continually in His truth.

By submitting to God’s will, Jesus asks to be tested. This changes the terms and conditions of the test.

(Tomorrow: Revisiting Landmarks)

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