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WHY DID JESUS GO INTO THE DESERT FOR 40 DAYS AND NIGHTS?

Time, as the adage goes, heals all wounds. The passage of time – one tick-tock after another in steady, constant procession – also has the capacity to change one’s focus. Sometimes the best approach to conflict is simply to wait it out, to wait for the anger and emotion to fizzle out, to sleep it off.

In nearly every case, things do look better in the morning.

The two aspirins and a good night’s sleep are in fact all you’ll need to feel better.

But what underlies these changes and apparent miracle healings is time and the things that move and change under the surface and behind the scenes where you don’t (and can’t) see them.

Forty days and nights is a sizeable chunk of time. Throughout scripture, we read time and time again of the 40 day and 40 night timeframe. The rains lasted 40 days and nights during the flood, Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain with God, learning the Law and the laws. As well as spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness prior to starting his ministry, Jesus ended his ministry with the same timeframe, appearing 40 days and nights to his disciples and followers after his resurrection and before his ascension.

But why 40? What is so special about 40 days and nights?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. What I do know is what can happen to a human body over a 40-day period. It can change without trying to change. It can survive without food without dying.

It can change without trying and survive without food. I read somewhere that the average time a human can survive without food is 42 days. Jesus, after 40 days without eating, would have been emaciated but still functional. But why do this to yourself? What would be the purpose of fasting nearly to the point of death?

The advantages of fasting are well-known. They include physical as well as mental/spiritual/emotional benefits. I would suggest that one of the main reasons Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights was to gain an extremity of those benefits, and that the reason he went into the desert to do the fast was to change without trying to change. He let the isolation factor of the wilderness and the passage of time change him rather than trying to change himself.

Isolation brings you face-to-face with yourself. It also – and more importantly – brings you face-to-face with God, like Moses on the mountain. Full disclosure here: I have never fasted for 40 days and nights in a wilderness setting, mainly because I haven’t been “driven” to do so, as scripture says Jesus was. So I don’t know what happened to Jesus’ sinless mindset during that time, but it obviously was to his benefit and to ours.

From a purely practical perspective, Jesus left the Martha work (his carpentry) and the cares of the world behind. When your days and nights are not filled with your own and other people’s expectations of what you should or should not be doing, a massive amount of time and spiritual space frees up. It’s like in spring, when you open the doors and windows again to let in the fresh cool air after months of trying to keep it out, only instead of just opening the doors and windows, you also take off the roof and knock down the walls. All you have left is the floor beneath your feet, so you can walk and sit and lie down. You could even dispense with the floor, if you wanted to, and just use the ground.

This is what Jesus did. He walked and sat and slept and on the ground for 40 days and nights – no walls, no windows, no roof, and not even a floor. He had no daily rounds or tasks or carpentry orders. He didn’t have to prepare meals, or eat them, or clean up afterwards. He didn’t have to do laundry or make his bed. He didn’t have to make small talk. He didn’t have to solve people’s problems for them. He didn’t have to listen to local gossip or stay caught up on the latest news. He didn’t have to care about the cares of the world. Simply by relocating himself to the wilderness in isolation, all of the cares fell away. They left him as much as he left them. It was a mutual parting.

From a spiritual perspective, I can only speculate how the isolation and the fasting and the passage of time interplayed with Jesus’ one-on-one with himself and with God. But I get excited thinking about it. It’s like Jesus the caterpillar carpenter entered the pupal stage and emerged after 40 days and nights as the most beautiful of all spiritual butterflies. And all he had to do was to do nothing but be with God.

We ourselves may or may not someday be driven into the wilderness like Jesus. It may or may not be for 40 days and nights; it may or may not involve fasting from food. Each of us is different and has a different relationship with God. Jesus is our example, but we’re not cut-out dolls of him. We are, each of us, unique before God.

What Jesus had to do was very specific to his role in the Kingdom, just as what we have to do is specific to our role in the Kingdom. We follow Jesus’ example, but we don’t mimic him. We don’t go 40 days and nights without food because he did. We don’t wear a crown of thorns and carry a cross around because he did. We are unique before God. What Jesus had to do was between him and God, just as what we have to do is between us and God.

Even so, the benefits of fasting for a prolonged period of time were clearly demonstrated by Jesus. By “fasting” I don’t just mean fasting from food. It could be fasting from anything that takes you away from your focus on God and from doing his will. Time has a way of changing us without our trying to change ourselves. If you remove yourself from the influence of the world and open yourself to God by throwing open your spiritual windows and doors and knocking down your spiritual walls and roof – something amazing happens.

That’s a guarantee.

And then, when time is up and the fast is over, you take that amazingness back to the world, like Jesus did. You shed the caterpillar fluff, like Jesus did, and you get your wings.


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