Lent 2011: The Wilderness Within

“The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story.  It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.” Fr. Thomas Keating

I agree with this statement. I don’t like it… but I know it is true.  And it makes me wonder if any of us are ready for the journey of transformation—really.  We long for more in our spiritual lives, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure we’re ready for the harrowing journey of death to the false self that any true spiritual journey entails.

We want God as long as we can still have our successes.  We like the idea of being on a journey of faith as long as it doesn’t require too much…well, faith. We long for the Promised Land as long as we don’t have to leave anything behind.  We want space for God as long as it doesn’t intrude too radically on our packed schedules and conflicting priorities. We want self-knowledge as long as it doesn’t cut too close to the ego bone. We want God’s will as long as it doesn’t make us look too foolish. We want love as long as it’s not too inconvenient. We’d like to buy the pearl of great price as long as we don’t have to sell everything we have. We’re willing to wax eloquent about the Paschal Mystery one weekend a year as long as we’re not the one doing the dying!

What are we to do with the fact that the true spiritual journey must and always will involve very real humiliations of the false self—we who believe that bigger is better and more is…well, more?  We who have learned to measure everything by numbers and new innovations, bigger buildings and “church growth plans,” slick marketing campaigns and taking everything “to scale”?  How do we—who don’t even know the difference between the true self and the false self and who have (in some cases) gotten  quite proficient at harnessing the things of God to our false-self programs—learn  to surrender to the humiliations of the false self so that something truer can emerge?

The Heart of the Lenten Journey

One of the most sobering truths about the human situation is that we can take even the most spiritual ideas, practices, and plans and place them in service of “the old man” or the false self. We are much better at taking surveys, gathering information, and making strategic plans than we are at dying to that which is false within us so that what is truest in us can live.  As Richard Rohr commented in a talk I heard recently, “Just because you’ve read a few good books doesn’t mean you’ve surrendered the ego and fallen in love with God.” [i]

Lent is a season when we face the wilderness within.  Just as Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness as a precursor to his earthly ministry, we too, must face the subtle temptations to the false self so that we can be “cleared out” for real ministry. Here we face our own demons and they are rarely what we think!  It is not just the temptation to drink pop or eat sweets or enjoy a glass of wine—as real as those temptations become after we have given them up for Lent!  In the emptiness created by whatever it is we are fasting from, we become more aware of the compulsions of the false self and it is pretty beastly stuff.

We experience the evil one’s proficiency at crafting very subtle and dangerous appeals to the instinctual patterns we rely on for safety and survival, significance and success, power and control. We see how far we have to go on the journey of learning to trust God and God alone in the wilderness of our most primal impulses and needs. We are appalled to learn that the false self can and will co-opt anything—including God and the things of God—to secure our own survival, to prove ourselves to others, and to appear successful by whatever standards the group we identify with measures such things.

A true Lenten journey demands that we look clear-eyed at our lives and wonder, Where am I tempted to put even the things of God in service of my instinctual responses to the human situation?  In what ways am I tempted to “turn these stones into bread” –using whatever gifts and powers God has given me in order to secure my own survival? Where am I putting God to the test—continually “throwing myself down” in a display of ministry heroics in order to prove something to myself and others—expecting God to come to my rescue time and time again? When, where and how am I tempted to worship “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” – i.e. the outward trappings of success—rather than seeking the inner authority that comes from worshipping God and serving him only?

With Jesus in the Wilderness

In my experience, the “series of humiliations” Keating refers to in the opening quote has a lot to do with becoming more and more aware of how omnipresent our false-self patterns are and how regularly we are caught in their grip. This can get pretty uncomfortable.  But the good news is that “every movement toward the humiliation of the false self, if we accept it, is a step toward interior freedom and inner resurrection.“ [ii] And just in case we don’t know what to do with the temptations we encounter in this inner wilderness, we can be assured that we are in the wilderness with Jesus, the one who knows how to deal with the wild beasts of our false-self stuff.

As we read in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was able to perceive exactly what each temptation was really about so he could deal with it at that level. He knew that Satan’s strategy for derailing what God is trying to do in our lives is to seduce us to apply false-self strategies to our very human impulses to survive and stay safe, to prove ourselves to others, to be seen as successful, powerful, and in control. Being able to discern what each temptation was really about enabled Jesus to decisively reject false-self solutions in favor of the spiritual opportunities to trust himself to God.  With each response, Jesus abandoned himself more profoundly to the reality of God’s providence and provision in the face of his most primal human needs and impulses—which is what the spiritual journey is really all about.

Such decisive response cleared the way for the angels to come and minister to him and it prepared him for ministry that had been purged of the false-self agenda.  “These three temptations are the primal and universal temptations that all humans must face before they dare to take on any kind of power—as Jesus is about to do.  They are all temptations to the misuse of power for purposes that are less than God’s purpose. Jesus passes all three tests and thus ‘the devil left him’ because he could not be used for lesser purposes.  If you face such demons in yourself, God can and will use you mightily.  Otherwise, you will, for sure, be used!” [iii]

[i] Richard Rohr, Spirituality in the New Millennium, October 3, 2009.
[ii] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition (New York:  Paulist Press, 1999), p. 38, 42.
[iii] Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Cincinnati, OH:  St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), p. 23-24.

Note: For more information on the false self — what it is, how it develops, how it affects our leadership and what we can do with it — see chapters 2-3 in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be used without permission. Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life.

Download a print-friendly version of this post (PDF).

Which one of the temptations are you aware of in your own life right now?

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The old practice of giving something up for Lent comes into play here. The tradition is one that calls the church to give up easy gratifications for deeper satisfaction with God. Rather than simply giving up something that you like (chocolate, tea, TV), considering naming an object or practice that regularly pushes you from the presence of God, or something that acts as a surrogate for the presence of God, and give that up. The old word for this is mortification, that is, giving up what our flesh desires so that an infinitely more real desire may take deeper root.

[…] Someone sent me this incredible essay on Lent weeks ago and I have been wrestling with it ever since. Please do yourself a favor and head over to Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center blog and read this: “The Wilderness Within.” […]

I will pray at 12-12: 30 CT

[…] For the full article, click here […]

I loved this reflection! Of course it is hitting the spot, but also extremely helpful. The statement “Jesus was able to perceive exactly what each temptation was really about so he could deal with it at that level” is a powerful insight. Thanks for taking the time to write and send this to us.

Wow, thank you Ruth for this wonderful reflection. Two truths are dominating my lent this season: 1) Death is painful, messy business, and 2) Suffering precedes glory.

In my attempt to open myself up to God through disciplines, it is so easy to forget these. It is so easy for the false self to lure me into the “glory of spiritual formation,” taking control of my development through the means of grace (look what I did!! Maybe I’ll be loved now!!). What a trap! My most formational moments are the ones where I am stripped of all my efforts, where all my “wisdom” lies in ruins, and all I can claim is sin. There I experience grace, there I experience resurrection.

Wow, Ruth your reflections really resonate! I love your quote from Thomas Keating. Cindy and I are in Assisi this week reflecting on how Francis lived this out. He surely didn’t appear successful in his obedience to Gods call on his life. the way up is down!

Indeed! Hey, the next time you guys go to Assisi, take me with you!


…as I sit here in the stillness (well, not quite, the wind is blowing…hard) of this Colorado night, I’ve read and reflected on what you have posted here

…thank you…these have been a sincere blessing to follow

…I, too, have welcomed in early morning reading from Rohr’s “Wondrous Encounters”

…this is all being used to keep me focused from the soul out in these changing days

…again…thank you!


So good to hear from you, Wes. Bless you…

[…] Lent 2011: The Wilderness Within. on March 29th, 2011 by Ruth Haley Barton in eReflections […]

It feels so true, and paradoxical, mind-bending, at the same time–that I am called into deeper love with God even as my false self (which is so dear to me)is called into recurring humiliations. Love and humiliation–I don’t usually put those two together–but I know it’s not the real God-created me who is being humiliated in this process. And I AM feeling more loved by God. Thank you, Ruth, for your words. –Gary

You are so right! …It is not the true self that experiences humiliation–only that which is false within us. It is good to remember during this season that we have nothing to lose on the spiritual journey except the false self which is not “real” anyway (it just feels real) and everything to gain–the true self which is hidden with Christ in God and which God is always calling forth. How wonderful that you are experiencing this truth so deeply.

Hard, but loving truth. Thank you for the “gift” of this reflection in this season.

You’re welcome, all. Thanks for being willing to swim in the deep end of the pool! Ruth

Thank you Ruth, always appreciate your good word!
Lesley Bruce Smith


I am always glad to see something from Transforming Center in my inbox. Your e-reflections pull me into deeper questions, self-examination and awareness. I am particularly thankful today for the questions you posed in the paragraph beginning “A true Lenten journey….” I know my reflection on these questions will be painful, but ultimately purifying, leaving more space for grace. Thanks for your deep living that calls us to our own.


Lorilyn Wiering

Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders

Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.