Battling Self-Doubt in the Wilderness


At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, He went into the wilderness to battle temptation. (Matthew 4:1-11)

‘Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. The tempter came to Him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

Then the devil left Him, and angels came and attended Him.’

These three temptations were not arbitrary. They were crucial personal battles of self-doubt Jesus had to fight and win before He was ready to step into His ministry. All three tests pivoted around the core question Jesus must have been struggling with: ‘If you are the Son of God...’ For the sake of brevity, let’s look at the most direct attack on his confidence – the third temptation, which was to gain ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ if he would bow down and worship Satan.

Rather than a test of Jesus’ trust in God, this was a test of His trust in Himself. If He believed Himself able, called, anointed, He had no need to lean on Satan’s supernatural help. If He were insecure, doubting, judging Himself anything less than the Saviour of the World, He might have given in to temptation.

Sometimes I think about the young Jesus, and wonder how much He knew and when He came to know it. I certainly don’t believe He was born omniscient. Was He the only human ever to be fully self-aware through His birth? Did He walk around with knowledge of the future, secretly daydreaming about space rockets and social media? Of course not.

I’m convinced that Jesus lived and grew as an ordinary human being. The first indication that He’d entered into revelation knowledge of His divine nature is found in Luke chapter 2, when His parents realised they’d left Him in Jerusalem, and after searching frantically, found Him in the temple courts:

After three days they found Him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding and His answers.

When His parents saw Him, they were astonished. His mother said to Him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” He asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Based on this, it is safe to assume that between the age of zero and twelve, Jesus had undergone a process of revelation, until one day He must have finally grasped that He was, in fact, the Great I Am. Jesus was as subject to vulnerability as any of us, and must have known self-doubt as that revelation unfolded. His knowledge was a matter of faith rather than verifiable fact, so there must have been times when He questioned His own sanity, or at least His sufficiency for the task.

And so, eighteen years later, when Satan promised to bring the world to His feet, Jesus was offered a guarantee of success where He might have felt uncertain. Hebrews makes it clear that Christ was tempted in every way that we are tempted, and in that moment, with His body malnourished and His mind stretched to breaking point, it would have been easy to judge Himself insufficient for what lay ahead.

In a tremendous show of faith, Jesus rejected Satan’s offering and sent him packing, at which point his preparation for ministry was complete. Any person with a calling from God must judge themselves able to fulfil it (in the power and strength of the One who called them), or they are guaranteed to fail.

Round Two in Gethsemane

If we skip to the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus face this same test again. At the most crucial moment of his ministry, as the pivotal moment of His messianic calling fell across him like a shadow, he had to face self-doubt a second time. Matt 26:36-39:

‘They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

In those dark hours, when Jesus was profoundly troubled, when flight was still a possibility, when his final choice to go to the cross had not yet been made, He sought His Father in prayer.

When perceiving the burden about to be laid upon Him, Jesus must surely have doubted His sufficiency for the task. Not just the endurance of physical pain, but becoming sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the heart of what happened at the cross – the great exchange of our righteousness (or more to the point, the lack of it) for his. What must it have been like for the Son of God (He who had no sin) to become sin? The ultimate anathema to his divine soul! What agony, when a being of pure Shalom became all that is broken and damaged about the human race; when God the Father judged sin and death, in Jesus’ body.

Just as in the wilderness, Jesus rose to the challenge. His choice was to trust God and trust Himself. The cross had been their plan before the creation of the world, and He went into it with his eyes open, trusting He would be raised from the dead, followed by the rest of the human race in their time. We who will rise to eternity in Christ are the joy set before Him. The salvation of the world is His great prize. Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

3/20/2023 8:54:06 PM
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  • Duncan Pile
    About Duncan Pile
    Duncan Pile is a writer, author and speaker, living in Derbyshire, England with his wife and stepson. His mystical approach to faith straddles the Evangelical/Progressive divide, and flowing from lived experience, he is passionate about the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Christian faith.