The Kingdoms in Our Heads
by Anthony Chvala-Smith
Deserts abound in the journey of life. There’s no sense acting like we deserve a free pass, either. A famous desert saint, Antony of Egypt, said ‘Without temptation no one can be saved.’ He might as easily have said, without wilderness times no one can be saved. Why? In the privation of the desert we can glimpse the famished depths within. What we’re made of is hunger. “Everybody’s got a hungry heart”— Bruce Springsteen got it right, too.
Many people in Jesus’ time hungered for a new day. They wanted Roman occupiers gone; they wanted a messiah to come who was up for that task. This Son of David would be part Jewish freedom-fighter, part emperor. He would smash Israel’s enemies, give them what they deserved, and judge the unrighteous. Everything would be made right. The glory days would return, only on steroids.
It’s funny how the hungry heart can play with the mind. Unanalyzed hunger creates mirages. The images seem real and plausible. And the next thing you know, you’re trying to create what you want. People in Jesus’ homeland wanted a certain kind of kingdom. Interestingly, Jesus’ temptations play off these desires. Would he be what they imagined? Would he be the king they were starved for? So Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting. Fasting is a way to discern true hunger from the false –and it’s the false hunger we should fear. Would Jesus be what God wanted, or would he give in to his contemporaries’ images?
There’s no room to be smug. Who hasn’t been tempted by images that bubble in the unconscious places of our souls, just out of sight. We would be ashamed to voice them, if we could see them clearly. But because we don’t see them clearly, these imagined yearnings rule over us. In brief they are little kingdoms in our heads. These kingdoms in our heads are yoked to what ancient spiritual masters called the “appetites.” Do you want to see them? If yes, then, don’t feed them and see what happens!
When I finished my doctoral studies, I was ready to start my academic career. The long path of study had begun with a clear awareness of God’s call. With the degrees behind me, I was now ready to make a name for myself in the scholarly world.
“Make a name for myself.” Only later would I see how that desire had worked a spiritual coup d’état in me. During the years of graduate study, I had unwittingly turned God’s call into a plan for me. Hunger for success had formed a kingdom in my head. It seemed so reasonable: scholars make names for themselves. Why shouldn’t I? I yearned for the same recognition they all had.
But when I couldn’t find an academic job anywhere, Charmaine and I found ourselves stuck in a 3½ year desert excursion, off-script and off-track. Kicking and screaming, I protested that deserts were for other people. But this no-exit situation became a forced fast. Without it I could never have glimpsed false hunger and the kingdom I had formed in my head. That kingdom was impeding God’s call. It wasn’t what God wanted. My life, and Charmaine’s and my life together, could not be about ‘making a name for me.’ For it to be shed, this distorted desire needed to be named. Without wilderness times, no one can be saved. Thank God for deserts.
Lent has begun. What should we do? Jesus didn’t get a free pass on the desert. Luke says the Holy Spirit led him there. He didn’t resist the wilderness; he chose it. The liturgical calendar wisely gives us space to follow him on our own little 40–day trip to the spiritual hinterlands. For a short time we get to go without. Scarcity is a useful tool for smoking out the latest kingdom in our heads. Better, fasting from what we want is a means of grace that recalls us to the real kingdom: the Reign of God preached and embodied in Jesus Christ.
Let whoever is hungry come.
Paul E. Morden Seminary Chair of Religion
Assistant Prof. of Theology & Scripture
Community of Christ Seminary,
Independence, MO 64050