Jesus and the Temptation to Be Relevant

We are made to believe that we are what we produce. But our accomplishments are not the basis for our identity as Christians.

BY: Henri Nouwen

 

The first temptation with which the devil accosted Jesus was that of turning stones into loaves of bread. This is the temptation to be relevant, to do something that is needed and can be appreciated by people—to make productivity the basis of our ministry.

How often have we heard these words: “What is the value of talking about God to hungry people? What is the use of proclaiming the Good News to people who lack food, shelter, or clothing? What is needed are people who can offer real help and support. Doctors can heal, lawyers can defend, bankers can finance, social workers can restructure. But what can you do? What do you have to offer?”

This is the tempter speaking!

This temptation touches us at the center of our identity. In a variety of ways we are made to believe that we are what we produce. This leads to a preoccupation with products, visible results, tangible goods, and progress.

The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call. We make ourselves believe that we are called to be productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government. But this is giving in to the temptation to be relevant and respectable in the eyes of the world.

When Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread, he said to the tempter, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus did not deny the importance of bread but rather relativized it in comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says to his people, “Yahweh made you feel hungry and fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to make you understand that people do not live on bread alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Bread is given to us by God so that we will entrust ourselves completely to God’s word. Accomplishments, efficiency, and productivity are gifts that can be given to those whose hearts are fixed on the Lord first. What this says is not that relevant behavior needs to be despised, but that it should not be the basis for our identity as Christians.

‘We are not the bread we offer, but people who are fed by the Word of God and thereby find true selfhood. The radical challenge is to let God and the divine Word shape and reshape us as human beings, to feast each day on this Word and thus grow into free and fearless people. Thus we can continue to witness to God’s presence in this world, even when there are few or no visible results.

To be a Christian who is willing to travel with Christ on his downward road requires being willing to detach oneself constantly from any need to be relevant, and to trust ever more deeply the Word of God. Thus, we do not resist the temptation to be relevant by doing irrelevant things, but by clinging to the Word of God who is the source of all relevancy.

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