Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June our writers will explore the way that God, grace, and the gospel show up in pop culture. This piece originally appeared on Sojourners and has been updated.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Hebrews 5:8-9
One of my favorite moments in Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert occurs early on in the film. A tired, hungry Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor), nearing the end of his 40-day fast in the wilderness finds himself caught in a windstorm. A leaf keeps blowing playfully, catching him in his hair. In this most human and relatable moments, Jesus becomes annoyed and screams at God.
I’ve definitely been there.
Last Days in the Desert, which opened last month, imagines what some of that fast would have been like and explores the riddle of Jesus’ humanity and sonship. Relationship between fathers and sons is woven throughout and is played out through an extended encounter father and son in conflict, who are living in the desert with their dying wife/mother. The father wants his son to help him build a house and live in the desert with him. The boy wants to live in the city and pursue his own dreams. This conflict mirrors the one between the Father and Son — after all, Jesus is God incarnate for the ultimate purpose of suffering.
Enter Jesus with his own father’s wishes for him, which will eventually lead to his death and Satan, who takes the form of Jesus in his constant temptation. The central argument in all of Satan’s temptation is a classic one: that God is not good and God’s intentions are not “ good, perfect, or pleasing.”
I’ve definitely been there too.
The Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote this about God:
“That God is love means that he will do everything to help you love him, that is to change you into his likeness. He knows well how infinitely painful this change is for you, and so is willing to suffer with you. He suffers more in love than you, suffers all the heartache of being misunderstood — but he is not changed.” ( The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, emphasis added)
Before I came back to my faith, the idea of God changing me into God’s likeness was offensive. It felt like a repudiation of my basic self. How could it be true that God could love me unconditionally, but still want to change me? As I came to realize my own flaws and shortcomings, my very inability to love God or others as I should, I could see how much I misunderstood. This most Perfect People-Lover would of course want to help me love better. Changing self-centered people into others-centered people is not just in my best interest, or even God’s, but the world’s.
Even so, as a Christ-follower for the past nine years, being changed into God’s likeness is not without suffering. It has often been a challenge to reconcile belief and trust in God’s character as good, faithful, loving, compassionate, in circumstances in which God seems the opposite.
I’ve often felt like Jesus in the desert, wandering in a wilderness, constantly harassed and tempted. Where is God? While God is playfully trying to get my attention with a windstorm, I’m annoyed because doesn’t God GET IT? I don’t want to play. I want answers. I want some food. I don’t want this suffering or the inevitable death (to self) at the end of all of this. I mean even some of the densest people are not this insensitive or cold-hearted in the face of suffering. And you call yourself my father? This is a riddle.
It was helpful to see this dynamic play out in Last Days in the Desert. Satan’s biggest argument is based on his understanding of God’s character. To him, God is self-centered because though he is omnipotent and omnipresent, God delights in the smallness and repetitiveness of life — daily sunrises and sunsets. Instead of moving toward progress or some sort of conclusion, God is content to delight in constant iterations of leaves, windstorms, even people. Jesus himself is part of this riddle: God becoming small and limited through embodiment. As with all temptation, there is some truth in it. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts. God chooses inefficiency by renewing this world through flawed vessels. And God delights to interact with us through a repetitive, daily relationship. This is a riddle.
All of this is asserted with the authority of one who knows.
But Satan doesn’t really know. Because God desires a relationship with us, the Divine does move toward a conclusion — on the cross, in Jesus, God’s work is finished. It’s not the kind of progress that most of us would want, but it’s the kind of progress that shatters our misunderstanding of God. There is God, in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting our sins against us. This reconciliation — the suffering and work of which is done entirely by God — is so that we’ll be one with God.
It takes Jesus’ presence in their lives to mediate the conflict between father and son (as it always does). Jesus points out to the father that his son loves riddles. In a powerful and poignant scene, the father attempts to bond with his son by telling a riddle of his own. The son refuses to play along. It is like the windstorm — the father’s attempt to be playful with his son, not only misunderstood, but rejected.
The riddle of the cross was that while it wrought death and suffering, it also brought life and hope. While the cross ripped apart Father and Son, it is also what allows us to be called God’s children.