The Wilderness of the Little Years

How Satan Tempts Tired Parents

The little years of parenting are a wonderful and sometimes unbearable wilderness.

Nighttime can be a series of uncivil wars — getting children fed and bathed (and sometimes re-bathed), then getting them into the right bed, at the right time, with the right bedtime story or song (only after finding that beloved stuffie), then keeping them in that bed until they fall asleep (and repeating all of the above when one wakes up at 1:00 or 2:00 or 3:00), and then frantically getting as much sleep as you can before the artillery and bloodshed begin again. What’s one of the first questions any of us thinks to ask a parent of babies or toddlers? How are you sleeping? Answers range from “Pretty well” to “What is sleep again?” The nights can be the hardest.

“Jesus can fully sympathize with weakness, with exhaustion, with spiritual warfare.”

And once they’re awake, a new series of predictable but unstoppable ambushes begins. While you’re feeding the baby his breakfast, the two-year-old decides to moisturize her face and arms and clothes with yogurt. While you’re still removing dairy from her hair, your four-year-old loudly announces he’s finished going potty and needs help. While you’re wiping another behind, your two-year-old now decides to remove all the clothes from her dresser. And while you’re refolding a dozen 2Ts, the baby starts screaming because he’s hungry. The days can be the hardest.

The wilderness — primitive, untamed, filled with life, fiercely beautiful — is a fitting picture for these little years with children.

Jesus Braved the Wilderness

As my wife and I wander through these years, I have taken some serious comfort from knowing that Jesus is acquainted with desolate places. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Our Savior didn’t save us from a safe and heavenly distance, but stepped into the darkest, scariest corners of our fallen world and faced temptation head-on. He fully sympathizes with weakness, with exhaustion, with spiritual warfare.

While he was in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan. Unlike Adam and Moses and David and me, Jesus never bit. You can imagine the devil growing increasingly disturbed, desperate, enraged. All the lies that had so easily felled millions before — giants and kings, mothers and soldiers, rich and poor, young and old, prostitutes and Pharisees — now fell flat and soft, like blazing arrows in an ocean.

By the time we’re brought into the skirmish, the forty days have ended, and the devil reaches back for three last frantic shots. He held these three for just this moment, when Jesus was his weakest. And while Jesus was not a father or mother, tired and stressed parents will recognize these lies all too well.

Lie 1: ‘You don’t have what you need.’

When Satan feels his forty-day war with Jesus coming to an end and his feeble chances of victory slipping away, where does he strike? Where do his malicious eyes see vulnerability?

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:2–3)

Where does the devil take aim first? At the stomach. And why wouldn’t he, since it’s worked from the beginning? “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). You don’t have to be hungry anymore, he whispers. I can give you what you really need. I will give you more than God will. You trusted him, and look where that’s gotten you.

Don’t parents hear the same whispers? We may not face physical hunger (although moms are known to go without meals). But parenting young children will consistently demand more than you think you have to give — physically, yes, but also emotionally and spiritually. You will sometimes lie down at night sincerely convinced you won’t have enough for another day. Parenting can make tomorrow feel like both an inevitability and an impossibility. You might begin to wish you could turn some stones into bread (or at least some dirty clothes into clean laundry).

We know Adam and Eve caved and took the bite, but how did Jesus respond? What did his moments of intense hunger sound like? He answered Satan, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Notice, he doesn’t say, “I don’t need bread.” He was every bit as human as any stay-at-home mom. But he knew he needed something more than he needed the next meal. He knew his physical and emotional needs were mere shadows of what he needed and had in God.

So, let your needs in the wilderness of parenting — for food, for sleep, for adult conversation, for getting other things done around the house — remind you that you need one thing more than you need anything else. And if you have that — fellowship with an almighty, all-satisfying God in his word — he can sustain you for another long day with kids.

Lie 2: ‘God won’t come through for you.’

When he couldn’t get him to reach for the cupboard, the devil applied vicious pressure to the promises holding Jesus up in the wilderness.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:5–6)

What’s the sinister whisper beneath this temptation? Sure, God got you through this, but you haven’t been in any real danger. Think about tomorrow. Deep down, you know he won’t come through for you then. It’s wickedly cunning, and on two levels. First, he belittles what God has done thus far (he just sustained Jesus alone in the wilderness for forty days without food). Second, he concocts imaginary circumstances to arouse unwarranted suspicion (“But what if you threw yourself off of the temple?”).

“Parenting can make tomorrow feel like both an inevitability and an impossibility.”

Even though it failed on Jesus, the devil fabricates the same illusions in our wilderness. He throws shadows over the stunning examples of God’s mercy and care for us, and then turns spotlights onto every conceivable fear about the future. He knows how to make the next 24 hours feel larger and heavier than years, or even decades, of God’s persistent faithfulness. And he knows parents of young children are more vulnerable than most, because the days are so long and unyielding.

As he stands on the temple and looks down, what makes Jesus feel as secure as ever? How does he beat back the siren songs of doubt? He says to Satan, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7). Notice, Jesus doesn’t reach for a promise this time, but for a command. Promises aren’t our only weapons against temptation. Because he loves us and because he knows how Satan attacks, our heavenly Father also gives us warnings to heed and rules to follow. Jesus knew how Israel had tested God in their wilderness, with grumbling and disobedience (Exodus 17:7), and he knew how that test ended. He wasn’t going to befriend doubt. Even under intense pressure and pain, he trusted God’s good laws.

What commands might help keep you through the wilderness of parenting? “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Can you, like Jesus, recite them when you need them?

Lie 3: ‘All of this can be yours.’

When Jesus wouldn’t bite on the first two lies, Satan tried to prey on a different kind of hunger.

The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8–9)

If he couldn’t lure Jesus away through the pain of need, then he would bait his hook with worldly pleasure. He would hold out what so many fallen people crave: power, authority, glory. He appeals to a pervasive human longing to be seen, admired, and followed. Hearing him talk, it’s hard not to think of social media as a massive, global version of this insidious temptation. They will all look to you. All the eyes will be yours.

He whispers something similar to parents (and perhaps especially to mothers in our day). Look how much you’re giving up. Think about the opportunities waiting out there. No one even notices all you do. All good parents forfeit something of what Satan was offering that day. We invest an extraordinary amount of time, attention, and money, during our strongest and most energetic years, to change diapers and make snacks, to practice letters and reread simple books, to play catch and wipe tears. And Satan knows how to make all of that seem so, so, so small (and just about anything else seem so, so, so great).

So, how does Jesus see through the deception? He responds, “Be gone, Satan!” — we need that kind of aggression for the everyday spiritual battles of parenting — “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10). He reaches for another command, and (as with all of God’s commands) there’s a compelling reality wrapped inside. Jesus (even Jesus!) refused to seize glory, not only because the law said not to, but because he knew that the law was a script for his greatest possible joy.

God’s commands aren’t arbitrary or irrelevant to our hungers. One by one, they pave a pathway to the feast. The most satisfying lives are firmly anchored in and pointed at the glory of God. To focus on self, as a Savior or a parent, would be to forfeit everything. Jesus warns us later, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25–26). Whoever loses his life for my sake — Christian parenting often feels like that kind of sacrifice, and it should. That is, if we want to find and experience life.

Whether you’re in a wilderness now or see one coming in the distance, arm yourself against temptation. Commit the words you need to memory, so that you can hear them even when you don’t have the strength or quiet to read them. Get as close as you can to the Son who has gone before you, and prevailed for you, and now walks with you. And then trust him for what you and your kids need tomorrow.