Right after I signed up for a half-ironman triathlon (1.2 miles swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run), I panicked. I knew I could do the bike ride, but was uncertain whether I could complete a swim and run of these lengths, let alone on the same day. Up to this point, swimming to me was an exercise in not drowning, and running was an invitation to limp for days afterwards from IT strain (iliotibial, not information technology, which gives an entirely different sort of pain).
With the lofty goal of the half-ironman before me, I combed the internet in search of the magic bullet that would help me triple my endurance in events I had not mastered. Guess what? According to trusty internet sources, you can BUY the stuff you need for triathlon success! I found discussions on triathlon equipment I’ve never heard of before, custom workouts, and super foods guaranteed to make me fitter. What’s with kale anyway?
Jesus also had a lofty goal (albeit more noble). Instead of a triathlon, he set his sights on establishing an eternal kingdom. As he began his work, Matthew 4 describes Jesus facing three temptations. Jesus is asked to make bread from rocks, jump off the top of the temple causing angels to catch Him, and trade his soul to own the kingdoms of the world. While much can be said about these temptations, each one presents Jesus with a shortcut to establishing his kingdom. Who wouldn’t follow a leader who gives out free food forever? Who could deny the legitimacy of one whom commands angels? Why not take the kingdoms now instead of dying on a cross?
The heart of temptation is to take a shortcut to make life easier. It is much easier to cheat than to play fairly, to be angry than to forgive, or to meet my wants instead of someone else’s needs. As temptation stares me in the face, it awakes my selfish desire to save time, avoid discomfort, and promote my desires as paramount. Jesus is offered three shortcuts to establishing his kingdom more quickly and less painfully than the original plan. He is asked whether the end could be obtained through any means.
My relentless scouring of websites yielded two truths about triathlons. First, there are no shortcuts. If you want to finish, you need to take the time to train. If I wanted to get better at swimming, I had to swim. Ditto for the running. Equipment and super foods may help (assuming they are legal), but they are no substitute for plain hard work. Second, the sport is about the journey and not the event. The event is merely a celebration of the countless hours I spend in the pool, on the bike, and in running shoes. But, the journey offers me the joy of training and satisfaction of becoming something I never thought I’d be — a triathlete.
I think Jesus understood that the journey is as important as the goal. He had a path and a plan that would offer redemption for all. Even though God’s path would involve betrayal, pain, and self sacrifice, He understood the true benefits of the process in accomplishing the goal. So, Jesus puts the temptations in their place. The end does not justify the means. I think if Jesus signed up for an Ironman triathlon, He’d avoid the shortcuts and enjoy the journey of training. But of course, He’d win, because he can walk on water.