For all the serenity found in the Bible when it comes to enjoying creation, the scriptures also include an understanding of the wilderness as representing a place of discomfort, danger and fear. Life brings all of us wilderness experiences. It may be being forced out of a job, or betrayal by a friend or family member, or when a divorce is finalized, or when the doctor says, “I am sorry to tell you this, but….”
The dark night of the soul can bring loneliness, self-doubt, questioning and despair. How do we survive in a spiritual wilderness?
First, remember where you have come from.
Genesis tells us the story of Adam and Eve violating their intimate relationship with God through disobedience. In shame they run away from God into the wilderness: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (3:8, NRSV).
We all attempt at times to run away from God. Remember that God created us in order to be in a life-giving relationship with us. When the wilderness closes in, we too often forget that reality.
Second, hold on to faith.
Exodus is a major theme of the Old Testament. The people of God were rescued from slavery and led to the promised land. But the journey from Egypt to Canaan included an extended experience in the wilderness. The wilderness can threaten our spiritual equilibrium as well as our mental and physical health. Everything seems out of control. We lose our bearings and our focus.
Listen to this wilderness complaint: “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?… For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:11-12, NRSV). When we are lost in the wilderness there can be an overwhelming desire to give up. The Hebrew people begged to go back to slavery in order to be freed from the wilderness. It seemed better to die a slave then live a life of faith in the wilderness.
Wrestling with deep questions and real threats, we too cry out to God in our wilderness experience. But hold on to faith and dare to love God even when it seems God has let go of you. Frederick Buechner explains, “To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.”
Third, remember that God is up to something.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he would be tempted and tested more severely than you or I ever will. Wilderness experiences remind us of our helplessness and ultimate dependence on God. God is still at work, even in our darkest wilderness. You and I can claim that assurance today and every day.