The topic of going through the wilderness is one that is close to my heart and often on my thoughts. For much of my life I didn’t know there was a “wilderness” aspect to the Christian life, even as for much of my life I have dwelt in the wilderness (indeed, I think I might be able to say most, or almost all). It wasn’t until I was in college that I was able to better put a term and concept behind the experience of God’s seeming distance couple with particularly frustrating events battering one’s life. It wasn’t from a pastor or a leader I learned better. It was from a book, several books in fact, including John Wesley, the Early Church Fathers, Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson.While my pastor in my church heard me discussing my struggles with faith and life, responding with the comment that it must be unresolved sin in my life (in other words I wasn’t living right), these authors showed me how much pain and struggle and disappointment are part of the story of living life with God in this present world. A story that is told throughout most of the Bible.
This latter bit is interesting because while I had read the Bible a great deal in my life, I never quite read it with the right lens. The churches I had grown up in had provided me with one kind of lens, the kind that emphasizes only specific verses and doctrines and ideas about God that they thought sounded good in terms of getting people to evangelize. In the Bible, however, I realized I was reading about Joseph in prison, and Moses in the desert, and David in the caves. Jesus on the cross comes later, and then Peter and Paul are in prison, James is beheaded. The struggles in the wilderness that happen between here and there are taught all through the texts of Scripture, even if we just want to jump to the good bits. The key, of course, is there are good bits. There’s hope in the struggle and even if there isn’t always an explanation for the pain, there is comfort and participation with God in the midst of it. God is with. God is for us. God is going to win. The wilderness is not all there is, there is also the Promised Land, the place we struggle towards in the midst of the shadows, and valleys and thorns.
In talking to so many people over the years, I realized so many had heard that partial counsel from their spiritual leaders like I had. They were in a wilderness and they struggled not only with the realities of it but also with judgment and dismissal because of what they were experiencing. They felt condemned, set aside by God, with the evidence being the struggles in their life. I wrote and talked with a lot of these people, helping them see that God was with them, not against them.
Indeed, I encountered so many of these people that I decided to write a book on the topic, a follow up to my book on the Holy Spirit, using the same group of people and the same basic setting to tell a theological story of a Christian community trying to come to terms with lives in the wilderness.
It was accepted to be published by the same publisher, Barclay Press, in September of 2008. It is still not yet published, and I have no idea when it will be.
That’s a curious thing, really. Because the frustration of not hearing news or reports or updates for so long might get to people. It certainly has buffeted me on occasion over the last 2.5 years. So, my book about the wilderness life with God has become part of my own story about the wilderness life with God, calling me to find patience in frustration, hope in the silence, peace in the waiting, focus in the confusion. It’s hard to write something about these themes, then have it come back and insist you learn your own lessons again and again. Truth be told, it likely has been good for my soul, a continued lesson in letting go and holding all things loosely. Such lessons I’m much better at than in years past, but lessons that I still have to just about daily be reminded about, so that I keep my focus where it needs to be.
I’m not sure someone really ever gets to the point they are comfortable with wilderness. I don’t even get the sense that Jesus was. He felt his lack and his struggle. The key is that even with the lack and the struggle he kept focused on what was more important, and through that was able to overcome the temptations that confronted even him. These same temptations confront me still, so I too have to learn to walk like Jesus did, not because I’m experiencing the answers in the moment, but because I have faith that what I am experiencing has more meaning, and has a significantly better end than I see right now. I also learn what Jesus taught, how much more I am called to be a certain person in light of his life than do certain things in certain ways. God is calling me to be his, not to show off how much I know or what I can do. And sometimes he makes sure that we learn this lesson before we’re able to do anything at all.
The title of my book, by the way, comes from Psalm 13:
1 How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Here’s a little excerpt from that forthcoming (at some point) book I wrote , How Long? The Trek Through the Wilderness:
“It’s interesting,” Nate says, “that we get to this central moment in the Bible—the giving of the law—right after all the grumbling and everything. I tend to separate these two parts—the narrative and the law. But it’s all two sides of the same thing, isn’t it? Field work and class work.”
“I think that’s exactly true,” Rachel replies, “It’s all the same.”
“I keep wanting to free people from Egypt—free myself from Egypt. I’m good at the freeing part. I’m good at talking to Pharaoh and telling people the name of God.”
“We want to keep doing what we’re good at doing. Especially if it was hard to learn how to do those things in the first place. You spent a lot of time, a lot of your soul, getting this place moving along. Now, you’re faced with all of us at this new place. Of course, it sounds nice to go back to what you know.”
“What’s funny is that isn’t easy. It’s not like moving on is simple or no work.”
“It might even be more real work.”
“Only it’s work you’re comfortable with. It makes you feel secure and knowledgeable. You know who you are doing that stuff, and you know you can do it. It doesn’t take any real risk.”
“It’s risking everything all over again to start over.”
“Risking outward stuff, Nate. Not risking your self-identity. We want to dance around each other—in a frenzy, not a ballet—as we all stumble over each other trying to make ourselves feel
valuable and important. Always going somewhere else. Drinking the milk. Like that passage in Hebrews.”
In fact, though by this time you ought to be
teachers, you need someone to teach you the
elementary truths of God’s word all over again.
You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who
lives on milk, being still an infant, is not
acquainted with the teaching about
righteousness. (Hebrews 5:12-13)
“Some want to keep drinking the milk,” Rachel continues. “Others want to keep handing out the milk. Everyone is happy. But no one grows. We all stay at the same level of relationship with God. But God doesn’t want that, Nate. He doesn’t want that from me. He doesn’t want that with Melissa. And just because you went to seminary, led ministries, and started a church, he doesn’t want that from you either. He’s wanting you to go deeper and farther.”
“Maybe. Seems like it to me. If you want to know my opinion, yes, by staying. Only by staying, I think, will you actually learn more—go past the stage that you’re being challenged in. You have to learn about God. Learn his ways. Learn his depths. But instead, you could get totally distracted by all kinds of church-planting busyness and new relationships. But the thing is you’ll come around again. What happens when you reach this dryness at the new place? Another leaving, another planting? You never grow, even as you keep so busy. God doesn’t want us to go and do, Nate. He wants us. That’s this whole story. He wants us. He wants us to know him, to live with him. He wants us to stop and listen. He wants us to trust him, especially when there’s no reason to. Because by doing that, we let go all our attempts to manage and we begin to live free. It’s in this wilderness that we can really live free. There’s nothing constraining. There’s nothing constraining you now. You’re putting all the when milk is not enough weight on yourself. Only God is just holding out his hand and trying to teach you, teach all of us, who he is.”
“Funny thing. All this time, all these months, I’ve never seen how Melissa and I are learning the same lessons. It’s so opposite on the surface, isn’t it? But, it’s the same.” He pauses, and leans forward in his chair. “Shoot. You’re right, Rachel. I need to keep thinking on this. Thanks for screwing up the process.”
“Sorry,” she says, with a smile.
“It’s interesting how quickly we can see what is right in front of us with just a few words. What happens next if we’re not willing to wait with God or wade deeper with him? This is kind of scary.”
“If we don’t believe and don’t trust, we lose sight of him and fall into despair.”
“He has done all these miracles. He has given food and water, at the moment of desperation. He’s shown that he shows up. God gives the law here.” Nate reaches over and picks upRachel’s Bible, opens it and starts turning pages. “Chapter 19, they get to Mt. Sinai. Chapter 20 we have the Ten Commandments, chapter 21, 22, 23.” He starts turning the pages a few at a time. “All the way to chapter 31. We have God saying this is how it’s going to be. Lays out how to live, what to do. He tells all about himself in the process, like you said. What’s in chapter
“Tell me,” Rachel says.
“In all those chapters leading up to it, God is teaching. Al lthe time in the wilderness so far, God is teaching. Like you said, this really is all about field and class work; God is demanding everyone step up. Chapter 32—this is the scary part, because I’ve seen this in my own life. Chapter 32, the Israelites are tired of waiting. They are tired of waiting for God to clarify. They’re tired of waiting to see the results of their freedom. They are tired of waiting for Moses. They’re tired of God. So they give all their gold to Aaron and he makes a golden calf. Do you get that?”
“I’m thinking you’re seeing something more than I’m seeing,” Rachel says.
“What happens when we’re tired of waiting for God? When we don’t want to grow up? Maybe some of us go like Melissa. Lose the faith. Others of us take what we have, what we know, and we start making up our own structure, our own worship, our own god. That’s what so many Christians do, what so many churches do, Rachel. That’s the downfall. We don’t get the lesson, we don’t want to wait or listen or trust. So we make our own gods—gods of gold or whatever—and we parade around telling everyone that’s the god of Israel, that’s the god of Jesus. Only we’ve totally missed it all and are absolute idiots. Religious and well-meaning, but idiots.”
“Which is dangerous because if people don’t know better they think it really is God.”
“So everyone loses, and we’re stuck in this immaturity, only we don’t know any better. We feed more and more into it, unless we get shoved out by God himself, who loops us around through all of these lessons until we get it. Until we really do believe and trust, not in any old version of God, but in who God really is and what he really wants. I knew that. I mean, I’ve taught that. Only I didn’t see that here. Didn’t see this with all my frustrations. Now I feel like a bit of an idiot.”
“Join the club,” Rachel laughs. “At least you noticed.”
“At least I noticed. Though, I think I’m going to drink some bitter water for a bit.”