You will end up in the wilderness more than once in your life. And when you do, I hope you find comfort in knowing that the wilderness is the place where God speaks. In my own wilderness journey recently, God has been replacing Approval and Admiration with Compassion and Intimacy. I’m finding them to be much better guides for me in the second half of my life.
The wilderness is a womb in which mercy can grow, if you let it. And when it grows, you can offer it to those who are overcome with shame and regret.
In the wilderness, you’re given the opportunity to be sustained by the God who will go all the way with you, no matter how hungry you get. No matter how weak, how frail, or how lost. It’s the place where you learn you’re not all that impressive, and you don’t need to be. It’s the place where you learn the ordinary you is enough. The wilderness offers you a chance to be restored by God, if you will stay there long enough.
A few words about what it feels like to be in the wilderness:
Your normal way of life doesn’t work anymore.
One of my favorite wilderness stories is found in Numbers 11, in which the children of Israel were sick of manna (a kind of bread that God provided for them in the wilderness every morning). They wanted meat. They fondly remembered the fish they used to eat in Egypt (when they were slaves), along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. When you’re in the wilderness, it’s easy to think that Egypt wasn’t really all that bad. So they complained to Moses, and Moses went to God and lost it.
Why have you treated your servant so badly? . . . Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them . . . to the land that you promised . . . ?” . . . I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once. Numbers 11:11-12,14-15
Moses had been leading the children of Israel for about a year, and it had been hard. But he got to a place where he just couldn’t do it anymore. The wilderness is where you are when nothing seems to be working and you’re not sure how to fix it.
Your dig-deep button seems to be broken.
You’ve tried to white-knuckle it. You’ve tried to prove that you’re bigger than your vices. You’re exhausted and hungry. You’re lonely and you feel as though you’re never going to feel any different, ever. You’re probably moving slow, and you need lots more sleep. You wonder why you can’t do as much as you used to. You’re cranky.
Have you ever stared at a kitchen sink full of dishes and felt as though you just couldn’t possibly face them? As if there were no amount of money in the world that would motivate you to wash them? The wilderness is the place where you’re invited to walk away from the dig-deep button and find a more sustainable way of living.
Something deep and true about you is being brought to the surface.
In Deuteronomy 8:2-3, the children of Israel are reminded what happened to them during those forty long years of wandering in the wilderness:
Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. (The Message)
A test from God is not to reveal how defective you are; it’s to reveal what’s already inside of you, and even what’s lacking, so God can provide it for you. The children of Israel got hungry, so they cried out to God to feed them. And God gave them manna. And when they faced the existential loss of identity while wandering for forty years, God refreshed them and helped them live “by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”
At the end of the day, what we need in the wilderness is a deep sense of connection with God, a word that will help us face the temptation to make something happen on our own, or help us leave our actual lives and our calling, or help us be spectacular.
When you finally leave the wilderness, you will not be the same person who entered it, as long as you let it do what it needs to do: starve the false self and nourish the true self. There are things that need to change in me; they just won’t be changed by feeling bad about myself or trying really hard to fix them. That isn’t how wholeness works. The journey of wholeness is not a self-improvement project. It’s a journey of loss, trust, transformation, and eventually hope.
When you’ve done your work in the wilderness, it’s time to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. It’s time to cross over into Canaan, the Promised Land.
But you have to see it to enter it.
May you hear the compassionate voice of God calling to you as you suffer in the wilderness. May you smell the fragrance of freedom as you leave behind the narrow place. And may you see the horizon of the Promised Land coming slowly into view.
From Whole by Steve Wiens
Look around, and you’ll notice: The world is covered with jagged edges. People and places are broken all around us.
We were made for better than this: We were made to be whole, and wholly human, to tend a world that is wholly humane. We were made in the image of God. This book is a quest to recover that image in ourselves and our neighbors, to help us all become human and humane again.
For Christians who lament the brokenness in themselves, their neighbors, and the world around them, Whole offers a rallying cry to pursue wholeness together.