The Spiritual Wilderness
The Bible often depicts the experience of God’s presence or blessing with the imagery of water – streams, oases and rivers. So it makes sense that times of distress, doubt, and alienation from God are described with the imagery of desert, or wilderness. The wilderness is where the wild animals live. Where water is scarce. Where a traveller walks alone, in the heat and the cold, without shade or protection. It is a vulnerable place.
Today, I want to offer some reflections on the experience of the spiritual wilderness. In this desert, God feels far away, or has vanished altogether…faith feels doubtful or uncertain. The watery things that used to inspire and refresh us – worship, the bible, prayer - these have become dry, meaningless, yielding nothing but dust to our weariness. We feel alone, vulnerable, lost, and unprotected. And there is fear too…of the things that prowl on the edge of thought – maybe Christianity is all bullshit, maybe God has forgotten or abandoned me, maybe I’ve wasted my life, maybe I’m unlovable, maybe I’m unspiritual, maybe God is a cruel and fickle monster. Some of us have visited this desert in the past, and emerged from it. Some of us are there now. Probably, we will all go there, again, or for the first time, in the future.
The spiritual wilderness feels differently for different people – for some, the desert is a place of intense and devastating loss, for others, it is associated with feelings of blah, humdrum, listlessness. It can last for a few days, or for years. For some people, the experience of a spiritual desert leads to a permanent loss of faith. Christian faith and practice are put aside and never picked up again. For others, the wilderness forces a change of faith, re-framing and re-defining what Christianity means to them. Others emerge out the other side of the wilderness with their faith intact pretty much as it was before, but with a renewed sense of refreshing and energy. Still others stay in the church because of various commitments, but remain in some kind of low-grade wilderness for the rest of their lives. They come to believe that the possibility of a dynamic, deep and nourishing faith is either a false expectation or just not for them.
There are many kinds of wilderness, multiple reasons why we might end up in one. I want to spend some time exploring these for a bit, and then make some suggestions about living in and with the desert, and to ask what value the wilderness experience might contain.
The desert can often accompany the changing or questioning of our faith. For many people, dismantling previous beliefs and assumptions about God and Christianity is a process that leads to turmoil and pain, and to a sense that there’s nothing left, no thread of belief or hope. Associated with this desert is the one linked to our experience of church, and of other Christian people. The church is meant to be an expression of what God is like…and yet so often the picture of God that comes through our experience of Christian community is distorted to the point where abandoning church and abandoning God become one and the same. There’s the wilderness of boredom, of the rut, where nothing inspiring or challenging has crossed our path for many years, and our Christian vision has dimmed. Then there’s the deserts caused by stress, fatigue, and overwork. Often what we experience as a spiritual wilderness has a mixture of physical and psychological and spiritual factors thrown in, and sorting out these threads is part of moving through this desert. Sometimes, the physical situation creates the spiritual one. When we’re so busy that life feels like a treadmill, how can we engage with God? Illness and depression can lead to wilderness. When we are depressed or sick in some other way our connection to God often disappears…and often the feeling of abandonment by God compounds the intensity of the depression. Shock and loss can plunge us into a desert – sometimes after a delay. Often, after a trauma or bereavement, other people rally round, and a sense of God’s comfort is very near and immediate. Our own defences kick in to shield us from full extent of the hurt we have sustained. But as time goes by, we find ourselves living in the desert of ongoing grief. This desert can be filled with anger at God, or an inability to see how any of the claims made by the Christian faith about God’s love and care can be true.
There are many more reasons why we end up in the wilderness, and our way in – and our way out – are unique to our specific circumstances and personality. I’m certainly not going to attempt to prescribe any quick fixes for escaping the desert. But, I do have some broad ideas about life in the desert to offer.
One helpful thing to do is to name and accept the fact of being in the desert. If I am in a desert, that is where I am, and just to acknowledge this can be a huge relief, and can give a sense of peace in the midst of things. Rather than fighting the waves that threaten to drown us, or meekly sinking under them, acceptance is a strong action that says ‘I’m in water that I didn’t want or choose, but since I’m here I will roll with the waves, keep my head above water, and maybe there will be a wave that I can surf all the way to shore.’ Accepting that I’m in a desert also means accepting that this is where I might be for a fair amount of time – I don’t need to scurry around for the fastest exit. While I don’t think it’s a good idea to build a house in the wilderness, it can be helpful to have a tent. We need to move fully through our deserts, facing whatever we need to face. It can be helpful to try to identify what kind of desert you’re in…and if possible, why you’re there. That might give some handles to the kind of process that’s needed to move forward.
Another thing to know in the wilderness is that God is in the desert with us. God is not just on the other side of the desert waiting for us, or back where we first entered it. God is right there in the midst of it all. We may not be able to feel that, or to trust it. But we may at least be able to hold it as a possibility, as we journey. Also, we are not alone in terms of other people, either. While it is true that our experience is unique to us, there are others who have walked and are walking through a wilderness that is similar. Sharing some stories along the way can be sustaining and hope-giving.
A famous biblical story about the wilderness experience is in 1 Kings 19. The prophet Elijah has just engaged in some mighty acts of faith and pyrotechnics, which have put his life at risk, and he heads into the wilderness. Here’s what happens: Read Passage
I’d like to note a few things about this passage –
Straight after he makes his first complaint, Elijah goes straight to sleep. He’s exhausted from his battle with the false prophets, and from the fear and disappointment that now plague him. Being in the wilderness, even if it’s a primarily mental or emotional experience, can be physically tiring. Wielding emotional energy leaves us physically tired, as anyone who has been in counselling can attest. We need to be kind to ourselves, and allow for rest. Before any kind of conversation with Elijah, or spiritual renewal, God looks after Elijah’s physical needs – for food, and drink, and yet more sleep. It is possible to over-spiritualise our needs and our experience, and sometimes, our first priority should be to take care of our physical wellbeing, to give us the strength and resilience to face the inner journey ahead. A little exercise and good sleep and good food can go a long way in the desert. If the desert is combined with depression, I strongly recommend a visit to the doctor for medication, and to a counsellor to begin to work through the issues. These things won’t necessarily resolve the sense of alienation from God, or the disconnection from faith…but they can create the conditions for more helpful engagement with the spiritual issues.
Elijah travels further into the wilderness, 40 days and nights, to speak with God. I read these 40 days and nights as symbolic, linked to the 40 year wandering of Israel in the desert before entering the promised land, and implying a long, and spiritually purposeful time. There is a process of pilgrimage associated with the desert – there’s a journey we have to travel, and sometimes it is only at the depths, and after much wandering, that the encounter or the shift occurs that moves us out of the desert. A really valuable part of that pilgrimage can be to get away from normal life for a bit, out of town, or to a retreat centre or bach and take a retreat – even if for one day. Getting out of the normal rut of life can create a really helpful perspective…especially if the desert we’re in is one caused by stress and busyness.
Elijah tells his story – his hurt, angry, fearful and self-pitying story- to God, and he tells it twice. We could interpret that as a textual blip…to do with the editing process as the biblical text was formed. But as it stands, it suggests something that rings true to me…that sometimes we need to keep telling our story over and over, until a shift happens. God is robust enough to hear our anger and our disappointment as often and as forcefully as we need to say it. I think it’s also a really good idea to find another person, or a small group, to tell about what’s going on. Someone who can listen non-judgementally, without trying to ‘fix things’, but who can pray, and check in from time to time, about how things are going.
Elijah also discovers that God is not in the fire or the earthquake or the rushing wind, but in the silence. God is not just in the major stuff, or the events that are often considered significant, but also in the small moments, the quiet moments, when grace comes to us. That means that in the desert, it’s important to create these moments where we can be still, even if we have no expectation of God’s presence, and can’t or don’t want to pray. The stillness can allow some things just to settle for a bit, and enable us to pay attention to what’s happening in our lives.
These are the things I take from the biblical passage. I also have a few other notes to add on. Firstly, it can be really helpful to learn some strategies for praying without words, or in someone else’s words. Often in the desert, words are problematic – we say something and then don’t know if we really believe it, or our words seem thin and stupid compared with our experience. Or the very idea of prayer is impossible, because God has vanished. Prayer can include just sitting still, breathing…maybe imagining breathing in peace, and breathing out the anxiety or hurt. Prayer can be sitting listening to music. It can include reading prayers written by other people, rather than having to speak in our own words.
Secondly, I think it can be important to take note of the oases – when and where are the tiny glimpses of God and grace and hope? Recording these to look over in the dark times can be helpful.
And thirdly, if church services are a difficult, painful, or just plain boring place to be during the wilderness – take a break and don’t come for a while. However, maybe see if it’s possible to replace the church service with some activity that does connect you to God…or that nourishes your spirit in some way…a walk in the bush, or meditation, or some creative expression.
And before we move on, a caution. It’s probably not a good idea to make too many significant life decisions while in the desert. The desert can be a real perception distorter, and can make other areas of life that are actually okay seem worse than they are. Having said that, for some people one of the ways out of the desert might be to make a major life shift. Certainly having a robust decision making process and wise counsel is important rather than taking drastic and unconsidered action.
One of the most irritating things to hear when really struggling in a desert is that not only will this time pass, but that there might even be some value or positive consequence of the desert time. But, I am going to take a moment now to reflect on where the value might lie in the wilderness.
In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is a story of Jesus being led, or driven into the wilderness at the start of his ministry. There he fasts, and is hungry. There are wild animals. He is tempted and tested by the devil. And finally, after a 40 day ordeal (note that number again) the angels come and wait on him, and filled with the Spirit, he continues into his ministry. In each of the gospels, this episode comes immediately after his baptism, where the voice from the heavens has declared ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ – an experience of blessing followed straight after by time in the desert.
I take from this story that both experiences are important to the journey of Christ and his followers – times of connection, empowerment, and recognition, as well as times of tiredness, temptation, and difficulty. Jesus re-enters the world having overcome his demons, his fears and temptations, having wrestled with uncertainty, pain and doubt. He is ready for his ministry. Readier now, than if he’d gone straight from his baptism into his encounters with ordinary people while floating on a holy cloud.
In the famous text on the spiritual wilderness: the Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross, we read that ‘souls begin to enter into this dark night when God draws them out from being beginners.’
The process of faith formation, of transition through to maturity in Christ, is a process that inevitably contains darkness, doubt and desert wanderings. It can be confusing, and unhappy. But at some stage, on the other side of the desert, there is the possibility of a deeper, richer faith.
There are some ways that this renewed faith can be fostered, even while still in the desert. It can be valuable to engage in some theological study, or some deliberate spiritual reading – to re-frame theological belief, and offer some new language to express the content of the Christian faith, and to thrash out the burning issues. It is helpful to learn some new forms of spiritual practice – such as meditation or contemplative prayer, using music, images and symbols in prayer, or journaling, or engaging with God through physical activities. Some people might find it important to engage in a new kind of ministry or contribution to the world – looking for a form of service or outworking of faith that could lead to deeper engagement with God through practical action. It can help to join with others in exploring these things, a small group, or a soul friend, or a spiritual director.
Spiritual maturity doesn’t need to be about being inert, or cynical. For many of us at Cityside, ideas of ‘spiritual ecstasy’ or ‘abundant living’ or being ‘on fire for the Lord’ are associated with a former kind of Christian expression – one characterised by a narrow certainty of belief, zeal, and what seem now to be naïve or manipulated experiences of God. And yet, I would hate for us to set our expectations of life in God too low. A tendency to talk ourselves and others down from enthusiasm is a kind of desert in itself. I still hold to the possibility that Christian faith can be a deeply transforming, enabling and experiential thing. I don’t think that only the more ‘black and white’ stages of faith should have a monopoly on joy and passion. It is hard to know how to be a ‘practising faithful doubter’, and to maintain that it is possible to have a profoundly energetic and rewarding connection to God. But moving beyond the wilderness is partly about being willing to take up a new wardrobe to replace the discarded clothes of our former beliefs or ways of worshipping or talking about God. That new wardrobe can embrace all kinds of wonderful colours and textures, including some of the previous garments, after perhaps a bit of alteration. It is a sad poverty to stay naked because our new clothes remind us of something we used to wear.
Isaiah 45.3 says ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.’ The desert is indeed a dark and lonely place. But if we can move through it, and stay with it, and eventually emerge from it, there is a hope that we will emerge with treasure, with jewels – of insight, of strength, of depth, of wisdom – hard won, and precious to us and to God.
So, finally, a blessing, and a prayer, for those in the desert, or those who are watching someone they love shuffle painfully through the wilderness.
The Holy Three encircle you
The Saving Three release you
The Eternal Three keep you
May the loving Three caress you and work in you,
In your loved one,
In your dark,
In your day,
In your pain,
In your seeing,
In your blindness,
In your journey,
In your busyness,