In the Bible, the wilderness means barrenness, solitude, deprivation, danger. We aren’t talking about a recreational hike. This is a trek through the desolate void.
Even though the wilderness seems like a place to be avoided at all cost, so many of the pivotal characters in the Bible ended up there. Moses? Totally wandered through the wilderness. Joseph? Yep, tossed into a pit in the wilderness sans his coat of many colors. Jesus? Check.
If we look at the wilderness as a metaphor for an emotional landscape, even heroes of faith get overtaken by loneliness, fear and desperation. But Moses, Joseph, Jesus… they all emerged from the wilderness. The wilderness wasn’t the final destination. But it was a part of the terrain—an essential part of their journey.
Sometimes, we can get really pulled into the idea that we should never suffer. We attempt to curry favor with God, hoping that God’s good graces will provide an exemption to the universal suffering clause. But how could we experience the vast beauty in life without being subject to suffering? It’s part of the package.
I caused the most suffering in my own life by trying to avoid suffering. I couldn’t stand in my wilderness moments, my moments of isolation and pain, so I numbed them with alcohol. I couldn’t bear to look at the destruction I was causing in my own life, so I used alcohol to blur the jagged edges. I couldn’t hold my ground under the staggering anxiety my drinking perpetuated, so I drank more to escape it. And in my wilderness, I lost track of God. I couldn’t feel His presence at all. I felt alone, abandoned and worthless. I wanted to die rather than live in the destruction, the desolation, the land barren of love, meaning, or hope.
But, God doesn’t play favorites. What He does for a giant of faith like Moses, He will also do for me. And while I didn’t get to stand on a mountain and look over into a land flowing with milk & honey… turns out I didn’t need milk or honey right then anyway. What I needed was hope. And in the darkest moment, God sent me one single, solitary ray of hope. And I followed that ray slowly, sometimes haltingly, back into the light.
God never left me alone. My experience, my choices, my suffering made God feel absent. But He was there all along. I am grateful that I didn’t give up in the midst of my wilderness, that I didn’t lay down and die. Because hope led me to recovery, to love, and to peace. And now I know, despite the wilderness, God remains my constant companion.
ETA: I encountered the wilderness concept (and some good Bible-teaching stuff) in The Rev. Danny Bennett’s sermon at 11 Magnolia (Hyde Park UMC) this past Sunday.