Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The online dictionary at answers.com defines "wilderness" as "an unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition," especially when barren or empty or covered with dense vegetation; or as "something characterized by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion." Although the word is not without positive connotations in our ecosystem-conscious era--North America even maintains official "wilderness areas" where no development or motorized vehicles are permitted--many people still equate physical emptiness with bewilderment, peril, and other unpleasant I-am-not-in-control-here feelings.

Small wonder that before quick contact with and transportation back to "civilization" was an option, the majority of humanity regarded "wilderness" as an enemy to be either avoided completely or "tamed" out of existence. Answers.com notes that the word itself was probably derived from the Old English for "wild beast"--it's not hard to conclude that our ancestors considered the wilderness unfit for any other sort of inhabitant. Even today, few people would seriously consider living in any "wilderness" long-term.

Among the exceptions were many Biblical characters. Some were "exiled" to the desert under God's discipline; the Israelites of Moses's time are the classic example. In Numbers 14, having just completed their first long walk through the wilderness and on the verge of receiving the best God had promised them, they balked because it looked too hard to lay hold of. Worse, they effectively called God a liar by implying He had no intention of delivering on His promises. As punishment, God sentenced them to spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness they were afraid to step out of.

The majority of Biblical wilderness experiences, though, had more positive outcomes. Moses and David both grew more attuned to God's voice through years of shepherding in the wilds. Elijah received a fresh dose of encouragement and a new vision of God after a forty-day walk through the desert (1 Kings 19). And who can forget the forty days, commemorated in the Christian practice of Lent, that Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing spiritually for His ministry?

Probably few believers today are called to spend six weeks or more in open country with absolutely no human contact. (Probably even among Biblical believers, relatively few were actually called to such sojourns--there are no records of long solitary "wilderness experiences" in the lives of Abraham, Samuel, Jeremiah, or Peter, to name just a few Scriptural "greats.") But the real lesson is that the solitude humans often dread--isolation not only from other people, but from everyday conveniences and distractions--can be one of God's best tools in our spiritual growth. Anyone serious about spiritual disciplines knows the necessity of occasionally, albeit temporarily, giving up something we normally take for granted--from a day's worth of meals to an hour of television to some of our church activities--so we can give God our undivided attention and come to further understand that He is sufficient for all our true needs. In this sense, even a single afternoon of fasting and prayer is a "wilderness" of sorts.

As Michael Card's song "In the Wilderness" puts it, God's all-sufficient grace is the "painful purpose"--and "painful promise"--"of the wilderness."

Out from the city bustle, busy and rushed all day--
Out from the workday's hustle, and out from the world of play--
Out from life's ease and comfort--out from the world of wealth--
God calls His children to step out and nourish their spiritual health.

Out to the desert places, where little lives or grows,
Free from most human faces, and where little water flows,
God calls His children to Him: "Come to the wilds and see
New things that I wish to show you; and find your refreshment in Me."

Free from the world's distractions, free from life's wealth and ease,
Free from all squabbling factions, we find in our God new peace.
Here, as we wait in patience, He fills the heart and soul,
Shows us His grace all-sufficient, and brings our minds under control.

Fear not to wait in hunger; He is our Living Bread.
Waste not a thought to wonder about the rough path you tread.
Look on your Master only; worship and wait in awe,
And He then will grant you the vision the saints of the wilderness saw!

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