Why We Need the Wilderness


Why did Jesus spend so much time hiding in the wilderness?

That strikes me as a terrible strategy for influencing the largest number of people. He was completely cut off from the existing networks and leaders who could help amplify his message.

His talent pool of potential apostles was also frightfully low in the wilderness backwaters around Galilee. How in the world would he find speakers, managers, and teachers educated and sophisticated enough to carry his message to enough people? Wouldn’t they just wreck what he started?

All of that time in the wilderness also made Jesus really inefficient with his time. He was always withdrawing to pray for long stretches of time. Didn’t his life feel a bit out of balance, always praying alone or teaching a few disciples instead of communicating to larger crowds on a regular basis?

Every time Jesus returned to the centers of power and influence, the religious leaders met him with strong opposition and applied one test after another to determine whether he was an insider or an outsider. If he refused to play their games, he most assuredly had to be an outsider.

Why did Jesus choose the wilderness?

He prioritized prayer.

He preemptively identified himself as an outsider so that his message did not depend on the religious establishment to prop up his ministry. He let the message grow on its own.

Notice that Paul did something very similar. He withdrew to the wilderness for a period of time and then let his message rise and fall more on its own merit and inspiration from God rather than depending on the leaders of the early church.

The wilderness is where we begin and build the right kind of foundation so that we actually have something worthwhile to say.

I confess that I didn’t start out loving the wilderness. I still have my gripes about it today.

I’m finally appreciating the value of moving forward at my own pace (God’s pace?) as the Spirit leads. I don’t kick and scream quite as loudly when I need to go into the wilderness. I can see how a seeming step backwards into the wilderness is the only way I can move forward.

Most of us don’t need one more thing to do. We need more wilderness, more space, and more withdrawal.

I remember reading piles of Christian books throughout college and seminary, and I started to hate a particular phrase: “We must…”

We must engage this, we must consider another concept, we must remember, we must do another thing, and we must keep adding one… more… thing… to do. The more a book said “We must,” the more I resisted the impracticality of its message. It seemed like every Christian book I read was an unintentional recipe for spiritual burn out.

Americans are a people deeply invested in doing. We’re optimistic work-a-holics who have a reputation for taking a fraction of the vacation time that the rest of the world deems essential. As a culture, Americans aren’t very good at withdrawing from much of anything. When we burn out, we immediately blame ourselves for not being strong enough, not being resilient, not being organized, or not hiring someone to help us do more.

If we try to fix a problem, we tend to fix it by adding “something” else to the mix rather than subtracting. If you want to fix your diet, you focus on eating MORE of something else, such as meat (hello, Dr. Atkins). If you want to fix your crowded schedule, you get a cool new app or five cool new apps that all sync together. If you want to fix clutter, you buy better storage containers.

As a culture, we don’t have much of a grid for disconnecting. We don’t naturally value the wisdom of those who speak from a place of simplicity and less unless that simplicity comes with a product attached to it.

Venturing into the wilderness doesn’t look like STRONG LEADERSHIP(TM).  We fear that the vision, strategy, and key results are all going right down the toilet when we step away. Perhaps they will. Then again, if we keep pushing, keep adding, keep trying to bear it all, we will break down, wear out, and burn out. We need the strength to admit our weakness.

It’s an act of faith to withdraw. I’m trusting God to provide for us and to guide us when I step back and make the nearly impossible admission that I can’t do it all, that I don’t know where all of this heading, and perhaps exerting more control is the worst thing for me.

Most importantly, when I look around and wish I had more influence or could expand my work to new, greater heights, that’s most likely the exact moment I need the wilderness. Growth that’s lasting and meaningful comes from the wilderness.

The lure of “I want it now!” success doesn’t mix well with the wilderness.

The wilderness will kill our drive for quick success. That’s why we need the wilderness.

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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