Why We Need the Wilderness

wildnerness-pray

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

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Believing God Exists Isn’t Enough for Prayer

God-merciful

I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether or not God exists that I overlooked a more important question. If I believe that God exists, do I believe in a God that I would approach in prayer?

Another way to ask that would be: If I believe in God, do I believe in a loving, merciful God who wants nothing more than for me to pray? Or do I let my imagination create images of an angry, violent, and petty God who is waiting for me to finally mess up enough to justify banishing me from his presence forever?

That latter image haunted my prayers for years. Whenever I struggled to pray, I told myself, “Well, this is it. You’ve finally done it. God has finally turned away from you, and there’s no hope. Prayer may work for other people, but it won’t work for you.”

By imagining a God who could take me or leave me, waiting to strike me down, or to cast me away at the slightest infraction, I made it extremely hard to pray. If I can’t imagine God liking me, let alone loving me and seeing me with compassion and mercy, it’s awfully hard to begin to pray.

Perhaps we struggle to reconcile the God of Hebrew Bible who throws down thunder, hail stones, and fire from the heavens. Perhaps we can’t reconcile those stories with the proclamations of the Psalms:

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.
Psalm 103:8

I don’t know how to create a theological system that seamlessly accounts for these stories and comfortably fits them in with the many verses in the Psalms and prophets where God is described as merciful, compassionate, full of love, and loving for his people like a jilted lover.

Here’s what I do know: the people who seek God in prayer have found more love, mercy, and compassion than they ever would have guessed. When the mystics write about the presence of God, there is awe and even a bit of fear at times, but God is love, compassion and mercy.

The people who have dedicated their lives to prayer overwhelming reveal that the God we seek is the kind of God we would want to seek.

That isn’t to say that our faults or sins aren’t a big deal. Anyone who believes in the cross and resurrection would recognize that these are important problems that God himself has set out to resolve. The point for me is not minimizing my faults, it’s seeing the largeness of God’s love, mercy, and compassion.

My mistake wasn’t underestimating the seriousness of sin; it was underestimating how deeply God loves us.

Over and over again in the Gospels, I see Jesus telling people that God is more loving and merciful than they expect, that more people are welcome than they suspect, and that the supposed barriers between people and God are actually not holding anyone back.

Perhaps the greatest struggle for Christians today isn’t believing God exists, it’s believing that God is merciful.

We do ourselves no good if we believe in a God that we fear, a God we dare not approach, or a God who is so terrible that we fail to open our deepest fears and pains to him.

In the vast reserves of God’s love and mercy, there is room for us to come as we are and to seek healing and restoration. The greatest obstacle to God’s mercy is believing that it exists and applies even to you and to me.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

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