If we are to have a culture as resilient and competent in the face of necessity as it needs to be, then it must somehow involve within itself a ceremonious generosity toward the wilderness of natural force and instinct. The farm must yield a place to the forest, not as a wood lot, or even as a necessary agricultural principle but as a sacred grove – a place where the Creation is let alone, to serve as instruction, example, refuge; a place for people to go, free of work and presumption, to let themselves alone. (pg. 125, The Body and the Earth)”
Wilderness” is a place, in biblical rhetoric, where there are no viable life support systems. “Grace” is the occupying generosity of God that redefines the place. The wonder bread, as a gesture of divine grace, re-characterizes the wilderness that Israel now discovered to be a place of viable life, made viable by the generous inclination of YHWH.
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.
Unfortunately, the reality is that we tolerate being less than we are called to be. Pride is not the ultimate sin; forgetfulness of our origin and destiny is, in fact, the ultimate tragedy.
We often forget that temptation can come from any quarter, even from within our own family circle. We expect the Devil to assault us like a roaring lion, as ugly and fearsome as can be. We don’t expect him to come to us dressed up like an angel of light, speaking in the honey-sweet tones of the ones we love. Yet the Bible warns us that such an approach is easy for him to adopt (2 Cor. 11:14). Thus, Satan didn’t only confront Jesus head-on in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11); he also tempted him more subtly through the words of one of his closest disciples, Peter (Matt. 16:23).
By your helpless infant years,
by your life of want and tears,
by your days of deep distress
in the savage wilderness,
by the dread, mysterious hour
of the insulting tempter’s pow’r,
turn, oh, turn a fav’ring eye;
hear our penitential cry!
Savior, When In Dust To You, Stanza. 2
God uses the desert of the soul—our suffering and difficulties, our pain, our dark nights (call them what you will)—to form us, to make us beautiful souls. He redeems what we might deem our living hells, if we allow him. The hard truth, then, is this: everyone who follows Jesus is eventually called into the desert.
The wilderness has a way of curing our illusions about ourselves and teaching us to depend more and more on God. When we first enter, we’re convinced we’ve entered the bowels of hell. But on our pilgrimage, we discover that the desert drips with the divine. We discover that desert land is fertile ground for spiritual activity, transformation, and renewal.
On this earth, then, in our deserts, God personally reveals and names himself. When he does so, his pleasure floods our senses, his beauty engulfs us, and our God-misconceptions are devastated. He moves us from make-believe to reality. The knowledge of who he is and the never-ending implications of being his children overwhelm us.
George Wharton James
But silence speaks of solitude, and to some persons there is an oppressive sense of sadness wherever human beings are absent. Solitude is so awful to them. . . . Some men flee to solitude through bitterness of spirit, through hatred of the world, because of disappointment, blight, or sorrow. Others go because in the vastness of the desert the spirit finds freedom and enlargement, and hence, peace.
Living the Radiant Life, A Personal Narrative
John Of The Cross
Live in faith and hope, though it be in darkness for in this darkness God protects the soul. Cast your care upon God for you are His and He will not forget you. Do not think that He is leaving you alone, for that would be to wrong Him.
Robert Barry Leal
Especially in the Hebrew Bible, wilderness is the privileged site where God comforts the Hebrew people or their representatives at times of crisis in their lives. In the wilderness God calls and leads them to decisions and witnesses their shortcomings; and God disciplines and punishes them for their sin and rebellion. Throughout the gospels wilderness is important for Jesus as a place of encounter with the Father.
Let the soul thank God when she experiences his loving endearments, but let her not repine when she finds herself left in desolation. It is important to lay great stress on this point, because some souls, beginners in the spiritual life, finding themselves in spiritual aridity, think God has abandoned them, or that the spiritual life is not for them; thus they give up the practice of prayer and lose what they have previously gained. The time of aridity is the best time to practice resignation to God’s holy will.
No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in the wilderness. Most of the Epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have “learned in suffering what they taught in song.” In bonds Bunyan lived the allegory that he afterwards wrote, and we may thank Bedford Jail for the Pilgrim’s Progress. Take comfort, afflicted Christian! When God is about to make pre-eminent use of a person, He put them in the fire.
We must go out into a desert of some kind (your backyard will do) and come into a personal experience of the awesome love of God.
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity—simplicity grounded in the possession of little and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to . . . this relationship.
When you accept the fact that sometimes seasons are dry and times are hard and that God is in control of both, you will discover a sense of divine refuge, because the hope then is in God and not in yourself.
Returning from the wilderness [a man] becomes a restorer of order, a preserver. He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors. He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.
Eugene H. Peterson
When we want to let the life of Christ make a revolutionary impact on our life, we go to the desert.
Nan C. Merril
… I have entered deep waters
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am exhausted from weeping;
I thirst as in a desert.
I no longer see the path while
Waiting for your return.
Psalms for Praying, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996, p.134.
There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokenness we find within. Moving apprehensively into the desert’s emptiness, up the mountain’s height, you discover in wild terrain a metaphor of your deepest fears.
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Uncertainty provides rescue from being stuck in the familiar ways of life that keep us from moving forward into the purposes of God. Wandering into the wilderness of the unknown is God’s divine reorientation, from what we know in the present to what God knows about the future.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our illustrations page on the Wilderness.