The Exodus, of course, is the archetypal wilderness experience in Scripture. The Children of Israel are led from slavery to freedom, from hopelessness to hopefulness, but the journey involves 40 years in the wilderness. Their 40 years in the Sinai wilderness was a time of purification, preparation and submission to God’s will, plan and purposes.
There are many other Old Testament examples of wilderness experiences. We all know the story of Moses discovering his destiny and calling in the Wilderness of Midian. Moses hits a rough patch with Pharaoh, is exiled, and settles for tending his father-in-laws sheep in his own literal and figurative, self-prescribed wilderness. One day, however, on the “far side” of his wilderness, as Scripture tells us, Moses encounters an insistent God with a better plan.
One of my favorite wilderness stories is Elijah at Mt. Horeb because it is descriptive of the wildernesses in which so many of us are stuck. Life brings its traumas (for Elijah it was no small thing … Jezebel wanting to kill him). His wilderness involves fear, anxiety, rejection, self-piety and hopelessness. He hides in a cave on the same mountain from which God spoke to Moses (not a good choice of a place to hide from God). In what St. John of the Cross would call Elijah’s “dark night of the soul,” God comes to him and whispers, “Elijah, what are you doing here.” Again, God has a better plan, a better life and abetter use for the life He has given Elijah.
Even Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness. He is driven into the Judean wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ wilderness experience is one of wrestling with questions of his identity, calling and fidelity to the Father. But Jesus emerges on the far side of His wilderness resolutely aligned to God’s will, thus representing, as St. Paul puts it, the “New Adam,” a model for a new humanity who is tempted, but unlike the old Adam, does not sin. Jesus’ wilderness wandering set the stage for the transformation of the whole of humanity and our relationship with God.
The problem with wilderness experiences is that they can be uncomfortable, stretching, painful; it was even that for Jesus. Wilderness times may also be full of fear and confusion, or riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. Wilderness wanderings are often triggered by trauma, rejection, loss, un-forgiveness, poor health, clinical depression … you name it. As we all know, wildernesses are spiritually arid places.
The good news is that God changes us through our wilderness experiences. Life is full arid places that turn out to be opportunities to be changed and transformed. Scripture is full of wilderness stories because God is in the transformation business. Our wilderness experiences, however we encounter them, whether large or small, God can use to take us out of the old and lead us into the new. After all, that’s what God does. We meet Him in the wilderness: Moses did; the Children of Israel did; Elijah did; Jesus did.
What, then, does all of this tell us?
- First, it tells us that we can expect to spend time in the wilderness. That’s life.
- Secondly, we can expect to grow and be transformed because of these times. We do not exit our wilderness in the same place we went in. Change should be what wilderness time is all about.
- Lastly, we should expect to be more aligned with God’s will for our lives when we emerge on the “far side.”