Into the Woods: Peace in the Wilderness

I was reminded recently of just how terrifying the scriptures can be. A few Sundays back, as the pastor quoted the lectionary reading, my ears perked up upon hearing the gospel writer’s assertion, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4.1; see also Luke 4.1 and, for an even scarier version, Mark 1.12). What? Jesus was led into temptation by the Spirit of God? How could this be? And worse, what does it mean for us?

I have a feeling that most of us don’t think of our difficulties as being brought to us by God. We tend to blame ourselves, or other people, or Satan. We often assume that we disobeyed God and got ourselves into this mess. We may even decide that God left us without directions, and therefore we simply got lost and found ourselves in trouble.

But if the gospel writers are correct, there may be times when we have troubles because God leads us into them. Not a fun concept, I know, but one that we might need to pay more attention to. I don’t think this holds true for every circumstance: there are certainly times when we refuse to listen to God and go astray by our choices. But think about how often we come into hard times through no fault of our own: our lives are impacted by other people’s bad decisions, for instance, or else by the forces of nature over which no human being has power. These are events we cannot control, and in facing them, we must at least consider the possibility that God has led us into the Wilderness. I believe that as we grow in faith, our ability to trust God’s guidance through the difficult times will bring us the peace we so desperately want. We may even find our calling as ministers!

When describing Jesus’ wilderness, the gospel writers use the same Greek word they use to describe the wilderness of the Exodus story (cf. the Greek text of John 3.14, 6.31, and 6.49; it is also the root word for “eremitic,” calling to mind the desert monks). The wilderness was a demanding experience for the Hebrews; the biblical narratives show how uncertain the people were of Moses’ promises and of God’s faithfulness, even after the miracle of the Red Sea and even with the daily provision of heavenly manna. Yet, if they were to experience the fulfillment of God’s promises, the wilderness was essential. The only way to get into the Promised Land was through it. And the only way to get through it was to keep faith in God’s goodness: the pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day, leading them ever closer to safety.

The wilderness experience has become a central metaphor by which Christian writers and preachers describe our spiritual experience: Life is sometimes said to be the Wilderness that precedes our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. But the metaphor can be more localized: any specific period of struggle in our lives can be a Wilderness experience for us: health problems, relationship problems, career, financial, family problems, etc. Sometimes we are warned by God about what is to happen; God may put a call on our hearts to change directions or to take on a burden. But just as often (if not more often), these events come at us without warning.

In such times, the question for us is not why these events have happened, but how we will respond. And the biblical teaching is frighteningly passive, at least when it comes to our own struggles (more on other people’s struggles later). Consider Paul’s teaching that we should allow ourselves to be cheated and slandered rather than sue other Christians for reparations. Consider Jesus’ teaching that when we are pressed into service by our oppressors, we should instead volunteer to help. When we are asked for our coat, we should give our shirt also. When we are slapped backhanded, we should offer the other cheek. The teaching can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures as well: When King David was cursed by one of his subjects, he was willing to assume that perhaps God had commanded the man to curse him. Would we do the same? Are we willing to allow God to put us into difficulty for the sake of the Kingdom?

The gospel writers show that when Jesus followed the Spirit into the wilderness for a period of fasting and testing by the Devil, he was not lost. He had not disobeyed God. He was not running away from God. He had not misunderstood God’s leading. He was exactly where he needed to be, doing exactly what he needed to do. Jesus found himself in that situation by being faithful. And because of his faithfulness in the wilderness, he was able to withstand the Devil’s temptations and became able to minister to all the world, to be the one who could bring us safely out of sin into eternal life.

The French spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade discusses this type of experience in his wonderful book The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Caussade states that in our afflictions, “God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself, mysteriously bestowing his grace in a manner quite unrecognized by souls who feel only weakness in bearing their cross….” Faith demands that God not be manifest before us; we must learn to trust in God’s presence in the midst of darkness, when our sight is least effective, for “it is in these shadows that God hides the hand which upholds and supports us. […] God carries out his purposes triumphantly in those dark shadows; in failures, in bodily sickness, and spiritual weakness.” If we learn not to panic and to trust God’s presence, even when we cannot see through the clouds, the mist and the darkness, we will find that, “However mysterious it may seem, it is in order to awaken and maintain this living faith that God drags the soul through tumultuous floods of so much suffering, trouble, perplexity, weariness and ruin.”

Notice how Caussade describes God as being hidden yet present and active in the midst of our troubles. These are not signs of our separation from God, but quite the opposite, they are the very ways God draws us closer. We need to learn to see our own difficulties in this light. What if we are undergoing a difficult situation because God has put us there? How would recognizing that possibility change our reactions? Would we stop trying to find ways “out” and allow God to do all that God desires? Would we trust that God is making us more in the image of Christ? Would we hope that God was using us to bring blessings to others?

Lest we think that the gospel message applies only to Jesus, consider the story of Jeremiah, who suffered horribly because he faithfully proclaimed God’s word to the people. Consider the witness of Paul, who claims that in his mission trips, he was at times so burdened beyond his own strength that he fully expected to die (2 Cor. 1.8-10). Consider the faithfulness of the prophets and apostles who were martyred for their obedience. What we experience in our lives is so much less than what they went through; why are we so quick to complain against God? Why do we not trust God’s ability to see us through these situations, and even to use us for the sake of others?

As we grow in the love of the LORD (and I mean not so much learning to love God as learning to accept God’s love for us), we become more confident that God’s plans truly are for our good and never for our harm. It becomes easier for us to trust that God does in fact work all things for good in our lives. And we internalize the wonderful truth that God’s hands are the safest place we could possibly be. Even if we walk through the valley of death, we need fear no evil, for God IS with us!

If we want peace, we must be willing to face the possibility that sometimes God puts us into difficult situations. We need to trust in God’s love and protection. We mustn’t freak out over every trial that comes our way, as the disciples did during the storm on the lake. Although they were in the very presence of God, they did not recognize his power and their own safety. Like Jesus, we should be able to sleep through the storms of life. We must allow God to lead us into the Wilderness as a way of getting us to the Promised Land. We will find that in God’s presence is all our peace.

But how does entering the Wilderness help us find our calling? Well, there’s an important caveat to what I’ve been saying—not an exception but a qualification: I’ve been talking only about how we respond to things that happen to us, that is, to you and me as individual Christians. There is a clear biblical call for us to submit to God’s will even when it is more than we can bear. However, I fully believe that when bad things happen to other people, we are not to remain passive, nor should we force them to submit to God’s will. No, we are to fight for their safety and for their benefit. The scriptural idea is always to defend others rather than ourselves.

In fact, this is often the reason God calls us into the wilderness: to stand up for those who are weak, who are being oppressed, who are in danger. When the disciples woke Jesus, he did not force them to ride out the storm, as he would have done. He silenced it (although he gave them a stern talking to for their lack of faith). Similarly, we may be able to sleep through the storms in our own lives, but we must be willing to do all we can to silence the storms that threaten those who have no faith. It is our calling as ministers and priests of the Most High God. And in serving others, we will bring Christ’s peace into the world.

May it be with us according to God’s excellent Love and Grace. Amen.