Walking in Wilderness

I recently added my comments to a discussion on LinkedIn about advice for those Christians currently in a place of wilderness (I’ll talk more about what I mean by “wilderness” in a bit).  I’ve been asked to elaborate on what I originally posted and I have chosen to do so here.

My original comment is below:

If you know you are in the wilderness then you are probably also either currently or soon to face a challenge to your faith, a time when you will question what you’ve previously held to be true. This is normal but it will be hard.

The one thing I’d recommend is that there will be a time to question your faith later, for now recognise that you are in a testing place and that now is not the best time to focus on those questions as you won’t have a balanced view. If you find that you have to ask the questions then find the people you trust and discuss it with them – don’t do it alone.

Trust in your Saviour, know that the wilderness precedes power and ministry, and get those that love and know you to pray for you. Stay accountable. Don’t choose to be alone, even if you feel that people (especially fellow Christians) don’t understand you.

Introduction

“The wilderness” is a common Christian experience where:

  1. God feels and appears to be distant
  2. Previously encouraging activities no longer bring any satisfaction or sense of communion with God.  This is especially true of prayer, sung worship and the study of Scripture, but it also extends to other areas of life and faith
  3. Christian friends often fail to understand the depth of crisis involved and either offer platitudes or else just think you are depressed
  4. The change appears to have no obvious reason
  5. The believer questions the character of God and his/her faith

Despite these common trends, it is often hard to recognise a time as a “wilderness”, particularly since it shares symptoms with depression.  Many Christians who are struggling with a time of “wilderness” are told they are in fact depressed but this may be purely a recognition of some of the symptoms.  (Note: If you are currently taking medication for depression then do not stop.  Taking medication prescribed by a doctor is submission to a good authority and not something you should stop doing without taking proper advice from doctors, pastors, family and friends.)

Walking with wisdom

For centuries, the Hippocratic Oath, “never do harm” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath), has guided the ethical practice of medicine.  This principle recognises that the interventions that we perform can cause great harm in ways we do not envisage.  I recently heard that when a speed gauge in an aircraft is no longer working the pilot must not adjust the speed of the aircraft at all.  He/she must only hope that the gauge begins working again.

Being in the wilderness is like flying blind, with no instruments working.  It is a time to apply what you already know, what you have previously decided and committed to.  Doing otherwise is not wise because you are not doing it because of the presence of new information but only the absence of the original information.  If you can manifestly demonstrate that everything that has gone before was a lie then you are in a position to question your beliefs, but if all you have is that you have not been able to feel God’s presence then it is a very dangerous choice for your faith.

Principle 1:  When you are blind, trust in the One who can see

Is God there?

The modern Christian has often come to faith with a relatively heavy reliance on feelings as opposed to an academic study of Biblical material.  The time of wilderness often reflects this by being a time where the feelings are stripped away.  This leaves us naked and alone, having to confront our beliefs in the absence of the comfort of feelings.  This is an area where a time of wilderness is actually a disguised blessing.  I do not write this lightly as it certainly does not feel like a blessing at the time, but in the future it will become clear.  This time of wilderness enables us to find out for ourselves that the truths and promises of Scripture apply to us even when everything around us is telling us otherwise.

A word of caution.  Times of wilderness can last years and may be interspersed by times of oasis.  I do not know why God sometimes gives people very long periods of wilderness, but it is a fact.  Wilderness experiences are as varied as human experience.

In a time of wilderness, it is important to recognise that Scripture is true because it is the Word of God and not because it feels good, or because it feels confirmed.  This is a difficult transition.  It means that when we read, “God is for us,” [Romans 8:31] we understand it to be true even though everything in our heart is crying out that He is not.  We persevere.

God is there precisely because He is faithful [Deuteronomy 7:9], because He loves us [John 13:34] and because He has promised never to leave us [Joshua 1:5, Hebrews 13:5].  He simply cannot do otherwise.

This leads me to my second principle:

Principle 2:  Apply the character of God to truly understand your situation

My favourite characteristic of God to meditate on is His lovingkindness [Hebrew hesed]: unfailing love, loyal love, devotion, kindness; translated in the King James Version of the Old Testament as mercy (137 times), kindness (38 times) and lovingkindness (26 times).  My particular favourite is “lovingkindnesses” (i.e. acts of lovingkindness).

God knew the situation of each person before the time of their wilderness and decided to allow it anyway.  God’s lovingkindnesses litter the path through the wilderness even if they do not appear to be there.  You see, to do otherwise would contravene God’s character and that is something He never does.

Strategy for survival and success

The Christian walk is not an individual, independent life of faith but one of community and growth together in the service and worship of the King.  You cannot be a Christian and shun community.  Sadly, for many Christians, companionship and fellowship are not available but not because of their own choices.  For them, the experience of Jesus in exile, of Joseph in prison and of David on the run from Saul are encouragements.  For the rest of us, fellowship is a command.

It is in fellowship that God draws near (“where two or three gather in my Name…” [Matthew 18:20]) and often God chooses to use those around us to minister to us.  We should welcome their kindness, for their service to us in our time of wilderness is as unto the Lord (c.f. Matthew 25).  We in turn should look to offer our service, our compassion to those around us walking through their own wilderness time.

Just because prayer does not seem to be effective does not mean we should not pray.  Just because we do not feel like singing worship to God does not mean we should not do so.  Are we not able to force our physical bodies to do that which entails pain?  Does God not still deserve worship?  Has anything actually changed apart from our experience, our feelings?

Have no doubt, reading Scripture, praying and worshiping God will both bring great blessing to you and also bring forth God’s kingdom on earth.

Principle 3:  Do not neglect Christian practices and do not be alone, for fellowship and these practices are life to you

Further study

I hope you have found this discussion helpful.  For further study I recommend studying the following Biblical characters:

  • Abraham and Sarah: patient hope in the promise of God
  • Joseph: deferred dream
  • King David: persecution and delay
  • Job: misunderstood but also corrected
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