I haven’t known exactly what this would mean for me, but I’ve had a sense of needing to find out who I am. Not so much “what am I going to do with my life?” or anything especially profound, but just to know who I am when everything that isn’t me was stripped away. To go beyond everything I’ve known to know who exactly I am. This wasn’t a well-developed thought, just a vaguely conscious idea. I didn’t consider it much. I didn’t wonder much about what I would find when I “found” myself. Maybe I thought, “oh, this will one of those heart-warming and uplifting stories of self-discovery like you read about in books.” I should have applied the lesson I learned long ago—life has a way of being far more disturbing and disconcerting than books. It can leave you a little breathless and dazed. Life has a way of shaking you up. Like when you were a kid and coaxed someone into winding your swing ropes up, then let you spin round and round; you twirled until you fell unto the ground, then stumbled around for what felt like hours before the earth stopped buckling underneath you. So when life does something very similar to this, it takes some time to get your bearings again.
The Lord did this with Israel many times. After forgetting who they were or refusing to accept who they were, after being brought low, after their world fell apart, the Lord would remind them of their history, full of grace and mercies. A poignant example of this can be seen in the book of Hosea. Hosea was commanded to take a prostitute for a wife, in order to demonstrate the faithfulness of God to an unfaithful people. Hosea 2 begins with a description of his wife’s adultery. The passage transitions into describing Israel and their adultery towards God. Vs 13 says, “I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the Lord.” But vs 14 startles us with a completely different tone, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” There are a couple things that surprised me here. One is the overall sense of this verse. It is loving, compassionate, and patient. God is going to “allure” Israel, not just drag them away kicking and screaming. He is long-suffering with their wayward hearts. But the other thing that struck me was the apparent incongruity of bringing her “into the wilderness.” I mean, basically the Lord is courting the nation, and being invited into the wilderness doesn’t sound very, well, alluring. So what is this about? After delivering the nation from slavery in Egypt, God led them into the desert. And there they spent a long time wandering around. God made Himself known to them during that post-slavery time in very powerful ways. The pillar of fire by night, the cloud by day. Revealing part of Himself to Moses on the mountain. The examples go on and on. And He provided for them in amazing ways. Parting the Red Sea. Sending manna. Water from the rock. This was a time of marvelous provisions and experiences. So in Hosea, God is basically saying, “let me take you back to that place where you first began to know Me. The place where you could smell freedom in every breath you took. When you could feel the the power of liberation in the sand beneath your feet. When my love was new and beautiful to you.”
And in a similar way, I think we are called to remember our own wilderness. When the darkness of our souls and the darkness of the world make us tremble and wonder, then we must be brought back to where we have been and what we have known.
I felt like this was something I needed to do. Of course, the most natural thing was to write my way through the wilderness. And I wanted to share it with you. I am not sure why. Just because.
Never forget that there’s so much more inside a person than what you know. This is true. Because I remember a time when I was raging against God in my mind, but I didn’t really look like it. I remember a time when I was running away from God as fast as I could. When my mental and emotional strength was consumed in shaking my fist at the Lord of the universe. Why? I don’t know if there was a specific reason. Some people rage after tragedies. Some people try to usurp God when it appears as if life has gone horribly wrong. But nothing happened to me. I had a good life. There was no reason to not accept God. But I think that being intellectually honest, I realized that acknowledging Him meant I would owe my life to Him. I think maybe I realized the implications of a sovereign God and could not submit myself. And so in my head I was running away, and yet He wouldn’t let me go. I’d have these fleeting, haunting thoughts. Thoughts of death, thoughts of judgement, thoughts of eternity. I would be completely engaged in my studies or work or whatever the task was at hand, and then would suddenly wonder, “if I died at this moment, what would happen to me?” It made me shudder. I tried to chase the bothersome ideas away, but they kept coming back. I tried to comfort myself by knowing I was young, so it wasn’t likely I would face death soon. But I know that was foolish. Young people die every day. There is absolutely no guarantee of another hour, yet alone a day. The “probability” of a long life is no comfort in a world of uncertainty. I would get caught up in this complicated maze of thoughts, trying to escape from the reality facing me, and like a lost wanderer walking in circles, I kept coming upon the same truth. I was going to die at some unknown time. And what would happen to me then? I was persistent in trying to evade these thoughts. But God was more persistent.
I eventually got to a point where I decided to figure this out and come to some sort of resolution. But I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I could talk about the Gospel. I could talk about faith. But I had no idea what it meant. I had not yet encountered grace. I kept searching inside myself to find approval, to find a reason to believe I was saved. This gets incredibly complicated. Believe me. Some introspection and self-examination is good. But too much of it is simply overwhelming. I got so confused and discouraged by trying to figure out if I truly “believed.” What if I was just doing it to look good? What if I was fooling myself? What if this was a false belief? What if? What if? What if? It never ends.
And I can’t say I got myself out of that mess. Because I didn’t. God just suddenly opened my eyes. Opened my heart. I finally “got it.” Faith isn’t this life of looking inside and wondering, “Do I believe? Did I really believe yesterday? Was that false security? Have I been lying to myself and the world? What if that is just further proof of never being saved? What about today? Do I really have faith today?” Faith is knowing that you’re a sinner and there is a gracious Savior who died on your behalf. That’s it. Stop over-analyzing. Christianity isn’t about this downward spiral of introspection and self-questioning. The Bible doesn’t say to look to yourself, but look to Christ. And that is such a glorious thing. Because I actually knew peace in my soul. I was at rest. I wasn’t running away. I wasn’t fighting my God. I wasn’t struggling under the weight of trying to find righteousness in myself. I was just trusting Christ. There was such freedom in not trying to make everything right myself. My salvation does not depend on myself so I don’t need to look within but without. It is that simple. Christianity is glorious in its simplicity.
And I think since that first experience of total peace and freedom, I’ve gone back to my wilderness a few times. That metaphor is such a beautiful thing to me. Christ went into the wilderness to be tempted. The Israelites were severely tested in the wilderness. It was certainly no luxurious resort location. It wasn’t a lush or materially pleasant place. The wilderness isn’t an obvious source of comfort. But God has a way of being incongruous. The rocks that must have been so hard and forbidding to the Israelites poured forth life-giving water. And just as it was for the Israelites, so I think we find our most poignant moments of comfort from God when we are surrounded by the very tangible presence of evil. When we are afraid of the power of this darkness, when we feel so helpless and weak, then it is that God gives us strength. When our prayers are wordless groanings of the soul, when our hope fails, when there is absolutely nothing we can, then it is that God lifts us up and breathes His grace into our hearts. When our wilderness closes in around us, then it is that God sets Himself as a pillar of fire to guide our way.
We can forget these moments all too easily. We forget how low we have fallen because we can keep up a respectable appearance. We forget when we were undone because we can manage to keep the pieces together—most of the time. Then sadly, when we forget where we have been, we forget what God has done. When we think we have it together, we forget who truly holds our lives together.
God uses all sorts of things to allure us back to that wilderness where we can worship Him once more, devoid of our own “goodness,” the distractions left behind. But whatever the means, the important thing is that we are brought back there, to remember who we are, and more than that, who our Lord is. And someday there will be no need to allure. Because we will at last be perfectly satisfied in Christ. Someday there will be the love and glory of the wilderness, without the struggles, temptations, and trials. Someday we will never go astray. Someday there will be no evil threatening us. In the words of one of my favorite Future of Forestry songs,
“Someday the light will be your sonnet
Someday the song will cover over you
Someday the time will be forever.”
In Hosea 2.18-20 God goes on to promise His covenant blessings to His people,
“…And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. And I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”