Have you ever felt as if you have lost something on which you most depend? Perhaps your health or your physical abilities have been compromised. Perhaps you have lost a job or financial security. Maybe you are disconnected from your spouse, friends or family. Or perhaps you just feel emotionally disconnected from God.
Regardless of what certain ‘prosperity Gospel’ preachers might tell you, there is nothing wrong with you. You aren’t being punished for some unspecified crime. You are not suffering because you are ‘unclean’ in some way. God is not shunning you. You have not taken a wrong turn in your spiritual journey.
On the contrary, such debilitating experiences are not only par for the course in our spiritual journey, they are the very conditions in which we grow and deepen our knowledge of God. If you are feeling deprived materially, physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually, you stand in good company.
Consider, for instance, the people of Israel. According to the Old Testament Scriptures, God took Israel out of Egypt, where they were enslaved but relatively comfortable, and brought them into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years with no established dwelling place, with nothing to eat or drink, other than what God miraculously provided for them. In addition to these material deprivations, they suffered illness and death, saw friends and family perish, and endured God’s wrath at their faithlessness and disobedience.
In the Orthodox Christian interpretation, the Old Testament narratives are ultimately a prophecy of the Person of Jesus Christ. In a personal fulfillment of Israel’s collective exile, Jesus is taken as an infant into Egypt. Later, he enters the desert, where he is tempted and fed by angels. His ministry begins and is mostly directed at those who live “beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25 and elsewhere), which in scriptural geography symbolizes the wilderness from which Israel came before it entered the Promised Land. Finally, Jesus is crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, which the New Testament writer to the Hebrews likens to the wilderness “outside the camp” of Israel. (Hebrews 13:11-14)
Jesus’ experience of human life as a wilderness is crucial to the Christian confession that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:7-8) Only in the condition of utter humility, utter emptiness, utter brokenness, stripped of all human power and aid, could God’s power full shine forth in him. Only by being crucified as a criminal outside the camp could He be exalted on the third day and receive “the name which is above every name,” the Son of God to whom all authority in heaven and on earth is given. (See Phil. 2:9 and Matt. 28:18)
What does this mean for us? Simply that, for Christians at least, the wilderness experience is central to our encounter with God. When we are stripped of dependence on human aid, whether that involves losing our physical health or material resources, or being deprived of emotional or psychological or spiritual convictions in our hearts and minds, we are embarking on nothing less important and significant than the journey to the Cross of Christ, where the power and glory of God shines forth most brightly.
Of course, knowing that being “united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” (Romans 6:5) does not in any way alleviate the physical pain of an illness, the uncertainty of unemployment, or the agony of family division and conflict. Regardless of what we know to be true in our minds, when we find ourselves in the thick of our wilderness sufferings, we cannot help but cry out with the Psalmist, “O LORD, why do You cast me off? Why do You hide Your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14)
Faced with such circumstances, I have often recalled the words of the poet T.S. Eliot: “I have lost sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch; how can I use them for your closer contact?” Notice to whom the poet addresses his question. In the wilderness, I am stripped of every support and help, including my own ability to reason out and comprehend why this is happening to me. My only option is to throw myself outward to a Power greater than myself, who alone can show forth the light in my darkness, the resurrection in my crucifixion. All I can do is ask Him the questions, and wait for Him to show the answers.
Those answers may be slow in coming (often they come only years in retrospect) and are often couched in unexpected and surprising terms. For this wanderer in the spiritual wilderness, however, they have always come in the end.
If you stand in the wilderness of your life today, devoid of all other earthly help, you stand on the front line of the spiritual battle, for you have come the place where you can truly encounter the One who will lead you “through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there [is] no water… that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.” (Deut. 8:15-16)