Two of the most lasting images used by the Christian church to describe the spiritual life, especially among the desert fathers and mothers, are wilderness and the desert. Had I not learned these two images in the early 1990s I am not sure I would have profited so deeply from my own spiritual journey.
First, the feeling of God’s absence became real to me during the late 1990s and all through the first decade of this century. I had known God’s presence in some remarkable ways previously but around 1998 this sense of his presence began to recede. I felt what the ancients called abandonment. I felt like I was wandering in a wilderness, a desert. I felt God was testing me. I felt a devastating absence for prolonged times. I read the account of my Lord suffering in the wilderness and identified with his heart in some ways.
Second, these images suggest an arid spirit but in reality I learned the opposite to be the case. I was being powerfully renewed in the desert. In Exodus, when the Israelites were being led through a wilderness, and they were not too happy about it, God provided food and water for them. But in the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s forty days in the wilderness we see him emerge prepared to face the challenges of the ministry that was before him. The desert fathers and mothers believed that these two stories provided the people of God with foundational narratives of spirituality.
During the first centuries of the Christian church tremendous persecution came against the believing community, especially those who were the leaders. Ten waves of Roman persecution washed over the church for three-plus centuries. Their confident belief, born at Pentecost, was profoundly challenged. To read the story of Pentecost, as if this marked a time of unbroken happy and wonderful days, is a huge mistake. Empowered they were but hatred and persecution marked their future.
Theologians were not just mental giants. They suffered for the faith they explained. Justin, Irenaeus and Origen all come to mind. Martyrdom became central to life together. Ironically, the church debated many doctrinal points but it remained one. But internal arguments did not despoil the church.
All of this changed over time but the point I want to make is that this image of the wilderness and the desert remained. Christians interpreted their corporate and personal struggles with theses images. Could it be that we hear so little of these images today not because many of us do not face physical persecution but we do not understand the coming and going of God and his way with us. We have accepted a “happy-clappy” brand of faith that will not last. It bears so little true fruit of the Spirit precisely because it is a weak faith, not a strong and powerful joyfulness from the Lord. In my case my call to faith involved a call to die and to see God raise me up again. This pattern is not unique. It is completely normal. If you are on the way that leads to life you expect nothing less. But the promise he gave to me he also gives to you. “I will be with you, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).