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One of the texts that I spent some time on during last Sunday’s sermon was Isaiah 40:1-11 which speaks of good things coming from the wilderness. Words of comfort for beleaguered exiles, words of hope in the God who raises the valleys and brings low the mountains, words of good tidings to be proclaimed from the mountaintops, that the Lord comes to his people with strength and with compassion. Good words, from the wilderness.

“The wilderness” makes a number of appearances in Scripture, of course, whether in the story of the exodus from Egypt, Jesus’ temptation, or Israel’s experience of exile in general. The wilderness can stand for a place of testing, a place of refinement, rebellion, suffering, fidelity, and more. It is a metaphor rich with spiritual significance—a powerful lens through which to view our own experiences in the life of faith.

One of my good friends from the west coast periodically finds cheap books at an MCC Thrift Shop, and is kind enough to ship them over the Rocky Mountains to me. This week, a lovely brown parcel arrived on my desk with a number of interesting titles. Among them, was Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama’s Three Mile an Hour God. Thumbing through it today, I read these words from Koyama about “the wilderness”:

Wilderness, then, is the place where we are face to face with danger and promise. And that is an educational situation for the people of God. When danger and promise come together for us, it is called crisis. The Bible does not simply speak of danger. If it did so, the biblical faith would be reduced to a”protection-from-danger-religion.” The Bible does not simply speak about promise. If it did so, the biblical faith would be reduced to a “happy-ending-religion.” The Bible speaks about a crisis situation, coexistence of danger and promise—wilderness—and there God teaches man. In the wilderness we are called to go beyond “protection-from-danger-religion” and “happy-ending-religion.” There we are called to “trust” in God.

The wilderness is the place where a deep, trans-rational trust can emerge. Trust that goes beyond happy endings, beyond pleasant circumstances, beyond protection, beyond what we can get from God. Trust that clings to God for his own sake.

The wilderness is where God alone has to be enough.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    No question about it. That is the significance of wilderness in the Bible.

    In much nature writing, critical authors have a different take on the significance of wilderness to Christians. They allege that to Christians wilderness is a place that must be subdued. It may true that this is the way many early Christian immigrants to North America saw and treated wilderness, but it is still quite different form the way the wilderness is treated in the Bible.

    As a lover of wilderness, I appreciate Thoreau’s expression that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is a Darwinian idea. Darwin wrote essentially the same thing in Origin. I think it is not dissimilar to the message from God to Israel in the wilderness that humanity does not depend on bread alone. In the Bible, humanity depends on God. In Darwin’s narrative, humanity depends on the chain of life and the earth itself. When one conflates these two narratives, as I generally do, God, the chain of life and the earth and sky are intimately connected and indistinguishable because inseparable from each other, and wildness is the way of God. The universe is the holy community, the body of Christ. The promise to Abraham is heard and seen in wilderness.

    I spent today in the desert at Joshua Tree with my wife and a friend and few roadrunners. It was a bright cold day. The land is beautiful and old and mysterious. Every such day is holy. God is enough. Blessed is the wild.

    December 8, 2011
    • I suppose the only difference would be that in the Bible, the world is preserved by one who cares for and leads the story of the cosmos toward a destination that is good and hopeful. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to squeeze such a hope out of the Darwinian narrative, in my view. If the narratives are to be conflated, I think the latter will always be borrowing its hope from the former.

      I am envious of your yesterday—of all holy days spent in in awe and gratitude for God’s holy world.

      December 9, 2011
      • Ken #

        For some, the Darwinian narrative is good and hopeful. The goodness and hope are not found in the destination, but in the whole of which we are part. For others, the purposelessness of nature and the amorality of it, the indifference to love and hate, for example, associate nature with cruelty and despair.

        As for me, I see both, but see more goodness and hope than cruelty and despair.

        December 9, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Wonderful post and discussion. I am almost always inspired to think about an issue in a way I hadn’t previously considered it, when you two exchange views. Thank you both so much.

    Ken, I wouldn’t say that I associate my view of the Darwinian narrative with despair but that I find my experience of God, love and many other emotional response to be so intrinsically true to human existence that I must view any narrative, devoid of, or devaluing these elements, as incomplete.

    I like what Ryan said about the “latter borrowing its hope from the former”.

    December 10, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, is Koyama’s account of “wilderness” dependant upon the physical presence of the wild and habitation within it, say as it is for Thoreau? Or does he speak also of the interior wilderness known to the contemplative?

    December 12, 2011
    • I don’t think Koyama’s account depends upon the physical presence of the wild. I think he is using “wilderness” as a metaphor for a period of spiritual struggle, testing, and refinement. I think his conception of the wilderness would very much be of the “interior” variety.

      December 12, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks, I assumed so from your post but wanted to be sure.

        It has become true for me, that apart from some “interior wilderness” experience of the Spirit I am no longer comfortable making important decisions in my life. It is as if what is meant to be true for my life was before and will remain a mystery, even to me, unless I do this.
        Is this feeling something you experience? How do you come to know what is the right action for you to take?

        December 12, 2011
      • For me, “interior wilderness experiences” are often the kinds of things that I can more clearly identify and appreciate in hindsight. When I’m in the middle of it, I seem to rarely have the capacity to recognize what is going on. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that one gets better at over time.

        Re: important decisions, I suppose I utilize a variety of resources—prayer, Scripture, the counsel of trusted friends, reason, experience. I don’t think I am very good at making big decisions, truth be told. They are often a source of anxiety and stress for me. I am not a decisive person by nature, and find it very easy to see the positives and negatives of many options. I often tell people that the only decisions I have been 100% confident in were the decisions to marry my wife, and the decision to adopt our children. Other than these, decision-making has quite often been a painful process for me…. Perhaps this is part of the experience of the “wilderness.”

        December 13, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I am humbled by your honesty, my friend. I suspect I share many of your anxieties.

    I suppose the value of experience and age is a relative thing. I am sure many young people today and in previous days, came to a more honest and mature relationship with life than I did in my youth. For me though, aging has been invaluable. My sense of otherness, the otherness of God and His majesty, the otherness of people and their inherent dignity, hasn’t come early or easily for me, though it improves steadily as I grow older. While I am far from a completed work, I am greatly encouraged by the progression.

    I don’t know if I am any better at recognizing, (if we mean to say understanding and explaining the circumstances of the moment), any better than you. If my experience has taught me anything it is perhaps that the full implications of each moment, so to speak, will always be beyond my grasp and I am not to make them my objective. Rather I am to seek that place where you say in this post, “God alone has to be enough”. In this way the “wilderness”, while at times disturbingly disorienting and terrifying, becomes both friend and guide.

    What evil I have both experienced and inflicted now seems to me to have been born in a “wilderness” where non of the participants consciously sought the face of God. I tend to think the “wilderness”, in whatever shape or form it takes, is inevitable for us all. I think this “wilderness” will make us or break us.

    On a more cheerful note it sounds to me like you are 2 for 2 in the important decisions that have and continue to shape your life. 🙂

    May His peace continue to sustain you, my brother.

    December 14, 2011
    • Thanks for this, Paul. His peace to you, too.

      December 15, 2011
  5. My Sunday school class recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar In the World, a book in which she reconfigures the notion of spiritual practices. One of the twelve she writes about is the practice of getting lost. With God’s help, the lost may find their way home again, or perhaps they make a new one.

    December 16, 2011
    • “The practice of getting lost.” I like that very much. Perhaps sometimes this is the best (only?) way to find our way home.

      December 16, 2011
  6. Ryan,

    I’ve read your post as well as the interesting discussions above – from Darwin to the desert fathers. Hey and someone was running near the Joshua Tree. Awesome!

    I love the quote in your post. One of the reasons is that my wilderness has been of the interior kind – through depression. So many lessons: dependence, surrender, love, fear vs. Godly fear, community, have all come into sharp relief as I’ve walked/crawled through my wilderness, or rather His wilderness. It’s been a wilderness where I’ve often come to the end of me and need God like water… “my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no other.”

    Like you, I haven’t wanted much but to get out of my wilderness experiences, but in them I have learned what’s important, and I’m hoping that I’m beginning to learn to be grateful, be still and not “run to the nations”.

    For more on my story, and in danger of shameless self-promotion, here’s a lighthearted take on one of my wilderness episodes:


    December 27, 2011
    • There are so many different experiences of “the wilderness” aren’t there? Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey here. It sounds like some of what Paul mentions above—that wilderness can be, in some sense, productive or restorative—is borne out in your story.

      December 27, 2011

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