As it was with Hagar in her wilderness, God comes to find us asking us the same questions: Where have you come from? Where are you going? A reflection by Elaine Pountney.
Natural wilderness can be intensely wild in its haunting beauty – the exquisite violet-blue tones of Frobisher Bay in Nunavut, the silky moss and lichen of old growth forests on the coast of British Columbia, the endless desert sands under the blinding light of Ethiopia. Such magnificence!
But it can quickly flip into an ominous feeling. A burning desert can threaten to leave us exposed, trees so alike that we lose all sense of direction, a deep frigid cold that distances and isolates. Wilderness is also where we can get lost or hurt.
Both aspects of wilderness are evident throughout the Bible. As much as we may not like the idea, wilderness is a common part of our faith journey for those following Jesus. Those dark places expose what we do not want to see or hear or know or experience – so that God might transform us into wild beauty that is naturally good.
Where have you come from? Where are you going?
It is when we are caught in the grip of threatening wilderness that we often hear God speak most clearly asking two questions: Where have you come from? Where are you going? God asked these two questions of Hagar when he found her in her desert wilderness.
Where had Hagar come from? Egypt. An Egyptian slave plundered from the Pharaoh, given to Abram and Sarai in rather complicated circumstances – which only get more complicated with time. When Sarah starts mistreating her, Hagar runs away into the desert.
Where is she going? Perhaps she was on the road back to Egypt, longing to go back to what was familiar (Genesis 16:7-16). But going back doesn’t really work, does it? Often, back is no longer there the way we remember it. It has changed and so have we.
As it was with Hagar, God comes to find us asking us the same questions.
Wilderness of distraction
One of the wildernesses we often find ourselves in is distraction. Those things that pull, push, pummel us from the outside. The needs and the neediness of those we love and care about. The demands of our work. The pressure of relationships weighted with expectations – carrying high shaming quotients. Our rising awareness of global fragility politically, environmentally and medically.
If we could just numb out somehow, we wouldn’t have to respond to that persistent voice of invitation to stop and look again at our life.
Instead we find ourselves so wound up that we no longer know how to stop, breathe or look around. Even if God is inviting us to stop and sit with Him, to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going, we can’t hear enough to be sure.
This wilderness of distraction is like a dense forest of 50-foot Douglas firs that blocks out the lights of the heavens – the sun, the moon, the stars. We lose our reference points as the wilderness of distraction crushes in on us, obliterating signposts that might otherwise point the way out.
Wilderness of emptiness
If distraction involves external pressures reaching us, the wilderness of emptiness is a different place where everything and everyone is held at a distance – a pain-numbing distance. We protect ourselves with thick castle walls, shutting out anything that threatens to hurt us again or ask anything of us in which we might be shamed.
Unfortunately, those walls not only keep out others. They lock us inside, limiting growth, insight and understanding.
This wilderness is like parched desert sand as far as the eye can see. We’ve experienced too many losses – the death of someone deeply loved, of dreams in relationship, of creating a home, maybe never having children. Loss through deep betrayal, loss of hope in ever having a job that releases our giftedness and affirms our worth, loss of physical capacity, loss of place. We have lost our way and lost our self in pushing away anything and anyone that might be able to show us a path out emptiness.
Or life has been too brutal. We’ve been beaten up too many times, shamed once too often, humiliated into invisibility, broken into Humpty-Dumpty-size pieces, tossed out and abandoned.
And so we go inside our created safe space of isolation where our walls are too high to even see the reference points we need to judge where we’ve come from and how to get to where we’re going.
My husband and I have been downsizing, a rather painful journey for me. I recently pulled down a Tupperware storage bin from the attic to sort and delete, delete, delete. Inside were souvenirs from countries I had worked in – a dress from Democratic Republic of Congo, a pair of felt Kyrgyz Aladdin slippers, a sari from Nepal and more. I found myself in tears as I decided what to do with each dear item.
Each time I felt a piece of me was also being deleted. Would I remember each experience that had shaped, formed and transformed me? Would anyone else know I had walked that journey – or care? Keeping things in the attic meant I could go and remind myself who I was and where I’d been.
Now I was being forced to look forward. To move forward. To accept God’s invitation to sit and discuss: Where are you going?
Wilderness of domestication
A third kind of wilderness comes from our desire to wrestle life into manageable simplicity. As we domesticate our life, we can unknowingly choke it. By God’s very design, the nature of life is creative, full of ambiguity, variation, uncertainty and changes.
Although we might have a longing for dynamic, stimulating life experiences in relationship, in work, in faith, we also fear the misadventure of such uncertainty. Although it might become rigid and stifling, certainty seems the safer choice at times. But is safety the better choice?
There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Lucy asks Mrs. Beaver if the great lion Aslan is safe? Mrs. Beaver answers: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Jesus came to give us “life to the full” (John 10:10), which sounds like more than living safe. As my husband said, “Christianity is living truth, as wild as a tiger and as free as an eagle. It cannot be tamed by categories. It can only be fully understood, it can only be fully experienced when its paradoxes are freely embraced.”
Perhaps answering Where are you going? demands we embrace the paradox of a holy wild and free God who is neither domesticated nor safe, but good for life, for living, for understanding wilderness, for calling us to more deeply to become the individual we’ve been created to be.
Wilderness of preparation for ministry
When I started thinking about the idea of wilderness a few months ago, my first response was: I do not want wilderness. I do not like it. I do not like the painful, lonely, threat of wilderness. I do not like the exposure of my naked fear I’ve experienced in some personal wilderness experiences.
But as biblical narratives show us, wilderness is part of God’s preparation and calling of His people, individually and collectively.
Think of Jesus being led by Spirit into the desert for a 40-day face-off with the devil (Luke 4:1-13) as preparation for His ministry.
In the case of Hagar, the desert wilderness is where she hears God’s promise of protection for her and her unborn son – a blessing, a future (Genesis 16).
Joseph might have thought his wilderness experience was pointless and would never end – years in slavery and prison, exiled from home, betrayed by his brothers – but it all transformed him into a disciplined administrator who God used to rescue nations from famine (Genesis 37-50).
Murder was the action that sent Moses from a life of princely splendor into his desert wilderness. Forty years later God confronted him there and revealed His calling to the role of political and spiritual leader for Israel (Exodus 2-4).
At one point in the life of Elijah we find him under a wilderness bush, terrified, depressed, suicidal. An angel comes to him: What are you doing here, Elijah? God’s still small voice called Elijah – and can call us – from terror to a new and meaningful stage of life (1 Kings 19).
Called into wilderness ministry
Not everyone is called out of the wilderness. John the Baptist was born to be a voice crying in the wilderness, and he lived and died delivering prophecies that reached far beyond the wilderness. We might call this the gift of wilderness, a rare but beautiful thing that my husband and I witnessed when we worked in Moldova.
The church we attended had been praying for a pastor in Kazakhstan who had been imprisoned for preaching Jesus. People prayed intensely for release because they knew, some from personal experience, just how dreadful and dangerous prison conditions were.
But soon after, the church received a plea from this pastor in prison. Stop praying for my release! The gospel of Jesus is being preached. As prisoners are becoming believers they are being sent to the farthest, the worst prisons in the country – and preaching the gospel there, spreading good news and hope to the imprisoned in dark places. Please stop praying for my release.
Our prayers changed. This pastor had been given a calling to the wilderness of dark prisons. Most dark places reveal that life is fragile and vulnerable, a place where weak hands and feeble knees tremble, where hearts are fearful. But those places might just be where we see God’s transformational activity most clearly in people’s lives and in our own.
For most of us wilderness is but for a season. So, what happens after?
Those I have known, who have been to the wilderness and beyond, seem more themselves – a purer version of who they were created to be. The wilderness chipped and chopped away extraneous stuff.
Wilderness experiences can develop in us a new kind of freedom, not only to be more fully in our back-to-nature selves, but also to be still and quiet, to sit with God and answer those two fundamental questions: Where have you come from? Where are you going?
God calls each of us in some way, perhaps to live less tethered to distraction or bolder in un-domesticating our God and our own faith. We have a rather outrageous God, so we should not be surprised that our calling to holiness might also be radical and outrageous.
Does the idea of life to the full seem daunting? Absolutely! Not safe or easy. But definitely good.
Elaine Pountney is a spiritual integration coach in Victoria, B.C. (YouTube channel Everyday Me Every Day God). Photo above taken at Joshua Tree National Park in California by Elliott Engelmann from Unsplash.