“The wilderness is the route of promise on the way to the land, or the wilderness is unbearable abandonment to be avoided by return to slavery.” – Walter Brueggemann
One of the important themes I deal with in my forthcoming book The Damned May Enter is the concept of the wilderness. I deal with it most directly in narrative sections surrounding the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. One of the reasons why I was drawn to the wilderness is because I believe it is one of the few fundamental paradigms that is descriptive of the life of faith. Robert Capon calls Scripture a treasury of icons that God has given us to mark out the great themes and episodes of life in the Kingdom of God: Eden, an Ark upon the Floodwaters, a Burning Bush, the Exodus, a Mountain of God, a moveable tent of his presence, a Temple on Zion as the capstone of the City of God, a Prophet who calls fire from Heaven on false gods, exile, a cross, a slain lamb who is also a Lion, and more. The wilderness is the context of the individual, as well as the community in the presence of God, as we journey to the Promised Land. The wilderness is simultaneously a place of negation and of abundance, of destruction and formation.
The wilderness as an icon of our journey with God leads us into the negative space of the desert, where resources are scarce and trials are constant. The principle of life that defines us and animates our self-understanding are slowly, seemingly mercilessly stripped away. We are challenged in our core about our notions of what life actually is, what its irreducible meaning is. Only in this process of laying bare our false assumptions about life, and about God are we prepared to experience the abundance that can only be found in a desert life. Here we are dependent on bread from heaven, not the work of our hands to meet our most basic needs. Here we are called to leave behind the mentality of slaves (to sin and fear and doubt) so that we can grow as warriors who are able to do battle in and for the Land we have been promised. God draws us out into the wasteland to destroy our false notions of what life in his Kingdom is really like, and to form in us hearts that long to live in that Kingdom and to see it actualized in both individual experience and community life.
Of course, this is why the temptation narrative of Christ in the wilderness is so important. In every way Jesus succeeds where the people of God have failed. Adam falls in paradise, and Christ is victorious in the wilderness. His forty day sojourn mirrors the forty year wanderings of Israel in the desert, and he is, by virtue of his faithfulness to the Word of God at every point, is recapitulating and summing up a restored Israel in himself. This New Israel is an echo of all that was good and promising in the Old, redeemed of the failures in the wilderness and would forevermore be comprised of both Jews and Gentiles as the newer and fuller Israel of God. We are called to navigate our own wilderness, our own painful trials, following Christ and participating in his victory. We are not left to our own devices to succeed in the wilderness, to somehow summon the moral or spiritual fortitude to emerge victorious, we are called to follow the One who calls us into his victory.
I know that the wilderness has been a paradigmatic spiritual experience in my own life, and that I have only recently, over the past couple of years, begun to embrace the wasteland as a place where an abundant life can be had in Christ. Pain and trials still persist, but so does hope. In my worst moments I forget this and turn my focus inward to my own aching heart or outward for some distraction that will hold the bewildering trials at bay. However, on my best days I face the blistering heat of the wilderness crucible with acceptance, and even thanksgiving, knowing that I cannot become what the Lord intends me to be in the chains of Egypt or in a Land I am not yet ready to enter. His tabernacling presence is with me, his bread feeds me, and I am given all I need to place one foot after the other and glimpse in some small way the light that shines over the hills that surround the Home I will spend my whole life journeying toward. Here the wilderness is transformed into a garden, and my desert is not a desert at all.