Some years ago, in an Old Testament class, I decided to write a paper on a theology of wilderness. The professor asked me to explain my reasoning.
I decided to write, I said, because it seems to me that we spend a lot of our time in a wilderness. The place may be spiritual, mental, emotional or relational, but in some important aspect of our lives, we often feel lost. We're wandering who knows where. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about.
These times can affect us in one of two ways. They can be devastating and leave us bitter and angry, or they can be times of deepening and growth. The difference is pretty much up to us.
But here's the problem that sparked my paper: Most of us don't have a "theology of the wilderness." That is, we don't have anything in our concept of God and our relationship with him, or our beliefs about the world and our place in it, to help us understand and benefit from hard times, times when it seems that everything is going wrong. Without that basic framework, we look at the troubling times far differently, and too often, instead of growing, we become embittered, feeling abandoned.
This should not be. Our lives have too much pain and too many hard places to waste. Nor do we want to let hard times control our life. If we are going to hurt, why hurt for nothing? Why not benefit from the pain? Pointless pain is intolerable. Pain for a purpose is more than tolerable, it is often willingly accepted.
On this topic, the most obvious wilderness example to consider is the experience of the people of Israel, fresh from Egyptian bondage, no longer slaves. That was good news, certainly. No more beatings, no more abuse. No more living at the whim of an oppressor. No more slaves.
But not free people.
Have you ever considered what happened in their wilderness? I don't mean the obvious things, like the Law and other events at Sinai, or so many people paying with their lives for unbelief. I mean, rather, the process that happened in the Israelite people. Have you considered that?
Again: They were slaves. Then they were rescued, brought out of their slavery. But they were not free people. They were simply not-slaves. And not only were they not-slaves, but they had no memory or imagination of what it meant to be free.
They were rescued from slavery, in that they were brought out from under the oppression of an external power, one that controlled every aspect of their lives. It was a physical rescue.
But to be truly free is not a merely physical process. This is part of the problem of former prisoners, those imprisoned for crimes, who overwhelmingly return to prison after a rapid return to a life of crime. They are physically free. But they need more.
Freedom means learning a new way of thinking, a way of seeing the world that leads to a different decision-making process. Free people do not think like those who are slaves.
Many people in our world, including "free" Americans, are not free. In most cases, they have no visible chains, nor do they have men who are slave masters, carrying whips. But they are slaves. They don't think like free people. They are bound in various ways in their mind so they are chained to being something far less than they were designed to be. Their life is a caricature of what a full, rich life really is. A cartoon.
The most important "thing" that happened in the wilderness was two: First, the Israelites started learning to think like free men and women. They learned to make appropriate choices and be accountable for their own welfare and success. Second, they learned how to be free in and as a result of an ongoing relationship with God. The two are inseparable. We cannot be free independent of God, because we are created as dependent beings. So if we would be truly free, if we would think and act and decide as free men and women, our freedom must be found in God, through Jesus.
It's important to point out again that we have a choice in these matters. As important as what happened in the Israelite people in the wilderness is, the fact is that a great many of them did not enter into that process, and as a result of their choice, they died in the desert. We are not forced to grow. Ever.
So what are some of these "chains" we wear, things that hold us back?
A common chain is our own idea of who we are, our self image. The way we see ourselves is a major factor in the way we interact with the world and with God. Do we subscribe to "worm theology," the idea that I'm just some worm, unworthy of God's notice? Many do. A good question to ask ourselves is, "Does God like me?" We might ask whether God loves us, and the answer is nearly always an automatic yes. But if we change the question from love to like, the answer is very often, "No, I don't think so." Of course, that's not a biblical answer. God delights in his people. The answer is a reflection of our own unhappiness with the person we see in the mirror. We don't like ourselves so we are obviously unlikeable so God obviously doesn't like us so....
Hedonism, being focused on oneself, is a sure guarantee to an empty, unfulfilled life. We cannot live a life focused on ourselves and a life of obedience to God at the same time. We are here - especially if we are followers of Jesus - for others. Our lives should be focused primarily on Jesus, and secondarily on the people Jesus brings into our lives, people who are in need of his grace. Self-centered lives are the ultimate and perhaps worst form of slavery. Children are self-centered. Adults ought not to be.
Materialism - getting as much "stuff" as we can - is related to both self-image and hedonism. But to compulsively buy as much as we can, far more than we can possibly need or use, is throwing our life away. We have only time and talent in this life. And everything we buy, we buy with money acquired by trading some of our life - our time and talent - for it. Why would we want to give our life for something that we do not need, and will only end up in the dump? Foolishness. Invest in people, not toys.
Finally, the question to consider is about my priorities. What is really important to me? Is it to have the latest look in clothes? Or the coolest car? The coolest and latest toys? The way we spend our time and money will reliably show what's important to us.
A good question to ask is what do we want someone to write about us after we die? What should be on our tombstone? "He had fun"? These things can determine our priorities in life. It's worth considering how we will be remembered.
And our priorities will determine how we approach building relationships, both with people and with God. And our relationship with God will determine whether we grow or die when we hit the wilderness.
Grow. Don't die. Don't spend your life for nothing.