My spirit has been heavy lately. I have tried to pinpoint the cause, but it seems a bit nebulous. A bit beyond me, as if it is not really my own. Rather I sense there is a deep intercession going on. It is as if a good chunk of the Body of Christ is travailing a laborious path, and I feel in my own body the ache. I pray for people. This is how the Holy Spirit works in me. Lately my prayers have taken on the characteristic of burden bearing. But as I listen to friends and loved ones share their hearts, I am beginning to sense that this is a widespread experience of wilderness. I understand now why the Spirit would ask me to pray for this: it is a spiritual terrain I have experienced before.
Years ago in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness, I initiated a conversation with one of my favorite preachers who was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending. During our brief encounter, I asked him to pray for me. His words went something like this—
“Been a long time in the wilderness, but You God are with us. Give a faith that is deeper. A strength that is stronger. A hope that is . . . .” I can’t quite place that last word. Except that I came away knowing that hope on the other side of wilderness, is more than what it was going in.
His words have rung true in my life. I have found that God is often the One who engineers my wilderness experiences, allowing circumstances beyond my control to bring me to a place of utter dependence upon Him. At first I fight. I try and scratch and claw my way out of the situation I find myself in. Eventually weariness sets in; I begin to sense that God is asking me for a deeper response. God is asking me for trust. God is asking me to relinquish myself into His Hands for a purpose I cannot fathom.
Those times when I have given my assent to God, to His wilderness, and to the process He asked me to come through, I have seen emerge every time a faith that is deeper, a strength that is stronger. A hope that is—hopier.
We often experience wilderness as a vast expanse of emptiness that seems to have elusive boundaries. It is a season that never seems to change. We feel stuck in a place where our human gifts and abilities are rendered useless while we become all too well acquainted with our inability to change our own circumstances. Our efforts to transform our situation meet with limited success. Progress comes grudgingly, if at all. Eventually we must make peace with our surroundings, finding direction from there.
During one of my wilderness experiences I was meeting with my spiritual director, pouring out my heart, my frustration at the process. Her words to me—“Listen for the water.” I since recognize that in every desert, in every wilderness place, God causes springs of water to appear, the saving Grace in a dry and weary land. The springs of that time came from songs that soothed my chafed soul—“Come thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing your grace. Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. . . .” The familiar hymn became the night-time lullaby that helped my child find rest, its words soothing my restless spirit too. While God could not be cajoled into changing my circumstances, I found in Him boundless Mercy to sustain me within them.
Wilderness has a way of showing us to ourselves. In that empty cavernous space our great big need grows huge in our eyes. We cannot pretend anymore that our own resources are proficient to meet the challenges we face. It’s as if each strength and natural talent begins to crumble before our eyes. And God asks us to trade in our proficiency for His Sufficiency. He asks us to relinquish our own strong arm so that our weakness can showcase His strength. He wants to show us what perfect strength can look like. So He takes us to the only place this is possible—to the heart of deeply felt poverty. It is here that we must learn to be sustained by Grace, the power that might not pluck us from the fire, but which makes us hardy and resilient in the face of fire. We have to gather it each day like manna, to stand each day in a place of trust, believing God will give us what we need, when we need it. And we have to believe that this is not the destination but a waiting place, that the road leads to something wonderful and not just another bondage. It is wilderness, after all is said and done, that finally frees us from bondages we never knew we had.
I offer my heart, these prayers, these words with the acute awareness that we cannot possibly know when wilderness will arrive or when it will end. I recognize that many of those for whom I am praying are seasoned believers, they know the Lord deeply and love Him with everything. They have been knowing and loving Him for a long time. There is this sense in which I question this testing—“Why this? Why them? Why now? After all they have come through, haven’t they been thoroughly tried by the fires of life already?” The only answer I can discern is that God is doing a work, a polishing of sorts. There is something for which He is preparing them, preparing us all, that needs sturdy believers. We are never placed in the wilderness for our destruction, but only to be prepared for Glory. Whatever awaits us on the other side is Glorious, filled with Greatness which is beyond our comprehension. And when we get there, we will be so primed in the fires of adversity that our lives will hold God’s Glory with ease.
So then what is left for us to do?
We are called to stand strong. One of the biggest indicators of maturity (and sturdiness) is the ability to persevere, to stay with a commitment, to complete a task even when it is no longer as easily attainable as it once appeared. To fulfill God's purpose for our lives even when it looks like life would be so much simpler if we didn't.
Whatever it is God has initiated in your life, stick with it. Whatever progress you have made in your spiritual walk, do not be tempted to regress or stagnate. Whatever new understanding or knowledge God has brought you to, sit with it, ruminate on it, make it so much a part of you that its truth cannot be dislodged. Wherever and whenever you feel the nudge, the Holy suggestion, to do something, do it immediately and heartily. It is God who is responsible for sustaining us in the gains He has accomplished within us and on our behalf. Our part is to trust His work within us and cooperate with the work He wants to do. So really the battle is already won. We just have to stay close to the One who does the winning.
I feel the weariness in my bones, the longing for relief. But I also know that God is with us, Strength we cannot grasp holding us steady in this place. He is asking us to look for Him in the ordinary details of our lives, to expect to see Him looking for us. He is asking us to hold His hand in this moment, to not run away from it but to face it, drawing strength from His presence and Grace with us. There will come a time when we will realize what this season was all about—the hard-pressed days, the obstacles overcome, the strength developed because difficulty demanded it. All of it a laboring that toward a new place, a birth process bringing forth something we could hardly even imagine. We want so badly for it to just be done. But the gift of hard-pressed days is learning to press on and push through. The pressure tells us the new thing will be coming soon.
I realize at the end of this that I’ve been writing about what it is to give birth. This travailing is not a bad thing. It is truly good. Problem is, nobody told us we were pregnant and now it is time to push. There is no way out of the season we are in. But we can recognize it, breathe deeply, hold tightly to God’s hand, bear down, and push through! Be not frightened dear one. God’s Promise is coming to you.