I’m not sure when it became clear, but suddenly I realized that joy was gone. I knew something was wrong. The spiritual destination was the same but somehow the days were taking on a sense of overwhelming burden. That verse from Hebrews haunted me. “Enter into rest”. Well, rest was about a far away as the next sunrise, somewhere on the other side of dark horizon.
I don’t think that joy went missing for lack of obedience. I wasn’t aware of rebellion or self-determination crowding out the desire to follow Him. If I had to guess, I’d say that joy got left behind in all the “trying”. Joy was there, taking up the rear, as I pushed harder along the path. But if I looked at the ground beneath my feet, I probably would have seen only my own footprints. I was doing what the world trained me to do: lead. “Come on, Jesus. This way. I see the trail. Come on.” Of course, it’s no wonder I was exhausted at the end of the day. I was out-pacing God.
The first symptoms were subtle. Actually, had I been moving at His pace, I probably would have noticed them much more quickly. They were only a blurred indication because I was in such a hurry to get on with the journey. Now I see that a leisurely stroll would have concentrated my attention on the wilting scenery. But since I traveled too fast, all the green looked the same.
The first indication was wilting prayer. I should have stopped when I realized that I was struggling with the conversation. One day I simply forgot to go through the list of people who asked me to pray for them. I misplaced the sheet of paper (the list is quite long) and I tried to wing it. The next day I forgot a few more names, substituting my requests for the needs of others. I didn’t think about the shift until later, when it dawned on me that my prayers started sounding like a litany of complaints and personal needs instead of compassion for others. In my rush, I stepped on a lot of wildflowers along the path. I needed to slow the pace and watch my feet. But the more I prayed about my needs, the more my travel sped toward some solution – usually a solution that I wanted to make happen as quickly as possible.
A week of this frustration led to changes in my dreams. Old enemies started creeping back into the dark corners. They had no where to hide when the all the windows were wide open, but when my prayers pulled down a few shades, there was just enough shadow for a few imps to settle in. I discovered that some old patterns were clawing to gain attention. Instead of immediately asking for sunlight in the corners, I thought I could just sweep them out with the rest of the trash. But you can’t sweep away a shadow. It only leaves when the light goes on.
By this time, I was moving by momentum. Like all self-propelled transports, I was subject to entropy. Friction was mounting and the wheels were burning. But I pushed on. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do: persevere? In our culture, persevere means something like push forward no matter what, even if all the alarms are going off to tell you that the engine is about to burn out.
A few days later I got a blindside shot. Out of nowhere (is there really such a place in God’s geography?) I was hit with a full-frontal attack. Already off balance from the rate of my travel, I bounced like a ricocheted billiard ball, right off the table. That’s when I woke up. “What am I doing here on the floor? I’m supposed to be in the game. What happened?”
I wonder if one of the greatest spiritual battles isn’t simply the battle about the speed of living. I don’t know about you, but the pace of my life seems to be always careening toward the edge of some crash or another. I rarely have that sense of “all is at peace in the tranquil world” that Jesus seems to have had. I see Him taking His time, acting with deliberate intention, never in a hurry. Why can’t I have that kind of life? Why must I live a life of balancing the work commitments with the family obligations with the social calendar with the worship service? Why are my days sixteen hours too short?
I am beginning to think that Joy is the sister of Slower. When I look at the path behind me, I notice that she is still there, holding hands with Slower, enjoying every step of the trip. She certainly seems to see a lot more of the landscape than I do. And I’m sure that she doesn’t have that anxious, worried face that I wear. In fact, now that I really look, the two of them seem to be spending more time sitting at the feet to Jesus than trotting along the trail.
I am reminded of the lessons in the wilderness. Get up and go when the cloud moves. Sit still and wait when it doesn’t. Forty years of training. It’s worth asking why the children of Israel were able to journey forward at such a leisurely pace. The answer, of course, is that God provided their needs. In fact, the rate of travel training seems to have been directly connected to the “God as provider” lessons. Manna, for example, only became a daily delivery after they traveled three days into the wilderness on their own and exhausted all of their own provisions. Wilderness training is like that: first God lets us use up all that we think we can carry with us. He lets us get right to the end of our well-planned travels, and then, when there is nothing left, He demonstrates His mercy by providing. No possibility of credit to us. No chance of human explanation. In the wilderness, it’s God’s show.
That’s worth remembering. You see, I don’t like traveling in the wilderness. I want to get back to civilization where I have some say in things, where life is “normal”. That’s why I try to go as fast as I can. “Come on, Jesus. Let’s get out of here. This place is dangerous and scary. But I can see the city walls over there, beyond that mountain. So, let’s go as fast as we can and leave this terrible place behind. The devil might be here in the wilderness.” Oh, that’s my attitude, all right. Get me out of this desert.
God, on the other hand, isn’t in one bit of a hurry to leave the wilderness. In fact, He’s very much at home in the desolate places. He chose Mt. Sinai to visit this planet for a special time of announcements. That was about as far into the wilderness as you would ever want to go. Yet God made it a holy place (twice). There is something special about the wilderness and God. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Hagar encountered God in the wilderness. Jesus often prayed alone in the wilderness. The wilderness is that place where we get stripped of our myths and fables of independence and control. It’s the place where life must be lived in total dependence. It’s God’s home – and our “uncomfortable” zone.
I need a wilderness change in perspective. God has slowed down my journey in order that I may get to know Him in His home, exactly that place where I am most afraid. Of course, I am most afraid there because I have so little control. But that’s the purpose of the wilderness, isn’t it? To strip me of my mythology about control. If I rush through this terrain, I will never allow myself the opportunity to know His deepest provisions. I will fail the ultimate trust test. The truth of the matter is that I need the wilderness if I am going to learn to follow rather than lead.
How about you? Are you doing all you can to escape the “uncomfortable” zone? Are you rushing over the trauma terrain in hopes of finding that “normal” life again? Or are you stepping through the wilderness, slowly, carefully, noticing the carpet of tiny flowers along the path?