When the Wilderness Comes to You

by | Feb 22, 2024

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Mark 8:34

In the early days of Lent, it’s fitting for us as Christians to consider the practices we might take on in observance of this holy season. In doing so, in keeping with Lent’s primary metaphor, we choose to enter a spiritual wilderness—that is, any place of challenge, learning, or vulnerability—where we might grow.

Our chosen Lenten practices reflect and reinforce those times when we enter life’s wilderness terrain of our own accord. We do so, it seems to me, when we know that it’s time to make a change. Perhaps we’re ready at last to face something we’ve been avoiding, or be the one to make the first move toward reconciliation. Maybe the time has come to make peace with a part of our past that keeps resurfacing in our mind. It could also be the beckoning of a longed-for adventure, or a renewed willingness to take a risk for love, perhaps so long denied that we’ve forgotten what it feels like to step toward our heart’s desire.

Truth be told, a part of us would rather stay where we are, but we go into the wilderness anyway, because we know that it’s time. One way to think of the season of Lent, then, is as an opportunity to practice going into the wilderness, willingly taking on or letting go of something in order to build up our wilderness muscles, so that they’re there for us when we need them.

That’s all for the good, and we will be stronger as a result.

But there is another side to Lent that typically surfaces as the days and weeks go on. It has less to do with our spiritual practices and more with what life is like when the wilderness comes to us. It happens whenever we’re reminded of the struggles that are always with us, just below the surface, much like the Apostle Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh,” that never left him no matter how often he prayed to God for relief. Or perhaps it comes through the resurgence of grief that we thought we had made peace with long ago. Maybe something happens that leaves us gasping for breath, and we’re reminded of our mortality. Or the suffering of this world hits home in a way that we can’t shake and we wonder how long the human heart can endure.

These Lenten experiences reflect and reinforce the wilderness times in life when there is no choice involved. Seemingly in an instant, life as we knew it is gone. The phone rings with news we weren’t expecting. The health we’ve taken for granted fails. We show up for work one morning only to be shown the door. A loved one dies.

Unlike disciplines of chosen discomfort, the wilderness that comes to us is disorienting, humbling, and often very lonely. We keep looking around for what we normally count on, suggests the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, and come up empty.

When the wilderness comes, our first task is to accept that we are there—which is not easy. But accept we must, for we cannot make our way through it if we don’t acknowledge where we are.

In church this Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus tell his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must take up their cross. What’s striking is Jesus’ matter-of-fact view of suffering, not only as a part of life, but as an essential dimension of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.

In the mystery of faith, there is good news here, although “good” isn’t a word that we would use to describe the experience, at least not at first. And we do ourselves a huge disservice whenever we gloss over the pain involved in accepting something we would have given anything to avoid.

Such wilderness experiences can come any time. The season of Lent is meant to give us the grace and insight to make our way through them. The first step is always acceptance. Every Lent, no matter what else is happening in my life, I am brought face to face with the crosses that I still struggle to accept. I can’t say that I’m glad, but I’m grateful for the weekly reminders in church that I’m not alone.

With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that you, too, are not alone in the wilderness you did not choose. Dare to trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. What’s more, others will know something of God’s grace and love through you, because of how you are changed being into Christ’s likeness in the wildness that has come to you.