Life and Death in the Wilderness

Photo: Yuliya Kosolapova on Unsplash

Note: I am currently in the process of going through my drafts and cleaning up and publishing the good ones I have in there. This post was started in 2015 and was just finished today.

I was struck by the imagery of the appointed readings for Morning Prayer on Thursday last week. The First Lesson was from Ezekiel 37.1-14. In this passage Ezekiel is in the Valley of Dry Bones, surrounded by the result of death, and God promises the prophet that He will reverse this curse:

“Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the LORD—I have spoken and I will act, declares the LORD.’ ” – Ezekiel 37.12-14

The eventual end of every person is to die, this is inevitable and unavoidable. Primarily we conceive of death as a physical occurrence. However, there is also a spiritual dimension to death, a dimension which can perhaps simply be described as not believing and trusting in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection and thus not being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Or in other words, not being a true Christian.

It is this view of death, as both physical and spiritual, that is in view in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Ezekiel was a prophet to Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. Not only had many Israelites been killed physically as a result of the Babylonian conquest, but God had used Babylon to judge Israel because she was dead spiritually as well. She had abandoned God for other false gods and refused to repent and return.

This is not merely a description of a nation that lived over 2,000 years ago however. It is a description of all humanity since the Fall. We all die physically because we are all dead spiritually. Our physical reality is indicative of our natural spiritual state.

The Second Lesson was from Philippians 3.7-21. In the preceding verses (3.1-6) Paul describes his human credentials and says that no one has better spiritual credentials from a human standpoint than he does. But he regards these as liabilities, saying:

But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things… Philippians 3.7-8a

Why are these liabilities though? Because they blind us to our true spiritual state. We focus on our false selves, what we do well, our gifts, our accomplishments, our goals, our greatness. We do not focus on our true selves, our vileness, our frailty, our death. God came to us out of love for us, and we hated Him and executed Him in an attempt to hide our own evil from ourselves. Being alone with our true selves is a very scary thing.

Both of these Lessons occurred during what modern Christianese would call a “wilderness experience” or a “desert experience,” which basically refers to a period of time in which God feels absent or things are not working out well for some reason. In the case of Ezekiel the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. In the case of Paul he was writing to the Philippians from prison. In both of these cases things are not working out well and to the people directly involved it seemed as though God was absent for some reason, at least initially. But in reality God wasn’t absent from either of these situations. In reality God had brought them into the wilderness so that there was nothing around to distract them from their true selves and they were forced to confront what they found there. Ultimately they each responded differently.

The Israelites, as a nation, failed (or refused) to recognize the evil and vileness that was in their hearts. Instead their basic thought process seems to have been: “God exiled us because we failed to keep the Law and follow all its rules, so now we are going to be extra sure to keep the Law and all its rules so that God does not punish us again.” Their concern was not turning from sin, but avoiding punishment. They did not love God. They only loved themselves. They were not concerned with God wanted. They were only concerned with what they wanted and their own comfort.

Paul on the other hand recognized the evil in himself and recognized that only God could cure the sin that lived within it (e.g. Romans 7.21-25, 1Corinthians 15.9, 1Timothy 1.15). He was not concerned with avoiding punishment. He was concerned with loving God and pursuing Him more and more. In fact if you continue reading in Philippians you read:

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. – Philippians 3.10-12

Paul is not concerned for his own comfort, but only for being as much like Christ as possible. He truly repents of his old ways and pursues the way of Christ. He is not concerned with his external status or situation, but only with being holy as Christ is holy.

I believe that God uses the wilderness experiences of our lives, those times when something tragic or unexpected happens and it seems like God is absent, to expose what is in our hearts and force us to confront it. When we are brought to this point we have two choices: 1) choose death and refuse to recognize the evil and sin in us, or 2) choose life and truly repent and follow Christ. The first choice is extremely tempting because when we’re in a wilderness experience I think our main concern is getting out of the wilderness and back to the way things used to be, especially if we were happy and things were going good. The problem with this choice though is that it ignores our spiritual state and condition and prioritizes our own comfort. To be sure, it isn’t that wanting to get back to “normal” is a bad thing, because it isn’t. The problem is, I think, when we allow ourselves to get so focused on getting back to normal that we don’t take any time at all to examine what is going in our hearts during this time.

In my own experience I’ve found that I usually don’t understand or know what was going on in my heart during a wilderness experience until after I have gotten through it and got back to something close to normal. Once I’m in better circumstances I’ve found that I am in a much better place to reflect and examine the experience than when I am still in the experience. There are far too many emotions in play during the experience that it really prevents me from seeing things accurately. I think it is when we are on the other side of a wilderness experience that the choice between the way of death and the way of life presents itself to us. We can choose death and not examine our hearts, or we can choose life and examine our hearts and ask God to help us repent of whatever evil was revealed to us in it. Even if in the past we’ve chosen death and refused to acknowledge whatever sin(s) God brought to light there is still time to choose to acknowledge them and follow Christ.

I do not believe a perspective like Paul’s, who values Christ more than anything, even physical comfort comes easily. Following God and being obedient to what He called you to do, ending up in prison, and still being joyful and eager to serve Him isn’t something that just happens. It is born from coming face to face with the evil in your own heart and asking God to help take it away. And it is when all the distractions are taken away, our talents, our skills, our accomplishments, our greatness, that we are able to come face to face with our own sinfulness.

It is in the wilderness that God does his best work in us. It can be a very painful work. But if we cooperate and don’t fight him we will be closer to Him than we were before. Closer to being holy as he is holy. We will not die, but live eternally.

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