‘The wilderness’ may describe an actual place (desert, barren land, difficult and wild terrain) but may also refer to those times in life when we may feel abandoned by God, even though we are seeking Him intently. Eugene Peterson referred to these times as the ‘badlands‘.From a geographical point of view, these are places where sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water. They have steep slopes and it’s hard to grow food in that environment; they are full of canyons, ravines, gullies and other geological features which make it difficult to travel or settle there. The psalmist called this a ‘dry and parched place where there is no water.’ (Ps 63:1)
So often, when we are in these dark, dry, barren places, we ask God why. Why do we have to go through these things? Why do we have to suffer? Why do we have to walk through so many trials and tribulations? I don’t have answers to those questions; God’s will seems to me very often to be a mystery. But sometimes we have to be in these places so we can see and experience first-hand the miraculous providence and provision of God. Isaiah said that God’s people would see all that God had done and would then ‘see and know, consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.’ (Is 41:20) Maybe we have to be in the arid places in order to see, know, consider and understand God’s mighty power afresh.
Mother Teresa is greatly revered as a woman who did great works for God, founding the Missionaries of Charity in India in 1950 which continues to minister to the poor and needy across the whole world today. It was only after her death that many of her letters were released to the public in a book called ‘Come Be My Light’ and these described the darkness and spiritual drought which she personally experienced even while serving God so faithfully. ‘The darkness is so dark, the pain is so painful,’ she wrote. She said that for many years ‘my soul is just like an ice block’ and spoke of having ‘no prayer, no love, no faith – nothing but continual pain of longing for God.’ We can often believe that if we don’t feel God’s presence, we have sinned and done something wrong or that God has withdrawn from us (‘our midnight is Thy smile withdrawn’, as the hymn writer puts it. (‘Lord of All Being, Throned Afar’, Oliver Wendell Holmes)), but I believe the tough times are part of life’s journeyings which we simply have to walk through to teach us to live by faith and not by sight. Spiritual refreshing comes from God. We cannot manufacture this ourselves; we simply cry out to God to provide for us the living water we so desperately need.