Wilderness….you’ve either been there, are there right now, or don’t want to go there….. ever! I remember being taught the only safe place for a Christian was ‘in the fellowship of other Christians’, meaning a thriving church scene surrounded by people who dressed in the same clothes, spoke the same language, sang the same songs and apparently had their Christianity all sorted out. Wilderness was a place for sinners, rebels and ‘lone rangers’ they said.
I was told that Christians were like burning embers that only remained on fire as long as they gathered closely together. Remove one ember from the Body of Christ, they said, and poof! that ember would grow cold and inevitably lose hold of their Christian faith. I must admit it sounded logical at the time. It was several years before I came to understand the Body of Christ is knit together not by physical proximity but by the Spirit of God; that my membership in Christ’s Body means I am of His flesh and of His bones irrespective of church attendance; and the Good Shepherd is well able to keep His sheep despite the absence of any other ‘embers’.
Nevertheless, horror of horrors, a day arrived when I woke up to find myself out there in that most forbidden of places, the dreaded wilderness (with a capital “W”)! How had I made my way into this twilight zone of backsliders, unteachables and spiritual fringe dwellers of every type and shade? Well, that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say I had too many questions that no-one in the safe, thriving metropolis of Christendom wanted to hear, let alone answer. Know what I’m saying?
It was about then I discovered some of the Bible’s most notable characters, as well as Christ Himself, had long ago preceded me into these stark wilderness wastelands. In fact the wilderness was integral to the spiritual development of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and don’t even get me started on the children of Israel!
Like any desert, the wilderness is a place of precious treasures hidden just below the arid surface….treasures rarely found elsewhere. There is also wisdom to be gained in the wilderness that is not available to those who have never trod its desolate pathways or weathered its unpredictable terrain. If you have never been to the wilderness do not disdain the wilderness dwellers you may know. If they are genuine Christ-seekers, they are learning to follow Him in ways you have yet to experience. All who genuinely seek to know Him in the deepest places of the Spirit will at some time be driven away from the crowd and invited to walk a while with Him in the wilderness. And many, having savored the rich fellowship of Christ in the wilderness will choose never to return to the big city atmosphere of mainstream churchianity.
Wilderness dwelling is costly. It can cost relationships, reputation, and criticism and misunderstanding from those whose support and acceptance is important to us. Wilderness dwelling can also be extremely lonely. The programs and structures of organized religion which formerly provided for our social needs are no longer available to us. Life no longer revolves around the local church timetable. In the wilderness you learn what it really is to live and walk in the Spirit, or you don’t last long.
So, with all this cost counting, why on earth would anyone leave behind the comfort and seeming safety to be found in the regular routine of normal church life? It’s simple: the love of Christ compels them. They simply haven’t found the depth of communion they long for with Him within the four walls of a church building or the historic traditions of denominationalism. Of course there are exceptions, but many who have been judgmentally labeled “out of fellowship” by regular churchgoers are simply following the Spirit’s call to come aside and learn more of Christ. As we shall see in Part Two, Jesus Himself was driven deep into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Is it so strange that His followers would share the same experience?
Membership in Christ’s Body is not defined by what goes on inside the four walls of a church building. For those who have found a local assembly where the Spirit of God is free to minister, the love of Christ flows through the membership and the Word of God is taught truthfully and without compromise, count your blessings and give thanks to God. However, the sad truth for many Christ followers is that the institution known as the church is no longer a place of safety and refuge.
Do not take personal issue when someone genuinely seeks to go on their own pathway with God and that pathway leads away from your local fellowship. Do not join with the frenzied religious mindset that seeks to ‘bring them back into fellowship’ at all costs. They may have left your fellowship, but that doesn’t mean they have left God’s fellowship. And do not judge, gossip, condemn or stop loving and praying for them. If they are headed for the wilderness they will need all the prayer they can get! But let your prayers be unselfish, seeking the best God has for them, not merely praying them back into your personal fold.
If you are one who has been led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness, take heart. Though the journey may prove costly, Christ has brought you out to bring you in (Deu. 4:37,38). He has led you out of spiritual city dwelling not to abandon you, but to bring you deeper into Himself. He will not disappoint you and over time you will find He is more than worth whatever the cost may prove to be. If you have been wounded in the church system allow time for healing and give no place to bitterness. You have been chosen to join with Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings. If you will learn to be still His love will heal you while His fellowship sustains you.
In the next post, Lessons from the Wilderness Part Two, we will be delving into Jesus’ own wilderness experience. Your constructive comments and input are welcome as always!
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2013 Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.