Desert Spirituality

The Lord did not lead Israel out of slavery directly into the Promised Land. Instead, the Lord guided the newly liberated people around in the desert with a cloud by day and fire by night. John the Baptist did not go straight to prophesying, “Prepare the way of the Lord,”1 whenever he became of age but went and remained “in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”2 After his baptism by John, Jesus did not go straight to Galilee to begin healing the sick, casting out demons, and declaring the good news of the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”3 Even the great Apostle Paul did not immediately become a great missionary after Ananias laid his hands on him restoring his sight, but as Paul tells the church in Galatia…

 

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.4

And what is Arabia? The desert.

Wilderness. Desert. This is an important theme throughout the pages of Scripture. So important, in fact, that God does not bring about any deliverance or salvation until there is first a wilderness experience. A time of difficulty. A time of preparation. So why is it that spiritual leaders are so prone to avoid the wilderness? Why do so many spiritual leaders suffer from the Jonah-syndrome, where instead of following God’s call to the difficult place of Nineveh we instead run to the unreality of Tarshish? What is it about the desert that terrifies us, even if it is the Spirit of God leading us there?

While in seminary, I had the opportunity to walk across the desert at the U.S./Mexico border with a group of fellow students who were thinking theologically on immigration issues. As my colleagues and I walked across some of the same stretches of desert many immigrants crossed, I became keenly aware of how dangerous the desert really is. Nothing worthwhile grows in the desert. It is sweltering hot in the day and deathly cold at night. You have to be careful about each step so cacti do not attach themselves to you unexpectedly. Not to mention the dangerous animals one has to be aware of. The desert is a threatening place that brings you face to face with your limits, your mortality, and your need of God. The desert strips you bare of all the securities you insulate yourself with until your only companion is your own sinfulness and vulnerability. The desert forces you to be honest with yourself, and it reduces your proud thoughts to a humble longing for God. The desert is difficult, scary, and uncertain, which is exactly why the Lord tries to lead us there; for it is only in the desert that we can begin to trust in the Lord instead of our own abilities and resources. It is only in the desert that we are able to get our self out of the way to become keenly aware of the Lord’s presence in our midst.

Yet, we do not have to buy a ticket to the U.S./Mexico border or to Arabia in order to experience the desert, but we can find the desert squarely within the walls of the communities we serve. Our churches are full of difficult people and situations we would rather avoid. We find the desert in the difficult lay leader who always causes a fuss when things do not go his way. We find the desert in the small church where things seem to be going from bad to worse and nothing we do seems to reverse the situation. We find the desert in the family whose marriage is on the verge of breaking apart. We find the desert in the room at the nursing home where no one ever visits. We find the desert in the homeless man or woman who shows up to church on Sunday wanting to speak with the pastor.

Our first instinct is to flee such uncomfortable situations for places less threatening. We would rather run to places of comfort and happiness where we do not have to deal with the limits of our own mortality and sinfulness. The truth is no such place exists, and all we are really running from is our own problems and anxieties, which always have a way of following us wherever we go. Instead of going with our instinct, God is calling us to stay in the desert, to allow the Spirit of God to confront us with our mortality and sinfulness, to allow the uncertainty of the desert to tear down all the securities that function as barriers between our lives and God so we might be truly liberated from our pride and from the many lies we have fooled ourselves into believing that justify our unfaithful lives. God is calling us to slow down, be still in the midst of the chaos, and become aware of his presence.5 For, it is only in the difficulty of the desert that we will find God, and with God comes abundant life, true joy, and the peace that surpasses understanding.

1 Luke 3:4c (New Revised Standard Version).

2 Luke 1:80b (New Revised Standard Version).

3 Luke 4:1-2a (New Revised Standard Version).

4 Galatians 1:15-17 (New Revised Standard Version).

5 Psalm 46:10

Andy Ingram has been pastor at Inglewood Church of the Nazarene in Nashville, TN since 2008. He recently earned his Doctor of Ministry Degree in Spirituality from Columbia Theological Seminary. Andy serves with his faithful wife, Katie, and his daughters, Regan and Evangeline.