Backpacking in the wilderness is a favorite pastime of mine. Last summer, I went on a 24-day adventure in the High Sierras, hiking the John Muir trail with nothing but the supplies I could carry on my back. I honestly only vaguely remember what the trees smelled like. I have a blurry remembrance of the color of a clear blue sky. But one thing I will never forget is the silence. The backcountry quiet allowed me to only hear an occasional bird at sunrise or possibly a distant creek hidden in the mountain above.
Of course, something had to take the place of the noise I was used to filling my everyday life. And what I heard, then, more than anything else was a conversation between the crunch of my hiking boots from the outside, and the frantic wanderings of my own thoughts from the inside. One foot in front of the other. Toes cramping, stomach rumbling, mind racing. I remember those moments, having more than enough time to think about my path. And not only the path I was unconsciously following over the next rocky pass. I was really meditating on my path through life – mistakes with my kids, arguments with my friends, and a constant concern about my future. But no matter how many times my thoughts hit a wall, I kept moving forward. Just like my feet beneath me, I took one step at a time along the path before me.
Even after I returned home, I resonated with this revelation: the journey is long and the road is tiring. Minutes turn into days, which turn into years, and we all must keep walking.
Not new to walking
In fact, this is also the story of God’s ancient people, Israel. 40 years in the wilderness. Wandering from place to place. Where they never belonged. Picking up, starting over, in new lands that didn’t know their name. Always walking into trouble, heartache, and disappointment, the wandering children of God constantly swayed from one side to the other. Believing. Unbelieving. Faithful. Unfaithful. Constantly, analyzing the wrong turns, doubts, concerns, and futile plans for their better tomorrows.
I think we all end up asking the same question, encountering the chaos of our secret minds. Is there a greater meaning to my journey? Is someone looking down from the heavens above? And am I on the right path?
On the trail, I couldn’t avoid the thoughts that go through one’s head on a daily basis. Clarity and resolution. Blame and regret. There was too much time to think, and too much time to meditate on the voices inside. However, I have learned valuable lessons from those who have wandered before us. Whether it is in the wilderness, in the mountains, or even just an unknown chapter of our life – our road is twisted and our faith is messy. And yet this is the same journey God’s people have been walking from the beginning.
Walking in the wilderness is not easy. I have learned, that those who believed the Word of God in the ancient desert actually leave behind a story of suffering. Complaint. Lament. I once expected their story to be one of triumph and glory. After all, God was on their side while they faced the bleak world around them. But contrary to what I thought, faith and focus don’t equal an easy life. The wandering saints trusted in God, while they were hungry and thirsty, while they were enslaved, while they were sick and dying, and while they were displaced in the wilderness. They screamed at God, they called on Him to make it right. All the while, they believed that one day, He would.
We also wander, passing through depression, identity struggles, and a lack of purpose and meaning. Yet, any degree of suffering unlocks our hearts for honest meditation. Exposed by failures, unsure of the way to go next, and losing all hope within ourselves, that is when we are free to trust only in God. We can scream, we may cry, we definitely complain. And that is all ok. Because we have finally encountered our limits. Here, in our suffering, we echo the wise prayers of the saints. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart? But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psalm 13:1-2). Together we admit complete dependence on an Almighty God who has promised to save us.
Both our path and our suffering lead us to focus on one single question; what is the purpose of all of this? What does it all mean for my life? On the quiet of the trail, this is the point where I inevitably began to chart my own future. What would I do differently when I got home? What could I do or say or be to make this world a better place? And all the while I was missing what the desert saints had taught me.
Swords and plagues chased them in the desert. They were confused by idols and images. They were destroyed by moral failings. Inside and out, the world was against them. Yet always, God has remained faithful to His people.
And that is what I must remember. The world outside can hurt and confuse. The mind inside will lead me astray. What can possibly be the answer to my wandering? Medicine? Tolerance? Success? Fame? The one truth that always cuts through the noise, wherever I wander, is that God remains faithful to me.
Despite everything I will try to do better, outside of everything I feel in my heart, God’s one and only Son speaks the truth of the ages. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25).
The desert saints have emboldened us to be real about life. We are free to meditate on the truth of disappointment and sin. Identifying with this ancient story of wandering faithfulness. Trusting in the God who will never forget us, as shown by the uncertainty and failures of the saints who came before. Expecting salvation from a God who loves His people, especially when they don’t deserve it. Calling on God who gave His only Son for you. That whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
It is not about where your trail on this earth will go. Relax in the quiet, the disappointments, the shame, the regrets, and the unknown. God has promised that your path already follows Christ to eternal life.