“So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” John 16:22
After God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery, they did not immediately enter in the promised land, but “wandered in the wilderness” and were tempted in many ways. Likewise, after God delivers us from the bondage of sin, through the grace of Christ Jesus, most still do not immediately enter “the rest given to the people of God.” We continue to wander and stray. We still find ourselves in the “waste and howling desert” where we are variously tempted and tormented. Amid the dark and barren desert, it is hard to see the nature of our own sickness and, much less, how to heal it. We need a light to guide us, to help us see both the nature of our own diseased condition and its remedy.
First, what is the nature of this condition in which we find ourselves, even after we have believed? It can be described as a spiritual wilderness, a place where the inward light of faith is dimmed by the forces lurking in the flashy barrenness. In this wilderness, we are pulled into all kind of activities that seem to demand our attention but leave us wanting. In this wilderness, the great vision for our lives is dimmed, and it becomes hard to see and trust in the God who is with us and who is there to see us through, even into eternity.
In this wilderness, our love for God and for God’s creation can grow cold, where we no longer have the zeal of souls that we once had, and that desire for all to be reconciled to God. As this love grows cold, mercy no longer rules our hearts. Where once there was gentleness, patience, and grace, now burns anger and impatience, and a hardness towards others.
Also, in this wilderness, there is a loss of joy in the Holy Spirit. Amid the chaotic noise of this wilderness state, it is hard to hear the inward witness of the Spirit that we are children of God and to know that deep sense of happiness that comes with this relationship.
With this loss of faith, love, and joy, there is also a loss of peace, that deep peace that is beyond human understanding. Painful doubt returns. We wonder if we shall ever hear God’s voice again, or if we ever did. Inward darkness begins to rule in our hearts.
What causes this “wilderness state?” We can’t blame God. It is not God who deserts us. God remains as a patient, gentle, life-giving presence, allowing us the freedom to come into this relationship. The cause of this inward darkness is not God but sin.
Sin haunts us at many levels. We can first compare sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are willful or presumptuous sins. For example, a single act of drunkenness, for some, can lead one back into darkness. The same is true for an immediate act of violence or abuse, slander or theft. More often, however, this journey back into darkness is sparked by sins of omission, sins that do not immediately quench the Spirit, but do so gradually and slowly. Sins of commission may be compared to pouring water on a fire; sins of omission may be compared to slowly withdrawing the fuel from the fire. Perhaps no sin of omission more readily cuts off this fuel than the neglect of private prayer. The life of God in the soul cannot continue without pouring out our hearts to God. We were created to attend to the means of grace from our own spiritual growth – prayer, worship, holy conversation with others, reading scripture, as well as giving and service. The neglect of these gifts leads us into the wilderness, into the darkness of the soul, into the fear of fully living and the dread of death itself.
Another sin of omission, which frequently brings the soul into this darkness, is the neglect of the neighbor, standing by as heartache and suffering, even sin itself, comes upon them. Without this kind of care, a diminishing of spirit will soon come to our own souls.
We also must mention inward sin – pride, anger, envy, lust, greed, gluttony – those inward dispositions that create a cloud of darkness. For example, we can take note of pride, where we start to rely on our own wisdom and strength, and even engage in religious exercises so that others might notice. How easy it is to forget that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. The same outcome may be produced by anger, even the kind of anger sparked by zeal for truth and the glory of God. All zeal which is any other than the flame of love, is instead a flame of wrath. The truth is, if we desire anything but God; if we seek happiness in any creature, we will find ourselves in the darkness of the wilderness – “cold, barren, and dry; and the gods of this world will blind and darken our hearts.”
For one more cause, we must mention temptation. When the candle of the Lord first shines within us, temptation frequently flees away. But it is common for the rains to descend again and for the floods to arise. The force of these temptations which arise will be heightened if we think too highly of ourselves and that we can handle it on our own. With these temptations, we must learn that we can call upon God and cast ourselves upon God’s grace. By simple faith, we can trust in the One who “alone knows how to deliver us out of this temptation.”
Now, what is the cure to this darkness, this wilderness state? There are many medicines, each to be administered according to the specific affliction. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. If sin is the cause for a departure of joy and peace, then a call to repentance is needed. We cry out, “Put away the evil you are doing.” If it is a sin of omission that is the cause, we can encourage self-examination, and a renewed commitment to the means of grace. If, for example, it is a dryness of prayer causing the dryness of life, offer resources for prayer, and offer to pray. We could continue with multiple examples. In practice, we must let the Spirit guide.
As we dwell in an evil world, among wicked, subtle and malicious spirits, temptations will come. In this world, the work of sanctification is not done all at once. The process can be compared to a baby, growing up through many trials. As we grow, we learn to not reason with the devil, but to pray; to pour out our souls to God.
And in the midst of this process, we do stray. The good news is that God remains steadfast in love. We know this deep within. Hear the promise, from our scripture reading: “I tell you, says our Lord to his disciples, you will weep and mourn ... you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.” Jesus compares this to a woman in labor. The pain is great, but when the child is born, the pain is no longer remembered. Jesus says, “You have pain now; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice and no one will take this joy away from you.” Yes, in the wilderness of this world, God is there to see us through. Amen.