Anyone who reads the Christian spiritual classics – Paradise Lost or Piers the Plowman or Pilgrim’s Progress as well as contemporary religious literature, including for example such books as The Shack by William P Young, or Joni-An Unforgettable Story by Joni Eareckson Tada, will discover that for any traveller on the spiritual path there is such a thing as ‘the wilderness experience’. What exactly is this experience? And why should it happen anyway to those who are faithful to God and try to live their lives in harmony with His will?
Looking at this from another spiritual angle, it christian mysticism has been said that as soon as someone reaches a spiritual high they become of interest to ‘the Evil One.’ Read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. There, in the timeless dominion of hell, Satan’s senior assistant Screwtape is most interested in targeting those who are in danger of slipping from his grip, who are at risk of belonging to Satan’s Enemy, ‘Him’, forever. ‘He has given Himself every natural advantage,’ grumbles Screwtape. ‘And He’ll take anyone, on any terms!’ ‘He’ must be thwarted at every move – and so Screwtape instructs his junior demons to try every means to win ‘the Subject’ back again for damnation.
When we set off on our lives’ journeys we must cross many terrains; and the point of arrival at the destination can never be exactly where we were when we first acknowledged the reality of God in our lives. Huge industries have grown up around healing and wholeness, from both Christian and other spiritual traditions. Whatever brand you choose, you cannot ever fully avoid the wilderness experience, in whatever form it takes. It must be lived through. It can take the form of depression; a crisis of faith; one or more traumatic life events; the list of possibilities is very long. Some might choose to renounce the outside world, perhaps even to abandon their regular life in a literal sense; others might retreat into a cave spiritually, emotionally and psychologically, cutting themselves off from all normal social interaction and engagement in daily life.
In the archetypal story structure of the sorcery tale, this is the point on the quest when the tricksters, the shapeshifters and the false allies step in. How can a loving God allow this to happen? Does He exist at all? He cannot be seen or heard or experienced. Faith seems hollow. Why doesn’t God show himself, take action, mount a rescue mission? Julian of Norwich, that great medieval mystic, herself asked many of the questions we ask today. How can sin and evil exist in a world supposedly governed by a loving and sovereign God? She found her answers in a powerful intimacy with Jesus Christ. New Agers today want to feel the spiritual reality in their own bodies. And this is exactly what Julian achieved.
It is at times like this it can be helpful to consider: ‘If God is God, He doesn’t have to do anything I think he should do.’ David Frost once said to Billy Graham in an interview, ‘If your God is all you say He is, then he will have to save everyone won’t He?’ And Billy Graham replied, ‘If He is God, he doesn’t have to do anything.’
The Judaeo-Christian God, some skeptics and atheists are keen to point out, has a fire and brimstone side to His character. He punishes the children for the sin of the fathers, even to the third and fourth generation. Though we are told He is love, and not even a sparrow can fall without Him knowing about it, the evidence of our world shows us that He still lets the good suffer and the evil go unpunished.
We can feel angry with Him. So did many characters in the Bible. The Psalmist roars his anger against God in several psalms. The writer of Ecclesiastes bitterly bemoans the injustice and futility of life. Jesus himself suffers in the wilderness, and stands firm on the words of scripture when Satan tempts him to put his bodily needs, and his desire for fame, glory and instant success first. Later he cries out in anguish, My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?