Wilderness time is a phrase to describe the practice of getting away from the daily routines and recurring relationships in order to connect with God. The concept of wilderness plays a vital role in the Christian formation of a life. Wilderness is life at its basic level with no amenities that comfort, distract or entertain us. Even more wilderness is the place of the wild beasts and angels. “He [Jesus] was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (Mark 1:40).
A generation of former Egyptian slaves died in the wilderness having failed the tests that wilderness brought. A new generation that saw God’s deeds in the wilderness entered the Promised Land. Elijah, on the heels of a spectacular triumph over the prophets of the god Ba’al, heard that Jezebel was gunning for him. He ran a day’s journey into the wilderness and there God’s creatures and God’s angel attended to him.
Spending 40 days in the wilderness and confronting the Satan, Jesus had wilderness in his heart. He knew that his life, the man that he was, had to be regularly stripped down to the basics: Who is God? Who am I? What am I here for? We read, “Very early [adverb 1] in the morning [adverb 2] while it was still dark [adverb 3], Jesus got up…” (Mark 1:35). This after a previous evening of rigorous, draining ministry into the night (see 1:32-34). “Jesus, please sleep in! I want to so many times!” Jesus abandoned life’s amenities—the house, the disciples, the families, the crowds, the needy, the extra (well-deserved) sleep, breakfast. He sought a solitary place (wilderness) and prayed. Basics. God the Father and God the Son in conversation. Basics.
What did this practice of wilderness do for Jesus? First, it slammed a memory into the minds and hearts of his disciples. Peter, all jittery that Jesus slipped out on his own, called for a search party. “Where’s Jesus?! Find the Master!” And they do. They find him prayer, away from the maddening crowd. Second, it saved Jesus from being a slave to other peoples’ wishes. “Everyone is looking for you!” reported Peter. Jesus was a hot item. Jesus was the best show in town. Jesus’ name was on everyone’s lips. Jesus sky-rocketed in the polls. Jesus didn’t care about any of that. Why? Third, wilderness time solidified Jesus’ purpose. He responded, “Let’s get away from here where I am so popular. Let’s get about my reason for being. Let’s go to other towns and villages so I can preach the good news of the kingdom of God. That’s why I have come.”So many live hectic lives, sometimes at break-neck speed, surrounded all the while by time- saving, digital devices. We simply do not have the time for these necessary wilderness habits. Emilie Griffin, in her book Wilderness Time: A Guide for Spiritual Retreat, writes wisely, “Possibly the barrier is not time at all. What we are up against is not really the pressure of events, not the many demands on our time, but a stubbornness within ourselves, a hard-heartedness that will not yield to transformation and change” (emphasis added). Wilderness time will confront us with the “wild beasts” within us that are wired to resist God and to resist our deep longing to be more like Jesus. All of life’s amenities, all the stuff and activities that surround our lives, may unwittingly be our own self-created diversions to avoid the dangers resident in our souls.
Inner beasts long to stay hidden and ignored. How often do pastors admit that in their deepest imaginations they just want to be “a hit”? How many Christian leaders long to hear, “Everyone is looking for you!”? How often do pastors buckle under the pressure of people’s demands? How driven can pastors become by “the fear of others”? A wise pastoral counselor told me once, “John, if you aim to keep everyone happy or pleased in a church your size, you will go crazy. Literally. I’ll be seeing you in the E-ward of the local hospital.”
Imagine Peter’s diary. “Dear diary: Capernaum. I got up early because I heard noises and talking at the door of the house. The sun was just rising. I looked out and hundreds of people were in the street. Some looked like they had camped out. I woke Andrew along with James and John and said that we should get Jesus. Jesus was gone. He was nowhere to be found. My mother-in-law said she thought she heard someone leave hours before. Out the back. We scrambled around looking. The other disciples and I climbed the nearest hill up behind the town. Over the crest by some scraggy trees we found Jesus. He was alone and he was praying. He was praying. By himself. Or was he?”