When your life collapses it doesn’t always catch you off guard. Sometimes you can feel it coming from a long way off, like a great storm in the desert.
You can feel the tremors, the change in the wind, the drop in temperature. You know something big is coming and once that realization hits there’s only one thing to decide: run or seek cover?
My life collapsed around my birthday one year ago. Back then, all my dreams were coming true. After being on staff at a church in Texas I was stirring for a change. I decided to leave my place there and travel to a well-known ministry school in California. I had wanted to attend this school for years. I idolized the preachers, speakers, and worship leaders there. I was a podcast fanatic and bought all of their music too. It was a time of real excitement for me.
Not only was I accepted into their ministry school, but certain relationships in my life were going really well. It was a season of intense momentum for me that was supposed to reach its peak once I arrived at the school. I expected the classes to wow me, and the speakers to blow my mind. This was it, my moment.
In the first week myself and 1500 other excited and hopeful students crowded into the main auditorium where we had worship and lessons each day. On stage was my all-time favorite worship leader. The music cranked up and started building, and the team led us through the verses and into the first big chorus. We all raised our hands to join him, and I heard God speak to me:
Welcome to the wilderness.
It was jarring. I sat down and wrote the words in my notebook. At first I wanted to ask God what they meant, but as I sat there staring at the words I settled into their meaning. This season would not be dream-fulfilling hype fest I expected it to be. My storm was coming, would I run or seek cover?
The cause of my wilderness trek was clear: My changing belief systems were reaching a point of critical failure. What I believed before was no longer standing up to my newfound sense of scrutiny. I had begun asking many painful questions about my beliefs, my Bible, and my God before ever setting out for California, but I felt that if I could just make it to the school somehow the questions would dim or be answered and explicated.
These questions as well as many of the conclusions I was arriving at started to cause discomfort and even pain to those around me. It wasn’t just the questions that caused my problems, but the way I went about pursuing them. I was new to this “deconstruction” thing and didn’t know any healthy way to go about it. But I was alone, with no one around me really asking the same questions or going on the same journey.
I had every single belief on the chopping block and no one to tell me how to wield the knife.
As my sense of distance and loneliness began to grow I found myself sliding headfirst into deep failure. In the midst of what I thought was my “destiny” and “blessing,” I didn’t feel God in any of it. What I thought would be my dreamland became my wilderness.
I lost grip on school, on my closest and most important relationships, on my job, and on my whole life. I was spiraling into depression and hurting those close to me. In one of my darkest nights while my friends were away at a worship service I wrote what would become both a consistent lament and sustaining hope for this new season of my life.
Welcome to the wilderness. Welcome to quietness;
to being alone.
Welcome to playing music for trees, like David,
and talking to bushes, like Moses.
Whether they’re burning or not, it doesn’t matter anymore.
you’re here now.
This is the land of wind and whispers.
You may hear God in both. It’s the land of walking and of long roads.
You may not like it, and it may get dark,
but none of that matters anymore,
you’re here now.
Don’t forget that others have been here before.
Your Father walked this way once,
and if you pay attention, maybe you can find his footsteps.
Pay attention, because you’re here now.
The words were meaningful to me but more importantly I felt they were the first step of acknowledging the truth of my situation. I had decided somewhere along the way that I couldn’t conquer my own darkness and that I needed help from something greater than myself. Amidst the rubble of my own brokenness and heartache I was encountering a more real sense of the faithfulness of God.
I realized I was not to play the part of hero in my story — instead I would have to truly depend on grace for the first time in my life. I packed my bags in either defeat or surrender, perhaps both, said my goodbyes and returned to Texas.
After I moved back home I had to intentionally choose every day to come to terms with my own darkness. I had to make peace with what was left of my life. We have the idea that resurrection is quick and instant, a flash of light and we’re good as new. It wasn’t so for me. I felt more like Lazarus, with Jesus standing outside my tomb practically begging me to wake up. How many times did he cry, “Nathan, come forth!” before I heard his words?
Because of theologies, belief systems, crisis, or failure most of us will at some point or another find ourselves standing in the middle of the wilderness. We might find ourselves writing obituaries about our past selves. I think the first instinct is to find a way out of it, an escape. We have to realize that making peace with our doubt, fear, and questions is not the same as burying them in the sand or doing away with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will find clear answers either. But that really isn’t the goal of resurrection.
If I’ve learned anything from the much wiser women and men before me it is that this will likely not be my only journey through the wilderness. This is my best attempt to map out the winding roads of this season so that perhaps it will be of some use to me when I find myself here again. Hopefully, this might bring consolation or comfort to those of you walking your own wilderness now and in the future.
If you find yourself standing at the edge of wilderness with doubts and questions in tow, the journey will not always be easy. It will likely not make sense most of the time. But you have a true and wise guide in Jesus who has walked the wilderness himself and is faithful to lead us, as Brian Zahnd says, “out of the badlands and into resurrection country.”
Nathan Smith is a writer and thinker from Texas. Follow him on Twitter.