A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.