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.

Chasing Home

Reflecting on the past four months, I’ve realised that I’ve slept in 12 different beds, in nine different cities and towns, across three countries and two continents. Whether that’s been just for a night or for a few months at a time, I’ve called quite a few places “home” this summer, whether temporarily or more permanently. At this point in time, I’m settling into new student housing in Nottingham.

All this isn’t to boast about having a pretty adventure-packed Summer (although it has been great). Rather, it’s to illustrate a point.

You see, my nearly constant movement over the past few months has meant I’ve had to embrace the temporality of it all. Wherever I’ve had the privilege of visiting, whoever I’ve had the blessing of meeting, it’s been in the knowledge that for each circumstance and in every situation, it was for a short time only.

Sometimes I’ve made a place my home for a season – for example, my time at university is a season of life where I’m pretty much based in one place for an extended period. At other times, it’s more temporary than that – like on a short-terms mission trip.

The Bible says that the whole of life is a bit like this. Whether we know it or not, everything – every experience, season, relationship – is temporary, is passing away.

Qoholet, the wisdom-writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes, says that everything is like vapour, a wind. The Hebrew word often translated meaningless in the English translation of in Ecclesiastes 1 also carries the senses breath, vanity, and delusion. Everything is temporal, fleeting, gone in a moment, he says. Later he notes the seasonal nature of human existence (the famous sequence starting “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” in Ecclesiastes 3), and mourns that no matter what legacy he leaves, after death it will amount to nothing more than a “striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:17, ESV). He doesn’t even have power over what his successors do with what he leaves behind – they may go and squander his riches and everything he has toiled for during his life (ibid. v. 18, 19).

The Psalmist paints a similar picture of human existence:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:3, 4, NIV)

That’s right: our existence is like a shadow, flickering and changing as the sun passes and gone as swiftly as the coming of the day’s end.

Every place we call “home,” whether in the knowledge it is for a short time or as a more permanent dwelling, will pass away. Every empire we build, every business and entrepreneurial pursuit  we pour energy into, every dream, every victory and defeat, everything that seems so final, so momentous, everything that we seek security and permanence in, these things are passing away. Every relationship, every family, everyone we love and hate, every person we promise to spend the rest of our days with – they, too, are going like a wind, mortal human beings that they are. Human existence is a fleeting shadow. Our degrees, our careers, our legacies, all is but a vapour, swallowed up in the passage of time that washes over our existence like an ocean that we are but a drop in.

All this might sound bleak to you. It might be something you choose to ignore. Our own mortality is a hard truth to swallow.

But the Bible offers some eternal perspective on our own fragile existence, a reason to rejoice – a reason for hope. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, gives us the following insight, as he reflects on our eternal hope of glory:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

This world is not our home, Paul says, at least, not like it is. The life we live now – our life in this world – is like a tent, a temporary residence. It is but a temporary dwelling, a passing place as we await the permanent, unshakeable, eternal dwelling place promised us, assured by our salvation in Christ.

Now we are wanderers, then shall we have rest. Now are we exiles, then shall we have a home. Now we hunger and thirst, then shall He satisfy our every need. Now we long for security, then we will dwell in an unshakeable Kingdom.

Paul uses the image of being “clothed…with our heavenly dwelling” as He pictures eternal life. The portrait here isn’t of some dualistic, abstract vision of heaven, some “place in the clouds” that our disembodied souls will float off into, with no likeness or resemblance to our world. No, not at all. Rather, it is that this world is groaning, longing for the time when heaven touches earth, transforming it into all God intended for Creation. It is material, concrete, real – where everything lacking is made whole.

This is an image of a world – even this world – transformed; a world where brokenness is transposed into wholeness, where sickness is done away with, where everything is made new, nakedness and depravity are clothed with bright raiment, where dark places are pierced with unfathomable light, where everything hurting and dislocated in this world is renewed, restored, redeemed.

It is life as it was meant to be – the bare bones of our mortality clothed with eternity, depravity clothed with abundance. It’s as the writer of John’s Apocalypse says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

What does it mean for us now? We can either mourn the temporality of it all, or we can embrace it. Embrace every opportunity, every meeting, every encounter, every season of life as a gift. It is all from God, and it is all going back to Him. And every worry and heartache, everything “insurmountable” obstacle that seems so significant at the time, every burden- these things, too, are passing away. There will come a time when we will be clothed fully, when we come home, when we enter into the eternal feast when the Kingdom is established in fullness. For now, we wait.

It gives us unshakeable hope for the future, and perspective for today. And even now, the Kingdom is breaking in, making all things new. We are living in the aftermath of Christ’s shattering victory over the clutch of death and evil and darkness on the Cross.

And because of that, we have utter freedom. Freedom from having to clutch and strive for the things of this earth as if they’re all we have – freedom from the anxiety arising from our own mortality. He has given us utter freedom, even as we experience eternal life here and now.

(v) Immeasurably More

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20,21, ESV

I’m now home after our week in Romania, and I’ve had some time to process all that God has done during our time in that incredible country.

Over our five days working in Tarlungeni and Sacele, four construction teams and two children’s work teams made up of our seventeen-strong group worked alongside FAST’s amazing staff, pouring themselves out in serving wholeheartedly, loving sacrificially, and seeking the Kingdom of God in one of Brasov’s most impoverished communities .

We finished laying the bricks for a house in Tarlungeni, and built a total of 14 A-frames to roof not only that building, but also another house in the village that was awaiting a roof. We plastered the ceiling of one family’s house, and installed boilers and radiators in two workshops so that FAST’s vital construction projects can continue through the freezing winter months.

God did abundantly more in five days than I could fathom. From a personal perspective, He opened up my eyes to the things that break His heart, confronting me with poverty and rejection that I’d heard about but never experienced in such a way before, so manifestly real. It was heartbreaking to see such pain, such injustice, to walk with people who had known only rejection and squalor all their lives. It left me emotionally and physically exhausted.

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Yet, in the midst of that, God reminded me that He is sovereign, He is faithful,  and He is victorious. In a community that, from the outside, seems to be in a hopeless situation, the Father is on the move, restoring, rebuilding, healing, renewing. Through the work of FAST, run by people like Daniel and Ema who heard God’s cry for His hurting people and obediently followed the call to go out to a community that no-one else would, God is moving in hope, flooding the very streets of Tarlungeni with his mercy and love.

From the outside, building a house or running a holiday club may seem like merely sticking a plaster on a fatal wound: a house will last a few years, a holiday club provides only brief respite. But, it was never about us, what we built or achieved. No. Our purpose was simply to offer what little we could, humbly, obediently trusting the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20,21, ESV) would take that offering and work His power. By ourselves, we are nothing. Aside from God hopeless places remain hopeless, barren wastelands remain barren, ruins remain ruined.

But we don’t follow a God who is removed from pain. Our Father, whose Kingdom is love and justice and mercy and kindness poured out abundantly, enters into the darkest places to transform them, bringing life, rebuilding the ruins, raining down hope. What is impossible for us becomes possible in God, who works together all things for good. It’s happening in Romania, as it is across the world. Heaven is touching earth. Darkness is pierced by the light, and hopelessness is exchanged for hope.

God gives His people, His church, the blessing of participating in that work. And what a blessing it was to offer ourselves, in a small way, to the work that He is already doing in Sacele and Tarlungeni. The Kingdom is there, and we were given a small share in it. Through the work of FAST, the Father is working powerfully, transforming a community with His love.

For now I bid Romania la revedere. But God is still there, always faithful, steadfast in love. And His Kingdom is on the move.

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