Jesus often retreated into the wilderness to pray and be alone with God. For years, I neglected the practice myself, and, in doing so, subconsciously affirmed that I was somehow better than Jesus. I neglected my spiritual life by retreating instead to books, study, and research. These disciplines are fine, of course, but, practiced exclusively, they exhibit a sort of anxiety that I’ve had for sometime.
For me, studying was an act of survival. If correct doctrine and correct practice are necessary to go to heaven, then questions, doubts and uncertainties must be squashed by diligent research. While I would say prayers during this season, they were more like using God as a search engine to ask for more knowledge and to help me uncover the secrets of Scripture.
When my faith and faith community came crashing down between 2015-2018, I became somewhat disillusioned with the way of knowing that comes through study. Belden C. Lane, in his book Backpacking with the Saints, summarizes Kierkegaard’s thoughts on this matter, “[The ‘systematizers’] reduced Absolute Truth to neatly packaged ideas that stimulated the mind. He wanted, instead, a truth that could change one’s life…He complained that too many thinkers build an enormous castle of intricate beliefs, then live their lives in a shack nearby…Christ has not appointed assistant professors, but followers.” (2015, p. 78-80).
Kierkegaard’s critiques appear to match much of my life, but when the Dark Night of the Soul came, the dependability of such a system became suspect, and I was forced to abandon it altogether. While I still enjoy rigorous study and research, I have a different approach now that is more life-giving and transformative.
Part of this approach includes stepping away from my book-filled office and laptop and going into the wilderness for a walk.
Hiking as Death and Resurrection
Breaking forth in captivating splendor,Finding Trouble – Daniel Rogers
the woods open up at the crest of the hill.
The pain of the climb, my soles growing thinner,
is worth the warmth my soul doth feel.
I could sit for hours as the light grows dimmer,
at great risky to my health, I’d skip the evening meal.
But I must hike on, though my heart is tender,
so I can share my experience; so they can feel what I feel.
I wrote this poem after climbing a steep incline to reach a beautiful overlook over Lake Guntersville. As I sat on a bench to rest my calves, these words came to me, so I scribbled them in my notebook. The poem is called “Finding Trouble” because it is about more than hiking. It is about how when I go through the process of death and resurrection when I reach another milestone in my faith journey, I can’t help but to share my experience, which often leads to me getting into some kind of trouble.
Hiking for me, then, is a way to physically act out the patterns of my faith journey.
I prepare my backpack by packing my lunch, filling my water bladder, and making sure I have my first aid kit, headlamp, book, notebook, pencil, and my phone to track my hike and take pictures. I then enter the trail and experience a series of ascents and descents. Typically, I’ll encounter some kind of wildlife, but it’s okay if I don’t. And, after a particularly difficult hill, I’ll enjoy a nice view or find a good place to read a book or write in my journal.
In my faith journey, I have spent time packing my backpack as well by gravitating towards certain authors, seeking out mentors, and documenting my journey through blogging. I fight my way uphill as I wrestle with a subject, and I take my time to enjoy the view after a new idea clicks for the first time. I also experience the descent of rejection, snide comments, and lack of community. The loneliness and solitude that accompany this leg of the journey can be difficult, but they can also be the greatest source of peace and comfort because this is when I am able to let go of the need to know and simply enjoy the presence of God.
These patterns of ascending and descending mark all of our lives, but sometimes, to avoid the pain of the climb or the solitude of the descent, we try to stay perched at the top of the first peak we come to, or maybe we stay in the car and never even begin the journey, not realizing that choosing to not start is a choice to go down a different path.
But to forgo the journey is to miss out on something truly grand.
Comfort – Anxiety in Disguise
In our anxiety to be safe, we flee from all things wild, clinging to what we’re able to explain. This keeps us, temporarily, from death. It also keeps us from love.Belden C. Lane
In my anxiety to be safe, I tried to tame God. I tried to trap Jesus in a box. And I tried to systematize the Spirit. But in doing this, I began cultivating a desire and thirst that could never be quenched. It is a desire which demands endless reading and studying, and this leads to endless anxiety about the destination of my soul – since my relationship with God was dependent upon correct practice and knowledge.
The idea that everything could be know without any doubts – that I could be certain – was comforting to me, but as I quickly discovered there was no end to this road, I realized that I needed to let go of this way of knowing God.
This wasn’t a change that came easy, and it is one I still struggle with.
Paul described a similar experience in his letter to the Philippians:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:7–11
Paul had to let go of all the things that gave him comfort, things that usually had to do with his knowledge, righteousness, and practices. This process wasn’t easy, and he equated it to suffering and death.
Consenting to the life-transforming work of the Spirit is difficult, and it is also dangerous. Since the Spirit goes where he wants, as Jesus said in John 3, who knows where this new kind of relationship with God might lead. It may cause us to give up things that are precious to us, such as the need to be certain or our dependence upon righteous works. But where it leads is more glorious than anything we can imagine: resurrection.
Staying away from what is uncomfortable keeps us from the cross, which keeps us from death, which keeps us from love and resurrection.
Wanting to be comfortable isn’t wrong, it is human nature, but sometimes our desire to be comfortable comes from a lack of trust in God’s desire for us. We may want our will to be done, but we must learn as Jesus to accept God’s will, which is the cross and resurrection.
Our air conditioning, smart phones, microwaves, and automobiles have conditioned us to view comfort as the ultimate goal of life – the American dream. But God doesn’t call us to be comfforbtale in this life; he calls us to be content.
This means being content with the natural process of death and resurrection. We may try to avoid it, but that leads to another kind of death – a kind of death known to the man who buried his talent because of his fear which came from a misunderstanding of who God is.
A Differnet Kind of Knowing
I’ve mentioned that I desire to know God in a different way, so I need to define what I mean by that.
The first way I was taught to know God is through reading, studying, and application of the Bible. This meant being able to memorize key passages and debate my opponents. But this kind of knowing seems to be devoid of God and full, instead, of my own ego and feeble intellect. In this way of knowing, I was making God in my own image.
So, instead, I’ve sought out a different path.
This other kind of knowing is not about intellectual knowledge but about love. As Paul would say,
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him.1 Corinthians 8:1–3
The necessary knowledge isn’t book smarts; it is loving God and having faith in him. It is being known by God, not the other way around.
This means letting go of the need to prove, defend, and debate every little thing. It means loving God and trusting that God loves you and everyone else as well, even your fiercest opponents. This is the kind of experience I have every time I go into the woods. Every tree I see, bird I hear, and gust of wind I feel is filled with the presence of God. Every time my calves burn as I climb another hill, and every time I take a drink of water, I am reminded that I depend upon something outside myself for my existence.
Hiking teaches me that I can’t do this alone. This wasn’t an easy thing to admit. And it hasn’t been a comfortable change. But the words comfortable and cross don’t go together, but cross and resurrection do go together, and I’ll choose that path every time.