A Good Wilderness started with a conversation around our kitchen table.
It was early evening, years ago, and my husband Jon and I were visiting with my sister-in-law, Jenny. The dining room light glowed over the oak table, holding back the darkness that pressed against the windows. Jon and I reminisced about life in the prior few years, memories full of our own sinfulness and folly, and that of others. We spoke of division and antagonism, public feuding and personal attacks. Loneliness. Heartache. Suffering. Hard times.
Our hands resting on the golden wood, our voices softly filling the twilight room, we shared our difficulties with Jenny. Then we discussed what we had learned through our experiences, with the benefit of time and slow changes behind us. Together we had weathered storms, bitterly regretting the ones we had made and slowly slogging through the ones we encountered. After much repentance and prayer, asking Christ for His mercy and His strength for forgiveness and wisdom to carry on, we were slowly emerging from the hardest times. Jon and I still felt lonely–often very lonely–and bruised, and we knew we would live with the scars of our experience for the rest of our lives. But we also knew that God had used them for our good.
Jenny listened carefully. Then she said, “So you live in a wilderness. But it’s a good wilderness.”
She was right. Our situation was a microcosm of how God works with both His rod and His staff and His steadfast love for sinners stumbling around in a fallen world.
As Lutherans, we are indebted to Martin Luther’s insistence that God is the only One who gives us what we need. Rather than working for our own justification and meriting righteousness of our own accord, we understand that as sinners, we are fundamentally unable to earn salvation. We experience patterns of Oratio, prayer; Meditatio, meditation; and Tentatio, temptation. As the Rev. Dr. John Kleinig writes in his beautiful book, Grace Upon Grace:
Luther proposed an evangelical pattern of spirituality as reception rather than self-promotion. This involves three things: prayer, meditation, and temptation. All three revolve around ongoing, faithful attention to God’s Word. The order of the list is significant, for unlike that traditional pattern of devotion, the spiritual life begins and ends here on earth. These three terms describe the life of faith as a cycle that begins with prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit, concentrates on the reception of the Holy Spirit through meditation on God’s Word, and results in spiritual attack. This, in turn, leads a person back to further prayer and intensified meditation. Luther, therefore, does not envisage the spiritual life as a process of self-development, but as a process of reception from the triune God. This process of reception turns proud, self-sufficient individuals into humble beggars before God. [emphasis mine]
In other words, what’s normal in our fallen world sounds instinctively awful to people, and even to Christians; that as we receive Christ and His gifts through faith imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, we will fall under attack, both internally and externally. Our inherited, bone-deep sinfulness simultaneously kills us while Christ’s justification saves us.
We know we will always have anfechtung, that terrific German word that describes the torment and affliction our souls suffer and wrestle with. This is part of our earthly life, living with the particular crosses we are given. Yet we are not left to fend for ourselves, drowning in a kind of temptation holding tank.
As Jon and I reflect upon that conversation with Jenny years ago, we see that the details of our situation aren’t particularly important now. What’s important is how we came to learn–indeed, in ways we hadn’t earlier understood–that Christ always provides for us, and for His people, in the midst of desolate places and circumstances. Pastor Kleinig explains our spiritual journey this way:
In our human lives, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence. But the reverse is true for us spiritually. On our journey we become more and more dependent on Christ for everything in every situation. We do not then proceed from childhood to adulthood; we move forward into spiritual childhood as we grow in faith and become people of prayer.
Most American Christians with any awareness know that our cultural malaise is deepening by the day. Writers like Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option and Anthony Esolen in Out of the Ashes, to name two recent examples, have documented and analyzed our current cultural degeneration, and they have provided insight into how Christians might weather our current and future storms. As a Lutheran, I desire to analyze their writings and others, share encouragement, wisdom, and resources for other Lutherans–and any interested Christians!–that will strengthen our families, churches, and communities to cling to Christ and receive His mercy and eternal gifts, no matter what may come.
Join us, and others, as we rejoice in Him, becoming like little children in faith, and gather together in the good wildernesses He so graciously provides to us.
To God the Holy Spirit let us pray
For the true faith needed on our way
That He may defend us when life is ending
And from exile home we are wending.
Lord, have mercy!
–“To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” #768 v.1
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