out in the desert.

One of the things I sometimes hear about people who unravel their faith and end up on the outside of all they once knew is that they are being “rebellious, hard-hearted, self-centered, or mislead.” It’s an interesting observation because usually it comes from people who are feeling halfway decent about God, the Bible, and their faith. They are on the inside looking out, assuming far beyond what meets the eye.

Unraveling, while messy and painful and confusing, is often one of the most sincere and faithful experiences a follower can have.

Going out into the unknown, leaving everything that once brought comfort and certainty, detaching from all that used to bring comfort is not for the faint-hearted.

I read a wonderful article this week from Christians for Biblical Equality about amazing female leaders in church history, and there was a section on the desert mothers (ammas) and fathers (abbas) and their movement that deeply resonated. Here’s what it said:

“The desert was selected as a place to seek and hunger after God. It was also a place of spiritual battle where, stripped of comforts and distractions, the desert Christians confronted dependence on false gods with all their lure…Through a physical detachment from comforts, desert Christians fasted not only from food and possessions, but also from anger, jealousy, power, and greed. By weaning themselves from base appetites, they created enormous space for God. In the desert, surrounded by dust, they found a new freedom and vitality of faith.”

For many of us the desert wasn’t our first choice of destinations when our beliefs started coming undone and we started asking all kinds of questions and began listening to a deeper longing.

Most of us didn’t say, “Hey, let’s head to the desert and confront our dependence on false gods” in the same way as these desert mothers and fathers.

However, that’s often what happens in this liminal-out-in-the-desert space in our faith journey where we hit a wall and end up in the wilderness, where we leave all that we once knew so well.

“The desert Christians confronted dependence on false gods with all their lure.”

For me, I used to be dependent on certainty, conformity, and affiliation which are the main values of what I like to call “Fusing” (that place where everything makes sense in our faith). The lure of certainty–of having pastors and leaders who tell us exactly what’s right and exactly what’s wrong and what the Bible says and what it means and what we need to believe to be okay in the world. Oh, that used to work so well.  That, plus the lure of what it feels like to be connected to a whole bunch of other people who think the same, believe the same, look the same, and are rowing hard in the same direction.

The other false god I worshipped was my image of God as a god of Shame. The more shame I felt, the more God I could get. The more unforgiven I felt, the more God I could seek. The more lowly wretch I leaned into, the more God I could need. The god of Shame keeps a lot of people coming back to the system over and over and over again.

I also ascribed to an “if-then” thinking. If I did ___, then I’d get _____.  It was a performance-based mess.

I’m wondering what false gods some of you might have depended on. 

“By weaning themselves from base appetites, they created enormous space for God.”

When we give up food we are used to eating, we realize our hunger for something more satisfying, something different. What’s often hard, though, is that we don’t know what that is yet. This is why the spiritual desert can feel so brutal. The old tricks won’t work. The old practices just don’t cut it. Finding new ways to connect with God and our souls is not an easy task when they are unfamiliar or feel less-spiritual.

But oh, the beautiful things that can happen in that “enormous space”!

We can learn so much about ourselves.

We begin to be more honest about our feelings.

We see things we never saw before.

We notice things rumbling around in our souls we had no idea existed when we were busy churching or hiding or going through the motions along with everyone else.

There’s room for freedom, mystery, and diversity that was never present before.

What’s been happening for you out in the desert?  What are you learning about God? Yourself? Others?

The part I want to keep playing is to help the desert not be quite so lonely for people. 

To keep nurturing the underground railroad.

To keep reminding each other we’re not crazy, we’re not alone.

When I read this article, I resonated with the idea that the desert mothers and fathers were out there together.

Shaking up dust.

Seeking.

Living.

Opening themselves up the elements.

Opening themselves up to God.

Opening themselves up to what could be.

Not completely alone, but somehow with each other in the seeking.

Yeah, a lot happens in the wilderness.

“In the desert, surrounded by dust, they found a new freedom and vitality of faith.”

I think this is what all this faith shifting stuff is all about, really–a new freedom and vitality of faith.

People don’t have to understand.

People don’t have to go with us.

But oh, the most amazing, beautiful, wild things happen in the desert.

//

ps: last week I forgot to share about a post up at SheLoves Magazine and fits with why so many of us end up in the desert–we know there’s a deeper desire in our own souls and the souls of so many others to be seen. It’s called Making the Invisible Visible.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

12 Comments

  • I just pulled out The Way of the Heart again after 20 years. It’s been quite fitting and after getting a 1/3 of the way through it, started it over again because it was like every door and window had been thrown open, every light switched on, and my eyes and heart and soul and every fiber of my being was able to see the grace and fruit of these many long years of isolation…and oh, how I’m thankful!

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  • When I moved to the desert so many years ago, it was because I was driven. The box of churchified Christianity strangled my hope, my faith, my very being. I left asking God to show me the truth, good or bad. I have been “surprised by joy,” as C.S. Lewis proclaimed. The truth about God, about us, about His indefatigable love, grace and commitment to us became so profoundly real to me and remains. The desert is a good place to be in that God’s voice becomes the only one you hear and sets you free.

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    • “churchified Christianity”..”strangled my hope, my faith, my very being.” whoa. that is so powerful. this is a beautiful response. thank you.

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  • Aw, the desert…the place of awesome/awful! The process of untangling, unlearning, subtracting happens here. The gift of pain happens here. Yes, the GIFT of PAIN….because it is in that pain that one discovers a side to Papa he/she might never have seen or experienced, the treasure that it is. Here is where you meet yourself for the first time, see yourself as He has always seen you because here is where the raw-edged, ragged unraveling begins to uncover the true beauty of who you are and you see yourself through His eyes. That is why those go-to’s to connect with God just don’t work anymore and that is why you find yourself yearning to get off the hamster wheel of doing, of performing, of being a part of the grist mill. It just doesn’t work anymore. It feels like He has abandoned you and that is not true…in fact, He is wooing you, calling you, inviting you to something deeper, to something MORE. And it is so, so good. And hard. And so worth it.

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  • When I was in the desert, I saw no good in it. I hated being in the desert, and I felt as if I couldn’t hear God anymore and I almost gave up on Him. So I mistakenly assumed that God has abandoned me when in actual fact, he was there all along. Sure, till this day I don’t understand why I had to go what I had to go through, but I now look back as a blessing as it has made me a stronger, more understanding person. I’m no holy woman at the top of the mountain though. Life still confuses me. My own theory is this – what Satan meant for evil, God turned it around to make it a blessing. I actually wrote in some detail this Unravelling process and how I emerged from it. In the end, I came out of it more aware of God’s love. http://www.elizabethtai.com/blog/when-faith-unravels

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  • When I was in the desert, I saw no good in it. I hated being in the desert, and I felt as if I couldn’t hear God anymore and I almost gave up on Him. So I mistakenly assumed that God has abandoned me when in actual fact, he was there all along. Sure, till this day I don’t understand why I had to go what I had to go through, but I now look back as a blessing as it has made me a stronger, more understanding person. I’m no holy woman at the top of the mountain though. Life still confuses me. My own theory is this – what Satan meant for evil, God turned it around to make it a blessing. I actually wrote in some detail this Unravelling process and how I emerged from it. In the end, I came out of it more aware of God’s love: http://bit.ly/1LiFNQZ

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    • so beautiful! thanks for sharing, elizabeth. “it’s going to be okay because i’m with you..” so glad you are here and are writing about your experience, too!

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  • I am so tired of being in this desert though and I cannot see anything positive about it. I was a sting evangelical Christian, a missionary with ywam for 20 years, taking the gospel to African Muslims, and now coming back to the uk seeing my husband lose his faith has sent me on a path of confusion and doubt. I can no longer believe in so many of the things I used to thingpk were so important but I have nothing to replace them. I find it hard to even believe in God any more. And I am so afraid of dying. Not that I may be wrong, because I believe if God is real then he showed himself in Jesus and he understand and loves me, but if there is nothing and we just stop existing. That scares me. Don’t know why. I feel lost and afraid and I don’t know where to go to find peace.

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    • thanks so much for taking time to share, jan. oh, it is such a painful and brutal season and my heart is with you from afar. not sure how long you’ve been around the blog but hopefully there are some places of hope here in hearing what others are going through, too. peace from colorado.

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      • Thank you. Not long but do find it helpful to know I am not alone. Am in the UK and have no one to talk to who can even begin to understand so reading your book and blog gives me hope. Thank you for taking the time to reply.

        Reply

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