The wild is a dangerous place. In his book Into the Wild journalist Jon Krakauer chronicles the life and tragic death of young Chris McCandless in the wilderness of Alaska. But McCandless wasn't the only wanderer to meet his death in the Alaskan wild. In chapter eight of the book Krakauer points out many more have ventured into Alaska’s wild to meet with tragedy.
There was the Vietnam Vet who built a cabin on the Black River to “get away from people.” By February he ran out of food and starved, apparently without making any attempt to save himself, despite the fact that there was another cabin stocked with meat just three miles down stream. [from Into the Wild]Others include Gene Rosellini, a martial arts expert, yoga enthusiast, intellectual, and highly disciplined. He attempted an experiment to see if man could go back and survive without any benefit of modernity. He used only the most primitive of tools he could make for himself. Amazingly, his experiment lasted more than a decade. He then decided to traverse the globe on foot, but he never began. His body was found in the floor of his shack. Dead from a self-inflicted knife wound.
Then there was John Waterman an expert mountain climber who, at 16-years-old climbed Mt. McKinley. In March of 1978 he took on a solo ascent of Mt. Hunter—the southeast spur. It was a route previously unclimbed. Three teams of professional alpinists were defeated by this spur. But Waterman made it in 81 days. Waterman finally met the end of his life on the Ruth Glacier in 1981. His body was never found, but his tracks were found wandering through giant crevasses without any noticeable attempt to avoid hazardous areas.
Krakauer also mentions the friendly Texan, Carl McCunn who hired a bush pilot to fly him out to the Wilderness near Brooks Mountain Range. He had plenty of supplies and ammunition. What he didn’t do was think to arrange for a return flight. His body was found February 1982 dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. His journal revealed he was at the point of a painful death when he took his life.
The wild is a dangerous place. Yet, it is also a place where God so often calls his people to teach them. David, the future King of Israel, finds himself in the wilderness of En-Gedi running for his life from King Saul.
In 1 Samuel 24 David and his men are hiding in a cave. Saul is searching for David with three companies of men. The story is quite earthy. Saul sees a cave, he needs relief. So he retires to the cave to obey the call of nature! Evidently he goes in, throws his robe to one side and relieves himself. It just so happens, this is the cave where David and his men are hiding! How rich is this? David’s men say: "What luck! The king is in your hands!" David creeps up and cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe.
But now David feels guilty. He says, “The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, God’s anointed one!” And he doesn’t allow his men to attack Saul.
Saul finishes his business, grabs his robe and walks out side and down the path. David then walks out of the cave and calls to the King: “My lord, the King!” When Saul turns around, David falls on the ground. He cries out, “Why do you listen to others who would lie and say that David wants to hurt you? You can see yourself, God had given you into my hands, but I did not harm you! My men wanted to kill you, but I wouldn’t let them. Look! Here is a piece of your robe I cut off! Why would you bother yourself with a flea like me?”
Saul then calls back: “Is that you, David, my son?” Saul begins weeping like a baby. “You are more righteous than I. You have treated me well even though I treated you with evil. I now know God will give you the kingdom!” He then begs David to treat his descendants kindly after David becomes king. David makes the promise to Saul. Saul returns home and David goes back to his hide out.
A similar incident takes place in 1 Samuel 26. It seems that Saul’s remorse is rather short-lived because before you know it, he’s after David again. This time David sneaks into Saul’s camp at the dead of night with Abishai, one of his right-hand men. They find the sleeping form of Saul with his spear stuck in the ground by his head. His water bottle is tied to it.
Abishai says: “Let me pin him to the ground with my spear. I won’t have to do it twice!”
Again, David refuses and says: “This is God’s anointed! Don’t touch him! It is God’s job to deal with him, not mine!” He then takes Saul’s spear and water jug out of camp.
When he reaches a safe distance he calls out to Saul’s general, Abner. “Hey Abner! You should be fired for the shoddy job of protecting your king! Look, I have his spear and water jug. I could have easily killed him!”
Saul recognizes David’s voice and calls out again: “Is that you my son David?”
Once more, David delivers the same message as he did previously. “I had the chance to hurt you, but I won’t do that! Send someone to take your spear and water jug. See, if I had wanted to hurt you, to take your throne by force, I could have done it! But I will never harm the man God has anointed.”
Saul cries out, “I have sinned. I will not chase after you again.” And as far as we know, Saul kept this promise. David goes his way and Saul returns home.
So what does David learn in the wilderness? David learned two things: trust and mercy. Psalm 57 is the song David wrote when he fled from Saul into this cave. He sings:
“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God Most High to God, who vindicates me. He sends from heaven and saves me, rebuking those who hotly pursue me; God sends his love and faithfulness.”No matter what, David learned to trust God. Rather than taking justice in his own hands and killing the man who was trying to kill him, David spared his life—leaving justice to God. No matter what he would trust God. By trusting in God, he also learned mercy. When you recognize vengeance is not yours, but God’s—you learn to be more generous with mercy. You learn to give up your right for vengeance. Isn’t that Paul’s point in Romans 12:17ff?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”There is a third thing learned in the wilderness—it is a minor theme in these stories. Perhaps it isn’t really the intent of the storyteller to bring our attention to it, but I can’t help but notice it and wonder if there isn’t a lesson here, too. David does not survive in the wilderness on his own. You don’t survive in a wilderness by yourself. You must have a community. Even when Jesus was in the wilderness, Mark tells us “the angels took care of him.” David was surrounded by people who started off as a wild group of folks. But eventually they turned into a community with a common vision and purpose.
So what of us? What does all of this wilderness talk have to do with us? I am convinced we cannot make an impact on our communities and on our world until we leave our comfort zones and re-enter the wilderness. Writer and church planter Alan Hirsch says:
“It is remarkable to me that the theologically most fertile parts of the Bible are all, yes all, set in the context of the people of God facing significant danger and chaos...Whether it is an Abraham called to leave home and journey, or in the harrowing experiences of the Exodus and Exile, whether it is David's adventures, Jeremiah's struggles, Jesus' ministry, or the book of Acts, none of these were stable situations. They were dynamic and even life-threatening.” [Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways]In other words: the greatest times of growth for God’s people happened in the wilderness. It is during struggle where we learn the lessons of trust, mercy, and community. It is here we learn to give up our comfort zones and our incessant demand for security, wealth, and tradition. We trade them for uncertainty, sacrifice, and newness. We take a risk, not knowing where we will find ourselves. And along the way we discover God is faithful, mercy is essential, and people are valuable.
The upshot of all of this is we will all probably enter the wilderness whether or not we wish! As far as I can tell we enter the wilderness through either obedience or disobedience. David, Jesus, Moses were all called by God into the wilderness. They were in the middle of following God’s call. Israel experienced 40 years of wandering and later on 70 years of exile because of their disobedience—they were afraid to take the risk of obedience afraid of the dangers present in the promised land. They thought they were choosing comfort; they ended up in the wilderness anyway!
The wilderness may come in the presence of a mid-life crisis, a job loss, the death of a family member or friend, discomfort or deadly disease. It may come in the presence of major conflict and challenge. But it will come! Pay careful attention: God has called your church to impact your community. He has called you to love the loveless, to touch the untouchable, to befriend the unfriendly and the friendless. Doing so will involve risk. But the wilderness looms ahead regardless of our choices. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be driven into the wilderness through my obedience than driven because of my stubborn refusal to trust him.
The wild is a dangerous place. Yet, it is also a place where God calls his people to teach them or correct them. Will we enter with a spirit of trust? Will we be open to God’s lessons?
May you experience the wilderness! May it change you from the inside out. May you learn to trust in a faithful God. May you experience and extend his mercy to others: even your enemies. And may you find community—not a place to hide—but a group who will walk with you through the dangerous journey.