What does it mean to be in the wilderness?

I spent a good hunk of 2020 moving between ranches in the Great Plains states—a near-nomadic stint of life in literal wilderness. It was an accidental metaphor for the world at large during a global pandemic. I can draw some parallels.

In my experience, the wilderness is a place where transience meets monotony. 

Out in the boonies of western Montana, Colorado, and Nebraska, I was out of my comfort zone in just about every way possible. Sleeping on couches and in basements, I was unsure where I’d be the following week, if I’d be warm enough, or if I’d have access to a stovetop. I wasn’t in class, I was far from my support systems, and my typically inundated calendar was all but blank. The usual order I recognized as my life was gone. Transience: an absence of structure, an inability to take anything as given.

Meanwhile, my hours poured forward without much distinction, my days without much event. The terrain around me seemed to echo the state of my life: uncluttered, unnoisy, uninteresting more often than not. I rarely had access to the internet or phone service. The work I was doing there inched along at a pace that felt tedious. Monotony: an absence of distraction and engagement.

Sound familiar? In this wilderness we’re all experiencing together, separately, the static forces governing our days are transience and monotony. Like the Israelites, we’re moving constantly through nothingness. Our grip on what’s what is uprooted again and again by a world’s worth of fury, yet many of us experience this chaos from the boredom of our quiet, circumscribed lives. Like a storm inside a vacuum.

We might be getting a taste of what Jesus experienced when he was tested in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). It’s not pleasant. But Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus there, that Christ’s intense hunger was the result of fasting. Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was in every way purposeful. Why?

The same reason that leads us into Lent: there is much to be gained in the experience of our weakness. We lay our frailty bare by stripping away the stuff that normally—thoughtlessly—fills our bellies. And the wilderness is the perfect testlab for experimenting with absence.

How do we lean on the structures in our life to find meaning? How much of ourselves do we stake in our schedules or social groups? What of our spiritual lives do we sacrifice to fleeting distractions? When we feel the absence of these things, we realize the extent to which we worship them. When we can’t count on what comes next, we can only take comfort in the immutable promises of God. It’s been painful and bewildering, but our ever-shifting wilderness has forced us to reckon with the dependencies that form when we think we can predict the future. We have learned that we have nothing but God, that nothing holds water like His love for us. Many of us knew this in theory. Now it’s brutally, mercifully clear. 

The testing we undergo in the wilderness is harrowing if not agonizing. But this place is also where God demonstrates His presence and provision in miraculous ways. With nothing in our hands this past year, we’ve had room to receive manna. We’ve been able to witness God’s glory because, in our vacuum-sealed solitude, there is quiet enough to hear and clarity enough to see.

But the lonelier our wilderness, the more easily we might lose ourselves in it. We’ve spent a long time here by ourselves. The markers that we usually measure ourselves by may have faded, our relationships stilted across screens. We’ve changed. Our bellies may be hollowed, our feet blistered, and our skin burnt. It’s easy to look at our altered selves and find that we don’t recognize them. Satan let Jesus wander and fast for 40 days before tempting Him—my guess is he anticipated that Jesus might dissociate from His divine sonship by that point. But when the tempter did his best, Jesus doubled down on His allegiance to the Father. To weather the Devil’s seductive wiles, He tethered Himself fast to His identity as a child of God. 

Our place in God’s kingdom means that we belong no matter how lost we feel. It is a permanent status, affixed to our souls even as we don’t recognize our own bodies and minds. This identity is the home that moves with us, evergreen through our rapid seasons of self.

Last fall as I moved through the mountains and valleys of the northern Midwest, a thought kept pricking at my senses—gently irritating, like the drip of a faucet. Am I still me? I felt like the book of my past life had closed. In this new story, I felt 10 years older: more hardened yet less sure. On long drives to new states, I tried to name the parts of me that remained. I was stronger, skinnier, sleepier, hungrier than the me I was in March. Sadder, too. I no longer wanted the future I’d been preparing for, but I hadn’t yet imagined a new future to look forward to. Feeling far away from myself, I wondered if there could be another me that got left behind. Who was this new person? 

I was standing in an open plain in central Colorado, an empty horizon in every direction, when I heard God speak. You are my beloved. He’d been saying this for some time, I realized. But the world was finally empty enough, the air quiet enough, that I could hear Him speaking over me.

Taylor Plett (‘21+1) is a Duke student on leave studying English.

This piece is a part of a syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. Read more at: https://www.yalelogos.com/lent-2021

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