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Wilderness Experiences

Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness during the War Between the States, and that anniversary got me to thinking about many types of wilderness experiences not only in history but also in individual lives.

There are the natural geographic wildernesses, such as dry, barren deserts; tangled, steamy jungles; dense, desolate forests; and the icy Arctic or Antarctic wastelands.

There are the military wastelands in which combat has raged. The battlefield event that sparked my thoughts on this subject was a tangled mass of vegetation that claimed the lives of 29,800 Americans (18,400 Union, 11,400 Confederate). And then there was the thick wilderness of the Ardennes Forest, where Americans and Germans battled it out in two different world wars at the cost of 475,000-575,000 lives in the combined armies.

There are about as many reasons for wilderness experiences as there are kinds of wildernesses. In the case of the battlefield wildernesses, soldiers enter them because their superiors order them to do so. Duty calls; they must obey.

But sometimes people go into wildernesses to hunt or to camp. Others go to study, explore, or do research. That is their work. Still others go into a wilderness to escape something–or someone. Some go into a wilderness to find respite or relief from the problems and stresses of life. And others find themselves there by accident, as, for example, survivors of a plane crash.

Regardless of the kind of wilderness or the reason for being there, such places are nonetheless inhospitable, dangerous, depriving, and solitary, even downright lonely and spooky.

The Bible includes accounts of many people who had wilderness experiences caused by a variety of factors. Moses ran into the wilderness after he killed an Egyptian (Exo. 2:15; 13:1ff). That’s where he encountered God in the burning bush, and God called him to lead the Israelites from Egypt, through another wilderness, to the Promised Land.

Elijah had two such wilderness experiences, but each was different. In the first one, God had told him to go hide by the brook, and the ravens fed him there (1 Kings 17:1-6). He was there by obedience. But in the second experience, he was there by his own choice, running for his life rather than trusting God (1 Kings 19:1-13).

Christ was “led of the Spirit” into the wilderness to be tempted (Matt. 4:1). And the demoniac of Gadara was “driven of the devil” into the wilderness (Luke 8:29).

Similarly, we often in life have our own symbolic or figurative wilderness experiences for a variety of reasons. They might be to prepare us for some later, greater work, as in the case of Moses. They might be to refresh, inspire, empower, and encourage us, as is the purpose of a writer’s retreat. Or they might be the result of our own carelessness or waywardness.

Whenever we find ourselves in a wilderness, our job is to learn why we’re there, learn from it, and then follow the Lord through and out of it. And as we leave that wilderness, we should, as the title of my brother’s book states, “Leave a Well in the Valley” ( so that others, too, can benefit from our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned.

What is your wilderness? What are you learning from it? What lessons are you sharing with others that can help them through their own wilderness experiences?

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