Night journeys, both actual and spiritual, may fall to the lot of those who carry Jesus with them. Even the Son of God, who is pre-eminent above all others, must depart into Egypt like the rest of the family and must only come out when He is called. Let us not wonder if we, also, have to go down to Egypt, and go in a hurry, and go by night, and are allowed to stay there for many a day. We, too, shall be called out in due time by Him whose call is effectual. The angel who leads us into Egypt will bring us word to come out. (Charles Spurgeon)
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Spurgeon was on to something. For Spurgeon, the wilderness was much like going back to Egypt, back into exile, in order to learn the way of suffering with which Jesus was acquainted. In the wilderness, people sometimes feel hopelessly mired in their enslavements. The hope, of course, is that struggling people will emerge from this darkness, just as Jesus did, and experience what St. John of the Cross called illumination, the soul’s emergence from its sufferings into the beauty and freedom of resurrection life. From death comes life – God-breathed life, Spirit-animated life.
Now the ancient word illumination is a tricky one, because for some it might suggest that real spirituality involves some sort of Gnostic awakening reserved for only a few who have more deep and profound experiences of God. However, as it was used by spiritual writers of old, illumination assumes that every person experiences pain and struggle, and every person has the opportunity to emerge from the darkness with hope. Of course, many do not. As has been said, for some the choice to return to the habitual enslavements of Egypt seems easier. Indeed, God’s way seems like a cruel bait-and-switch that offers life in a Promised Land but delivers misery. Trust is hard. Illumination, though, is the fruit of trust, ripened in the rocky terrain and difficult weather of the wilderness.
Nouwen (1995) speaks to this difficulty in moving through the wilderness into freedom, offering the metaphor of clenched fists. Our angry and self-protective fists, he notes, are created out of life’s pain, and show a rugged determination to take life into our own hands, to craft our own solutions, to blame, to continually live as a victim, to bandage our own wounds. So many of us live perpetually in this place. As a counselor, I have had many clients walk down the road of taking their pain more seriously. This is often a very good thing, an entry into wilderness reality and the possibility of lament. However, some have chosen to stay attached to the pain, feeling empowered by it, but never being freed from it. With fists clenched around the neck of their victims (but ultimately themselves), they choke out life, refusing to take the next step – letting go of power, letting go of control, letting go of their version of another’s repentance, letting go of the need to be validated. They never move from lament to forgiveness and reconciliation, and often become the angry, bitter, and loveless person they most despise. Theologians call this state homo incurvatus in se – a person turned in on herself. In this place, our soul shrivels up and dies.
Trust, however, requires opening one’s clenched fists, releasing the burdens that are carried, and assuming a posture of relationship and receptivity before God and others. Nouwen, however, empathizes with our reluctance. He writes, “It is a long spiritual journey of trust…Much has happened in your life to make all those fists” (p. 18). We ought to be patient with those who find it hard to move from anger to forgiveness, and from blame to reconciliation in this respect. They are fighting a deep battle within, and once again God alone can deliver freedom. This long journey is akin to Israel’s journey. She, too, walked the long path through the wilderness, fighting God along the way before relinquishing her control over the journey. Iain Matthew (1995) writes, “It is not surprising that the admission comes to us slowly: it took Israel most of her history to learn it” (p. 69).
Illumination, in its most basic sense, is an opening of one’s hands. It indicates a posture of trust – “God, I surrender myself and my own failed solutions, and embrace You.” It recognizes that staying in Egypt and living out of the addictions, enslavements, and self-saving strategies of the past only bring a more fatal pain. The wilderness of purgation is redemptive, ultimately. In being stripped of the things that bind, one is freed to live more radically for others. After a time of lamenting the loss of his son, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff (1987) wrote, “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also character is made. The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making” (p. 97). Illumination assumes that by being broken, we are actually freed up to love and serve others not merely because we should, but because we have tasted God’s love through the trial. St. Paul wrote,
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Rom. 5:3-5)
Illumination, it must be emphasized, is not some special level of spirituality. In fact, young and old experience tastes of this freedom every day. However, fewer live here. Nouwen was right. Living self-protectively is simply easier, at times. Yet, the Exodus narrative opens a door of hope. Within the narrative, life emerges out of death.
Across the Jordan lies a land where the Spirit blows life into dead bones, animating souls for joyful freedom. Across the Jordan crazy things happen – wounded souls forgive abusers, broken hearts trust again, clenched fists open. Across the Jordan, Eden’s memory is alive and well, pulsing with the shalom of God, a reconciliation of all things and all people. Though the foretastes here-and-now are rare, and though the Church is often the poorest example of this Spirit-animated reality, we get glimpses along the way. I’ll leave you with just one:
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Ben and Sarah counseled with me many years ago. She was slowly awakening to the reality that Ben was an angry, angry man. But his anger was subtle and quiet, rarely erupting but always simmering. Her awakening was coupled with his denial, further alienating the two. By all accounts, their marriage was dying. And their marriage, as it was, needed to die. Sarah moved into a stage of both trying to change Ben and punishing him, relentlessly beating him with angry words and firm demands. Ben, in turn, became indignant. He would fight back, but most often stonewall. They slept in separate beds before she eventually left him.
And then Ben began to shift. He didn’t agree with everything Sarah had said or done, but he began to see his subtle, simmering anger as his assault with a deadly weapon in their marriage. And it broke him. I felt hope for them for the first time. But Sarah didn’t believe him. She felt as if his brokenness was a ploy to get her back, and she resisted. Yet, this is where Ben’s movement from death to life, from darkness into illumination, became real. He didn’t need to convince her. And he didn’t get angry. In fact, Ben became more sad and broken, recognizing that his own anger had contributed to Sarah’s hardness. He gradually opened his hands, and did his pleading with God, not with Sarah. He let time and Providence work on Sarah’s heart.
She let him back home one day. Something shifted. She just began to trust again. And he came back in – first for a visit with the kids, and then for a date, and then for a dinner at home, and then for an entire evening. They did the dance of distrust. They slipped into old patterns. They revisited Egypt again and again. But something new was breaking through, and we all could see it.
Shortly after Ben moved back in, they conceived their fourth child. I remember when they called me to tell me the news. Later that evening, I balled my eyes out. I’m convinced the angels were dancing that evening, and I was too. In Ben and Sarah, I saw something akin to resurrection. I saw the awakening of dead and hardened hearts. And I watched more as a witness than as an actual contributor to the healing, because it was Sacred Ground. The movement from death to life is always God-breathed.
I’m convinced that it is this picture that says to a watching world that the death and resurrection of Jesus is real – not just real as a matter of a one-time event, but real as a continuing witness, as an ongoing embodiment in men and women who participate in the sufferings, death, and resurrection of a living Savior (Philippians 3). Perhaps, the reason the world laughs at us is because we fail so often to live into this and up to this. But as we saw last time, it is only as we’re taken, blessed, and broken that we can be given to the world. May we be men and women who willingly lay down our lives, and open our clenched fists, in order to experience the new God-breathed, Spirit-animated life that enables us to beautify a broken world.
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Where does this piece connect with your life? Do you feel stuck in the wilderness? Have you experienced some of the freedom beyond it?
What is prone to keep you stuck (anger, resentment, hopelessness, shame, blame, etc.)? Reflect on and write down how staying in this state actually works for you, or protects you from something.
Reflect on and write down what might be scary about opening your clenched fists, and giving up some of the power of those “wilderness” feelings.
Reflect on and write down what excites you about living in this new way, and experiencing what John of the Cross called “illumination” – the new life that emerges out of death.
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