Finding God in the Wilderness

By Steve Webb

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Over the course of my life as a retired geologist, I have spent a lot of time outdoors, both for my profession and for pleasure. In the process, I have encountered a number of people who equally share or exceed my time there. There are different reasons for their interest, rest and recreation being tops on the list, be it in dense forest or open desert. But some of these people are more specific as to why they seek the wilderness: it is a spiritual retreat, a time to seek God's presence away from the hustle and bustle of the world. I share this with them. It is a time when we can indeed enter into the presence of God and feel his majesty and greatness. It is when we can reflect on his creative presence from the tiniest of flowers to the tallest of trees to the endless stars in the sky. Jesus himself set an example for us by going to the wilderness to pray on a regular basis (Luke 5:16). I feel sorry for the people who have lost this link with God's nature as a medium of prayer, praise, refreshment and renewal. I believe it to be part of the increasing degradation of our culture and the world as a whole. It is a true loss.

But my focus is not on such people. Instead I would like to focus on people who have gone the other direction and have allowed the wilderness to become their religion; it has become, often in their own words, "their church." I once met a gray-haired woman, in her sixties, while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail (she referred to herself as a "Magellan who was exploring the world"). It turned out she had spent much of her adult life hiking various long distance trails, to the extent that she had logged over 5000 trail miles! I was awed by her track record and had fun engaging her in conversation as we strode through the woods. But as our conversation strayed increasingly into religious territory and the search for God, her demeanor became colder until she ended up pointedly telling me that, "The forest is my religion and is all the church I will ever need." I wish our conversation could have ended differently.

So, what is our attitude, and how are we to respond to beliefs such as those of Magellan? Do we need more than the wilderness for our spiritual life? For that matter, why do we need the church with all its politics, hypocrisy, phony people and unquenchable thirst for money? Why can't we just live at peace with God and our fellow humans by letting the forest be our church?

Part of the problem with this approach is that, while the wilderness may be a good place to connect with God, we need to ask "Exactly who is this god?" Is this god a pervasive impersonal presence that equally penetrates and indwells everything, even the rocks, as the pantheistic religions believe? Is he more like a mysterious energy similar to "The Force" on Star Wars that can be harnessed for good or evil? Is he a kindly grandfather in the sky who wouldn't hurt a fly and wishes a good time to be had by all? Or is he the God of the Bible who loves good and hates evil, and wants us to live our lives accordingly? Which of these is it? That is the problem with the forest, it does not speak clearly enough to us. A poorly defined god can be anything we want him to be.

Being able to create one's own god in the forest has the advantage of always being able to feel good about oneself. A god who can't speak for himself allows us to speak for him. He won't be against anything we say or do. He will be more than happy to bless our chosen lifestyle, whatever it might be. However, a god who so conveniently serves at our beck and call has to be immediately suspected. If my "god of the forest" is different from your "god of the forest," which one of us is following the correct god? Or are either of us correct? It is for sure that it cannot be both of us. And for the one of us who is wrong, it could have eternal devastating consequences. It is critical that we come to know the real God.

A comparison of religions is certainly justified at this point, but one of the religions that has to be seriously considered is Christianity. Among other things, I believe it to be the only religion that adequately address the existence of pain and evil, but that discussion is for another place and time. For this discussion, Christians speak of another ultimate reality, another world, another life, where things are going to be so wonderful they are beyond description. Or, if that future is rejected, they speak of a life that is so miserable that it is hard to contemplate. And both of these lives last for all eternity. The implications of this are so serious that it calls for an explicit conscious decision — does one believe Jesus' words in the Bible, and if so, why? Or does one disbelieve, and if so, why? Putting off a decision simply places you in ever increasing danger that you will run out of time to make a decision. Life's clock is ticking for each of us.

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Published on 12-1-16