"And when it was day he departed and went into a desolate place." Over and over again we see Jesus seeking desolate places. This is one of the hardest aspects of his life for us to imitate.
We do not suffer (both in the sense of "endure" and in the sense of being miserable in the enduring) desolation well. We cheat ourselves of the fullness of all God wants for us because we fill our time with entertainment and avoid desolation at all costs. And when, in the wisdom of God, we are thrust into desolation, we usually misinterpret it and we strive to end it as soon as possible.
Have you ever said, "I need a vacation to recover from my vacation"? Have you ever felt like you were trying to work to 110% of your capacity? Strange as it may seem to us, periodic desolation is an important part of the cure.
Understand, life needs many things to be what Jesus called "abundant," and he himself is at the center of such a life. Healthy community, meaningful work, loving intimacy, healing vulnerability, diverting entertainment, enlightening conversation, stretching silence -- all these things are necessary for the abundant life. As much as I don't like it, I think that the experience of periodic desolation needs to be on that list as well.
There are two categories of desolation, at least in my mind. Voluntary desolations are those we schedule for ourselves. These might look like vacations but they are not full of amusements or tourist attractions; rather they are a chance to unplug from the world and reconnect to God, often in the context of nature. There's something in us hardwired to rediscover ourselves by brushing up against the wilderness. I've done a couple solo trips to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota and these have provided voluntary desolation for me. In some ways it has been uncomfortable, without a doubt. By definition these trips have taken me off the grid, away from cell phones and emails and social media. Very often, God has spoken in significant ways in that context, whether I'm alone or with others. I've learned to structure the hard work of traveling by canoe interspersed with days in camp, quiet times to contemplate the lake and the fire and the breeze and sometimes the mosquitos and the rain. It's a voluntary desolation, and I'm always better for it.
Involuntary desolations are the ones we desperately want to avoid. These are the ones that twist our insides to the breaking point. Grief at the loss of a loved one, the brokenness of a relationship, the aftermath of a divorce, physical illness or emotional breakdowns, seasons of burnout -- all of these and more bring us to a kind of involuntary desolation. Often -- not always -- we end up in the involuntary desolations because we have refused to hear God's call into voluntary desolation. Over the last couple years I've experienced an extended season -- a perfect storm, if you will -- of involuntary desolations. Work burnout, divorce and aftermath, loss of friendships, broken relationships -- and God has been faithfully working in the midst of it all.
Terry Walling has done some excellent work on how the experience of being "stuck" is used by God to provide transitions. Some of what he describes sounds a lot like God using both voluntary and involuntary desolation to shape, form, and redirect us. You can read more about Walling's work in these areas here. One of his most significant themes is that there are transitions that nearly everyone goes through at specific stages in life -- entering young adulthood and discerning your calling, moving toward significance in adulthood as you discern your unique contribution, and entering into a kind of blessed convergence nearer the end of life. Each of these transitions presents us with a kind of crisis -- a sense of desolation, a feeling of being stuck. God is at work in huge ways in each of these major transitions, and in the lesser ones we experience.
Jesus invites us into periodic voluntary desolation. If you are in a desolate place as you read this, know that God is there with you. Swallow the lump in your throat and know that Jesus has been there before you. He will not leave you alone. He is working for your good in all this, even though it might be desperately hard. The discomfort will be worth it. In Jesus' own life in these verses, his time of suffering desolation leads to a major transition as he moves from focusing on Galilee to preaching in the villages of Judea. As you deal with the desolate hours, the lonely evenings, the two a.m. spells of staring at the ceiling, the longing for wholeness, for relationship, for restoration, know that God is doing his good work. Though it might seem right now like everything is stuck, there will come a moment -- Walling describes this in great detail -- when God moves you out of the transition and into a new stage. As Tom Petty sang, "the waiting is the hardest part." But God is faithful.