So Judah went into captivity, away from her land.
2 Kings 25:21b (NIV)
Many years ago, I found myself in circumstances I could never have imagined. I found myself in the middle of a divorce and living in a new community. My world had suddenly turned upside down and inside out. It was a scary, tenuous, anxious, humbling, and stressful season of life.
Along this life journey, almost everyone experiences a period of wilderness. Life as we know it experiences a tectonic shift. Things get turned upside down and inside out. Wilderness could be brought on by unforeseen tragedy, the death of a loved one, war, natural disaster, divorce, loss of a job, financial loss, conflict, illness, or any number of similar life-changing events.
The psychologist Carl Jung and the scholar Joseph Cambell did a lot of work in the 20th century studying and revealing the archetypes and patterns in the epic stories of humanity. Our greatest stories reflect the core of our human experience. They resonate with us because there is something in the story that connects deeply with our human experience. I would submit that the patterns and archetypes are found in our stories because they are found in our lives.
Wilderness is one of these common themes. Here are the first five steps of the hero’s wilderness journey as Jung and Campbell outline it:
- The hero’s journey starts in the Ordinary World. The hero—male or female—is “stuck,” but he or she senses some powerful, tectonic energy moving beneath the surface.
- The hero receives a “call.” This may be positive—an invitation to climb Annapurna—or negative … we’re arrested and thrown in jail. Or, like Odysseus, the hero commits a crime against heaven and is “made to” undergo an ordeal of expiation. But one way or another, you and I are ejected from Normal Life and flung, willy-nilly, into Something Totally New.
- The hero “crosses the threshold.” She moves from the Ordinary World to the Extraordinary World (also known as the Inverted World.) Like the children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we pass through a portal and enter a realm unlike any we have known.
- The hero encounters allies and enemies, undergoes challenges and heartbreaks, temptations and overthrows. The hero suffers. The hero loses her way. The hero has been caught up in an often hellish adventure (though with some good moments too), from which no escape seems possible. The stakes are clearly life and death.
- The hero perseveres. Reckoning that there’s no turning back, the hero pushes on, often blindly, almost always wracked by despair and self-doubt, seeking he or she knows not what. Escape? Redemption? A conclusion of some kind to this crazy, upside-down enterprise?
It may be lost on modern American readers, but today’s chapter is one of the most life-changing historical events in the history of the Hebrew people. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem was a violent, horrific event. Jeremiah, who lived through it, poetically describes the carnage in the five short chapters of Lamentations. The entire nation, the King and the priests, are taken into captivity and exile in Babylon. Among the exiles were the prophet Ezekiel and a young man named Daniel. Their stories, respectively, are rooted in their experiences in the Babylonian wilderness, along with the story of Esther.
The wilderness, Jung and Campbell explain, always has a purpose in making the hero the hero. It is in the wilderness the hero faces the darkness, the villain, their own fear, and/or seemingly insurmountable odds. It is in the wilderness that the hero experiences an “all is lost” moment, and it is in the wilderness that the hero eventually experiences an important epiphany and is ultimately led back home, a different person with a “gift.” Judah’s return from wilderness and exile is told in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra.
In the quiet this morning, God’s Spirit has brought to mind people I know who are experiencing seasons of wilderness in their own life journeys. I look back on my own season of wilderness and I can see the things I had to face, the lessons God had for me in it, and what a positive difference it ultimately made in my life and my spiritual journey. If I could write a letter to my past self in the midst of that wilderness, I would tell my struggling self to trust the story God is authoring in my story, to persevere one step at a time, and to know that good things, redemptive things, lie ahead.
My seasons of wilderness have taught me that God is more interested in developing my character than in facilitating my comfort.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.