Paul speaking: ‘I went straight to Arabia and later returned to Damascus. After living this adventurous mission for three years, I made my way to Jerusalem and spent 15 days with Cephas, whom you know as Peter‘ — Galatians 1:17-18 (The Voice).
I grew up in Phoenix, so I’m a little familiar with desert living. The stately saguaros that stand as sentries on the highway between Phoenix and Payson. The dry, dusty turf that swirls and gusts when the hot air blows through the desert. The wall of a dust storm that envelops all in its path and gets into your lungs. I can still recall vividly the smell of desert dust. The beauty of the sunsets and monsoon lightning storms where you really do see the sky hit the horizon. The loneliness of the desert. Oh, not in the towns and cities. I mean the actual desert loneliness. Those who have lived there know what I mean. There’s a silence that speaks loudly the voice of God, because there is nothing else there to hinder your deepest heart.
I’ve often overlooked Paul’s time in the desert–or at least diminished it. If anyone were to say to me in my early years that they wanted to take 3 years to starve ‘church’ out of themselves, I would have called them crazy. Now, I’m older and I think I understand what Paul and God needed to work through.
Paul was a Pharisee to the Pharisees. He had served the religious leaders and had learned well from them. He had entrenched himself zealously into their system of interpreting God. So much so that he hunted the early Christians to arrest and kill them. Talk about persecution! He was the top persecuter and proud of it! Then he met Jesus (well actually we can make an argument that Jesus sort of assaults him on the road to Damascus) and his world changed. I’ve often fast-forwarded his change in my microwave thinking. He went from persecuter to apostle overnight. Except that’s not what the Bible records–what his own words record.
He spent 3 years in the desert after meeting Jesus.
I hadn’t really pondered that one until recently as I’ve been teaching a class on Romans. In contemplating Paul’s words, history, social and cultural contexts, I’ve found a depth that I hadn’t meditated on before. Why 3 years. Oh, many scholars will say that Paul’s time parallels Jesus’s ministry with the other disciples and I would agree with them. But I believe there’s more. He needed that time of separation to starve his religious culture out of himself and grow strong and confident in his new paradigm that the Holy Spirit taught him in that desert place. And it took 3 years to accomplish that.
When Jud retired from the military, he worked on construction sites for almost a year. I told people it was to ‘beat the military out of himself.’ He had grown tired of desk jobs and bureaucracy. He got excited when he used 3 nail guns in one day! The pounding, dealing with the heat in the summer and cold in winter, the sawing and measuring were what he needed to re-enter the land of the civilian.
Sometimes in life, we need to starve out the old ways of doing and believing. The desert places that God takes us may not look the same for everyone. For some, it may look like isolation for a period of time–perhaps even a long period of time. For others, it may look like internal contemplation without isolation from others. For anyone embarking to a spirit desert, the last thing you need is someone telling you why you’re wrong, why you need traditional church experiences.
Jud and I experienced a dysfunctional church situation that left us traumatized. We thought we’d given ourselves enough time to heal (a month–HA!) and joined another. Because that’s the Christian way of getting back on the proverbial horse. I believe the healing from the trauma would have gone smoother if we had waited (hindsight); but God’s grace covered us and we did heal. However, I still believe that we could benefit from an extended absence from ‘church life.’ We’ll see if God takes us to the desert.
If you find yourself groaning toward God and needing time to let Him change your belief systems, I encourage you to find others who can help in the journey. Just one or two to keep you grounded. If you find a friend who needs to starve out the church culture that has enslaved them, don’t judge and run on them. Sit with them, journey with them, ask them what they’re learning. Their experience may teach you a new thing or two about the God you worship.
Have you taken an extended time away from church? I’d love to hear your experiences. What you liked and what you’d change.