The Anti-Self-Help Prophet

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In the wilderness, God reaches down to show us that the only life is in one place: where there is water.

We’ve all heard plenty of “end of the rope” stories. The man who, after a string of stupid decisions, finally made a total train wreck of his life and afterward turned things around. The woman who, emotionally flattened after a sequence of toxic relationships, reached “the end of her rope” and subsequently found peace and contentment.

Like I say, these are life-stories we know; in fact, we are acquainted with specific people whose narratives instantiate this dumpster-fire pattern. Sometimes “those people” are our children, our parents, or even ourselves (present company included).

What we might not know, or more likely, might not want to talk about, is that the rest of the seasons in these lives are not all sweetness and sanctity. In such people’s bios, the chapters following “End of the Rope” are not all titled “Happily Ever After.”

Sometimes they’re titled, “Oh, Boy, Here We Go Again.”

The recovering addict hears the knuckles of alcohol softly rapping, rapping at his heart’s door. The past adulteress finds herself daydreaming of another man even while in the arms of her loving and doting husband. It’s not as if, once we’ve slogged our way through the dark night of the soul, suddenly the devil and his ally within us sign a peace treaty with God and move on to other potential targets.

Paul’s “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” remains our ongoing reality (Rom. 7:21).

Which is why we need a spiritual mentor. And I have just the man in mind. Now, be forewarned, he’s rather eccentric. One might say even embarrassing and uncivilized. But for us who incessantly struggle through lives in which “evil lies close at hand,” we need this man.

His name is John the Baptist.

Reaching the End of Ourselves

John doesn’t set up his pulpit on street corners or inside malls, does he? Cain, the first murderer, was also the first city-builder (Gen. 4:17). That’s why cities, in Scripture, are often embodiments of evil. Think Sodom. Think Babylon.

No, John is no urban preacher. In fact, three times Jesus asks people what did you “go out” to see when you went to see John (Matt. 11:7-9). People “go out” to John; they don’t stay where they are. They go out, specifically, to the wilderness.

The wilderness is not where we goose-pimple over pristine nature or gaze doe-eyed at snowy mountain peaks. The desert is where we surround ourselves with icons of our fragility and temporality. We pick up sand, let it fall between our fingers, and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We feel the incessant heat of the sun as it withers us.

In the desert wilderness, we find no monuments of human achievement. No parties in which we can forget, for a few fleeting moments, our frazzled and fractured souls. John ministers in the wilderness where Israel dragged its feet and buried its corpses for 40 years; Jesus fasted and fought the devil for 40 days; and we, in a mere 4 hours, experience the unmistakable truth of our condition as those who have no life, no hope, no promise, no future.

In the wilderness, we reach the end of ourselves.

The Repentance Ride

In the wilderness, too, God reaches down to show us that the only life is in one place: where there is water. Not in a self-help manual for desert survival. Not in a coach who trains us in the art of thriving under harsh conditions. Just water, rippling its way through the dead sand, where John stands with Jesus, who is knee-deep in the water, beckoning us in to find life, hope, promise, and a future in him.

In the wilderness, we reach the end of ourselves and the Beginning called Jesus.

I have talked quite openly, and frequently, of when I reached the “the end of my rope.” For me, the string of bad and stupid decisions all culminated in infidelity and lies and familial demolition. With some frequency, I am accused of “talking too much” about my past sin—or, frankly, talking about it at all. But I do so for a very specific reason: every time I do, I am reentering the wilderness, and inviting you along for the repentance ride.

It’s the same reason people who go to AA talk about their addictions and the messes they made of their lives as a result. The same reason, I suppose, that the Scriptures themselves do not whitewash or edit out Abraham’s mendacity, Noah’s liquoring up, David’s blood-stained hands, or Peter’s denial of his Master. Because woe betide us if, pretending amnesia, we forget what we once did, and could very well do again, should the evil close at hand woo us once more into its ravenous jaws.

So, what do we do? We go out to John. We sit our sorry ass down on the hot, unmerciful, burning desert sand. And we remember. We remember the stupidity, the selfishness, the pain, the evil of it all. And there, once more, we gaze within us and see a yawning grave. We look around us and see death. And the Spirit, ever gracious, puts his hand under our chins to lift up our vision to see that the only life is where there is water, where there is Jesus.

Our Scarred and Scattered Existences

Jesus didn’t come to make all our dreams come true. There is no fabled “happily ever after” on this side of the resurrection. There is struggle, struggle, and more struggle. Some good days, yes, some bad days, but always days pregnant with temptation. We daily walk on the precipice of eternity. So we take regular walks away from the city, where evil is so easily domesticated, out into the wilderness, where our uncivilized spiritual mentor calls us to repentance and to the Lamb of God who is in the water.

We don’t know what’s happening in heaven, in the secret counsel of God, behind the closed doors of the Trinitarian mystery. All we know is what’s happening—what the Father has caused to happen—on earth. He has looked down in mercy and sent down a baby to a manger who is our only hope for new birth and a new way of life. He writes his name on us in water, tattooing us in baptism with the three-fold name that is inked with the color of atoning blood. He says, “You’re mine now. You are forgiven. Nothing will ever, or could ever, change that.”

Here on earth, in the midst of our scarred and scattered existences, God has landed as a man to make us his brothers, his sisters, his friends. And every time we go out into the wilderness, to remember and repent, we are remade and re-enlivened by the one who gave sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, raised the dead, and continues to preach the Gospel to us (Matt. 11:5).

And that makes the wilderness a frighteningly fantastical place to be.