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The Disappearing World, Part 2: Wilderness

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of the Disappearing World Series. You can read part 1 here.

Transformed by Worship

God is a vast God. He is not in tension with our intellect, but neither is He limited to it. I think that part of why we still struggle with sin is because we struggle with a poverty of imagination—the ability to consider things beyond our intellect. We cannot imagine God’s vastness. We not only fantasize about the things that leave us feeling empty but also struggle to imagine the things that will leave us feeling full. Our impoverished desires—our emaciated imagination, if you will—delimit our relationships, our perceived capabilities, and the lengths for which we will go for what is right. When it comes to receiving good gifts at a cost, we can imagine only what we will have to give up. When it comes to God, an inner denier says, But what if God isn’t real? Why deprive yourself? Rather than imagining what we have been given, we can sometimes only ruminate about what we will have to relinquish.

Worship can fill us, though. One potential stumbling block is that we cannot always differentiate between our feelings and our thoughts. This is why Eugene Peterson talked about changing the affections by participating in worship, and not expecting it to always work the other way around (as in, expecting a period of worship to kindle feelings). A changed heart is necessary, but we are a combination of mind, heart, soul, and body. Conditioning your body into a new habit also transforms the imagination and the intellect so that they integrate with the body. Peterson explains,

We live in what one writer has called the “age of sensation.” We think that if we don’t feel something, there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.[1]

Worship enters not just our minds, but also our bodies into an imaginative space whereby God imparts to us the reality of life. The imagination is not just for us to picture a fictional existence but for us to grasp actual existence. Through it, we have not been whisked away to a magical faerie land, but the scales obscuring this enchanted existence have fallen from our eyes. We do not live in a different world; we simply see this one for the first time: what it was meant to be, what it is, and what will come of it. We are confronted in worship with the mountain of God. We had only seen the rock in front of our face at first, but now we turn our gaze to the skies and see that the mountain peaks have no end. “The understanding of God that is both implicit and explicit in our assembling to worship God,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff, “is that God is unsurpassingly great in creational and redemptive glory.”[2]

Without engaging our imagination, what we know fails to ever become what we love because we cannot grasp its full reality. I may know that my treasure is in heaven, but without loving that treasure I will seek to fill my storehouse with more wares; I may know that vengeance is the Lord’s, but without living in the love and hope of that truth, my impatience will boil over into regrettable action; I may know of God’s protection, but without that vision living within me, I will run from doing the right thing in a difficult situation. What we should do fails to ever become what we will do. What we wish to overcome fails to progress to what we defeat. Without the imagination, how can we persevere into Canaan?

In the Wilderness

We see many of the principles outlined above acted out in the telling of Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. It should come as no surprise that an enslaved people, freed after 200 years of bondage and being pursued by the world’s most powerful ruler and his “gods,” had to relearn what it meant to know, love, and trust God. It would not be an easy task. The centuries of slavery had whittled Israel’s imagination down through a war of attrition; they needed a new perspective and a new story. In the arid, desolate, barren, and unforgiving land of the Sinai wilderness, Israel would struggle to maintain trust in God to supply their basic needs of food, water, and safety. Rather than persevering to their new Eden, they often cried to return to the only life they knew: bondage in Egypt.

God responded to their needs by instructing them to imagine, remember, and worship. Israel’s fears were great, but each time they groaned in discomfort—and distrust of God—their physical needs were met as well. God guided Moses in creating a tangible reminder of His faithfulness in this regard. For example, God once sent manna (a sweet bread) and told Moses to “take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so that they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 16:32). Israel was to remember the past and imagine a future in which God provided for their every need as He already had. Future generations were to imagine both.

Later in Exodus, God defines who He is to Israel before giving them the Law that guides their relationship: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Soon after He instructs them in how to worship—how to interact with His presence physically, spiritually, and imaginatively. In this, the sights, sounds, and scents that remind Israel they are in the realm of the Holy will be diffused over the whole nation collectively. The depictions of heavenly beings in the Tabernacle signaled to them the world they really inhabit (Exodus 25:18; 26:1). But ultimately, their imaginations were still rapt with the security of Egypt, and they constructed a golden bull to worship either an Egyptian or a Canaanite “god” in hopes of finally being led forward. They had once again grown impatient with Moses and Yahweh and lost all confidence (Exodus 32:1-4). This generation, with its emaciated imagination, would not enter the Promised Land.[3]

Joshua, a man whose imagination was thoroughly enthralled by God, led the first generation to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Many years later, a man with the same Hebrew name as Joshua—Yeshua—would also be called out of Egypt and tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 2:13-15; 4:1-11). Satan stalks Jesus and tries to fill him with every imaginative reality that a worldly man could want. In Jesus’s most vulnerable moment, after forty days and nights of fasting in the stark Judean wilderness, the tempter urges Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus responds that man shall not live by bread alone, a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3:

He humbled you, and in your hunger He gave you manna to eat, … so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Satan then took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple—the pinnacle of worship—to entice him to jump, forcing the angels to save Him. Jesus responded by referencing Deuteronomy 6:16, which comes after the Shema and the command to love God: “Do not test the LORD your God as you tested Him at Massah.” Massah is one of the places where the Israelites had grumbled against God, and He responded by bringing water out of a rock for them (Exodus 17:1-7). Finally, Satan brought Jesus to the top of a mountain, where Deity dwells.[4] There he says that he will give Jesus all things, all the kingdoms of the world—“I will give you all their authority and splendor” (Luke 4:5-6)—right then and there, no sacrifice necessary, if Jesus would simply worship him. But Jesus responds, again from the Deuteronomic texts of Israel’s trials in the desert after the Exodus, that He shall worship the Lord and serve Him only (Deuteronomy 6:13).

This time, “Israel” will not weep and wail for bread, or water, or other “gods” to save them. Jesus shows us the way forward in letting the word of God so inhabit us that there is no temptation to partake in a lesser meal with a lesser “god” in a lesser kingdom. Through this imagination—the “shared perspective” of Jesus “through the invisible involvement of his Spirit”[5]—we will persevere in the wilderness, receive life in worship, and ascend the mountain to see the beatific presence of the one true God who brought us “out of the land of slavery.” Through Him, faith, hope, and love are also born again from above. As Rowan Williams has written, in the spirit of St. John of the Cross, “Faith … is what happens to our understanding; hope is what happens to our remembering; and love is what happens to our wanting.”[6] When we take on the sentiments of Jesus and live in the imaginative space of Jesus—what others may call reality—then we become like Jesus: loving our neighbors and enemies, seeking the lost, and protecting the vulnerable, knowing that the cost is great but God’s grace is greater.

In the Disappearing World

One potential error with this focus on the symbolic is possibly mistaking the image for the real thing. All of these sights, sounds, and scents were to direct Israel’s attention beyond the symbols to the ultimate transcendent Source of their divine liberation. CS Lewis would have reminded them that these symbols “are not the thing itself.” Trusting in them rather than through them is to our demise. Rather,

They are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited. … We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.[7]

Today, however, this is probably not our main concern. We live now in a disappearing world. The symbols of transcendence are demoted to mere facades of transcendence, the relics of a Great Deception. Indeed, even using the word world may be too much, for that implies something of a unified, organic whole, rather than earth filled with things that are, at some subatomic level, basically all the same dirt. Like Israel, we inhabit a desolate wilderness. But into this world, God presents Himself to the full human being who both thinks and feels, sees and imagines, works and hopes. And into the world He sends Jesus, the ultimate Image of God—God Himself wrapped in visible body. And in this, human beings are reminded in their own nature that in everything, even in our very selves, there is more than meets the eye. Our bodies are not merely tools or failing burdens but divine gifts that point to a Gift-giver.

Today, at least for me, I love being in churches that inundate my senses with the beauty of divine presence. What else can I do but stand in awe of God? What else can I do but kneel in supplication to the Lord? It sustains me in a way that thousands of words cannot capture. Sunday is no longer the day that bandages the previous week’s tumbles, but the one that inoculates me against the coming week’s temptations. There are other ways to enter this world, of course (creating a quiet place in your home full of beautiful things that direct your eyes heavenward can do the trick). God meets us in a multitude of ways. Into our wanderings in the disappearing world an Image arrives and shows that symbol is reality, that God is not just real, but love, and that His love will save us and the world will one day reappear. 

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd ed.(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 48.

[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 33.

[3] It might be tempting to classify God’s prohibition against allowing this generation of Israelites to enter Canaan as somewhat cruel. To bring them so close, after all they had endured, and then stop. However, this was conditioned on their wanting to be God’s people, which means they would trust Him. They did not. In the end, it is a great mercy that God does not bring them into the land. This would be His covenant people in their covenant land—if they were to constantly dream only of Egypt during times of hardship, they would re-enslave themselves, defile the land, bring death and destruction to their people, and so on. To allow them in would be akin to allowing Adam and Eve to stay in the Garden of Eden after their rebellion: perhaps it rings nice to modern ears, but it would have been a more painful existence than they could imagine, making present concerns in the wilderness seem like forgetting sunglasses on a hike. To whom much is given, much is required.

[4] Mountaintops were often associated with deities in the ancient Near East. They were considered dwelling places of the gods and they were where humans could approach. In an accommodation to this belief, and perhaps in order to confirm His identity and comfort His people, God often dwelled and communicated with His messengers on mountain tops, such as Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, and Mount Tabor.

[5] Scott Harrower, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World, Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology(Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 123.

[6] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 21.

[7] CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 31, 43. This particular combination of Lewis quotes is found in Chatraw, 81.