After passing through the Red Sea, the Hebrews were within a couple hundred miles, or a two week journey on foot, from their destined Promised Land. Yet it took them forty long years of circling in the wilderness before arriving at the place promised to their forefather Abraham. The desert met these former slaves with all of its harshness, trials, temptations, scourges, and the occasional oasis.
Why did God lead them in circles in the wilderness when they were so close to the Promised Land? In short, they were not ready to receive such a great inheritance. At the first sign of difficulty, war, hunger, thirst, or any other trial, they would throw up their hands and say, “If only we had stayed in Egypt! There things were safe and familiar; in Egypt our bellies would be filled.” In other words, their hearts were still in Egypt and they lacked faith in God.
OUR INTERNAL DESERT
Our own lives are not so different as we journey through the desert of life. By entering into the church, we have passed through the Sea and been baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:3), yet instead of the Promised Land residing on the other side of our baptism, sometimes we are shocked to find that we dwell in a desert.
Here in the desert, our hearts are tempted to return to Egypt, especially when life becomes difficult. What is Egypt? That varies a bit for each person, but it is whatever worldly attachments we have or worldly ways in which we seek comfort and security.
THE PURPOSE OF IT ALL
Our Lord did not become a man, die on the cross, and then resurrect to save people from going to hell. Rather, He united the divine nature to our human nature in order to elevate it to divinity. He does not simply want to “get us saved,” but to turn us into little Christs who are formed in His own image.
The purpose of life and salvation is complete union with God. But in order for that union to occur, we must be made like Him. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (1 Jn 3:2) It is the pure in heart who see God (Matt. 5:8) just as He is; therefore, God is doing what is necessary to purify us of Egypt and transform us from little self-absorbed monsters into divine creatures.
That transformation is painful and it takes time.
THE HARSHNESS OF CHRISTIAN LIFE
When we arrive in the Orthodox Church, we find rigorous fasting rules, long services, hours of standing, and teachings that challenge us to the core of our being. Why all of this harshness?
It is part of our spiritual conditioning and formation. A professional athlete hires a coach who will beat his body through extreme exercise and discipline. The athlete knows the coach does not hate him, but is doing this to help him succeed. So, he devotes everything to the rigor: his thoughts, his diet, his schedule. Everything revolves around conditioning himself for the big event.
As we enter into the ascetical life of the church, it begins to feel a bit like a crucifixion, and our flesh does not relent quietly. It hollers, cries, and screams at every strike of the hammer in the nails. But these difficulties are meant to prepare us and transform us into the likeness of God. (cf. 1 Cor. 9:25)
THE BITTER WATERS OF MARAH
Three days after passing through the Red Sea, the Hebrews were thirsty and came upon some water in Marah. But the water there was bitter and not at all potable. They cried out to Moses whom God then directed to cast a tree into the waters. Suddenly, the water was made sweet and the people could drink it with delight.
According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the tree being cast into the water is an image of the cross. The bitter waters represent this difficult life of tribulation that we Christians must endure for our salvation. But through the cross, joy has come into all the world (Divine Liturgy).
When we do not fight against the difficulties that we face in life, when we accept them with humility allowing our will to be crucified, when we continually admit our weaknesses and failings in confession, when we fast and practice an asceticism that is appropriate for us, and when we rely completely upon God’s grace, we begin to find joy in our sufferings.
Such joy has no rational explanation, but it brings to us a peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). The cross has the power to transform the bitterness of this ascetical life into joy; it makes something that would otherwise be intolerable into a place of refreshment.
I am reminded of the saints who would count it all joy (Js 1:2) when they suffered for our Lord. One recent saint, Porphyrios, even prayed that God would give him cancer so that he could suffer in that manner. These are not the thoughts of creatures clinging to mortality, but of men and women who have transcended Egypt and found their death and life in Christ upon the cross.
May we do the same, my brothers and sisters. And until we reach that point, let us at least strive not to complain about the trials God has allowed for our salvation.
End Notes: Image by Sam on Flickr