All of us know bondage. Sometimes it’s our own sin. Sometimes it’s the sin of another. Or maybe it’s the burden of our own fears or doubts or depression. At one time or another we have all longed for freedom from something. Often, though, freedom isn’t the direct result of being removed from bondage.
Instead we end up wandering in a wilderness of sorts.
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Think back to Israel being freed from 400 years of slavery to Egyptian masters. How long did it take them to reach the freedom of the Promised Land? Decades. And it wasn’t because they didn’t know where to go. It was because escape from bondage doesn’t lead directly to true freedom.
When we are in bondage it becomes our story. We know ourselves only as captives. For all of its discomforts and horrors it is our reality, the one in which we know how to function. Even as we long to be freed we feel perversely cocooned in the story of bondage. So when we are loosed from it we feel simultaneously unburdened and profoundly lost.
We don’t know howto live the story of freedom. We have been so defined and restricted by the narrative of our bondage that this new open-ended reality can be terrifying even as it is beautiful. We know only how to do the acts of a captive life but not how to live as freed men or women. Think back to Israel. So quickly did they go from and being heaped with wealth upon their departure and rejoicing in song to grumbling, fearing, and longing to return.
While they were no longer slaves they were not yet free. They knew only one story and it was easier to return to it than to forge ahead into this new unknown. We often feel the same.
But this wilderness wandering is not a purgatory but preparation. It is the time and place in which God writes a new story, that of freedom. It is when he inscribes lessons of trust and dependence on us and when he illustrates them with images and acts of power. While we wander we test the new reality and are tested by it. We learn the direction to go and how a life of freedom looks. Wilderness wandering is when freedom becomes not frightening but beautiful, when we learn to stop looking backward and strive ahead instead.
When we are loosed from bondage we are not often ready for freedom. And the longer we were bound the longer we often must wander as we learn. It is natural to assume that the next step from bondage is the joy of freedom, and there is joy in being unbound. But to be truly free we must most often wander the wilderness for a time