Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Embracing Struggle: Wilderness Camping and Spiritual Formation

Photograph by Drew Collins

The wilderness! I love exploring the wilds, hiking in new mountain ranges and camping under the stars. Many summers I venture onto the pristine lakes of the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. Here the brave of heart encounter the tall timber, crystal clear waters, and endless woods filled with martins, moose, beaver, wolves and the like.

Away from buildings and fences and everything built with right angles, the wilderness brims with life and adventure. That adventure entails challenge and danger—if you don’t pay attention, you can easily wash over a waterfalls onto the rocks beneath. The wilderness is very unforgiving! Venturing into it calls for alertness, some hard work and daily struggle.

Some campers are ready for struggle; others are not. Each summer I have taken different men—ranging from 15 to 50 years of age—with me into the wilderness. What is fascinating is that some guys “get it”—wilderness camping is a lot of work, and each day faces new struggle. Others don’t—they presume this is going to be a trip for relaxing. Somehow they assume that camp sets itself up, meals cook themselves, and forest rangers carry our canoes on the long portages. When the reality of the wilderness hits them, they are shocked! They do not want to embrace the struggle, and they usually do not enjoy the adventure at all.

Struggle is central to wilderness camping. In order to see the glories of the wilderness, it takes a lot of effort. The privilege of waking up to the call of loons on a misty lake comes at a price. Life in the wilds is hard work and it challenges us with continual struggle.

Whole Bouquet of Struggles
Struggle is likewise a standard dynamic of the Christian life. Trials, tribulations and struggles of many kinds find their way to our door each day. The book of 1 Peter—which is all about trials and suffering—calls us to have joy in the midst of our struggles. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

The Greek word for “all kinds” or “various” trials means “various colors.” In effect, the Lord is telling us that we will have an assortment of trials in many colors—a whole bouquet of struggles in this life! That may entail persecution, but it also includes physical pain, frustrations, suffering and struggles of all kinds.

Contemporary Western Christians don’t like to hear this message of struggle. Our culture idolizes “comfort,” and we see the easy life as one of our inalienable rights. Therefore, we assume something is wrong when we go through difficulties.

Peter addresses this assumption as well. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). There should be nothing surprising about facing daily trails and struggles—that is part of life on this earth as we follow Christ.

The Path to Transformation

Struggle is a necessary path in our pilgrimage. Just like with wilderness camping, struggle is a fundamental dynamic of spiritual formation.

James also highlights the role of trials in our life. Just as Peter, James uses the same word for “many kinds” of trials, referring to that whole array—that whole bouquet—of difficulties that God uses in our lives. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trails of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). If we embrace the trails that God allows in our lives, we will develop perseverance and be perfected in character.

When I am camping, I enjoy even the tough times because I know that facing the challenges affords me the opportunity to experience the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness. So, in my Christian walk I am learning to “count it all joy” when trials and problems present themselves on a regular basis. Embracing struggle is the Lord’s chosen path to the unblemished, mature spiritual formation that he is hammering out in my life!

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