Do you realize how loud the world is? Our culture is full of competing voices urging us to buy this or invest in that. If we only own this or have a figure like that, then we will be OK. There are so many TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, books and CDs that it is possible to go through a whole day without any quiet. Many of us do. We wake up to the radio, watch TV over breakfast, listen to the walkman on the way to work or school, are bombarded with information and return to an evening of reality TV.
We have become so used to background noise that we don’t notice it anymore and we have no idea how much it affects us. Did you know that many stores now play different types of background music in different departments, because they think certain styles of music make us more likely to buy certain products? So there is music that is more conducive to buying clothes, music that makes us hungry and music to buy a bed to! The background noise is not neutral in our lives. It helps to shape us.
Taking Away the Noise
Many of us hide behind the noise of the world. If noise is keeping us company, we never have to be alone. For some people their greatest fear is being alone. They can’t cope with themselves or they don’t like themselves, so they hide. Some years ago a film was released called Educating Rita starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. The basic plot was that of a working-class housewife from Liverpool named Rita who wanted to break out of her narrow life. She enrolled to study for an English degree at a university. Part of her “education” was meeting new people who taught her a more sophisticated way of life. She left her husband and moved in with another student, a girl who was the life and soul of the party. One day Rita came home and found her friend unconscious from a drug overdose. The next scene is in the hospital room as the girl comes around. Rita says in bewilderment, “Why did you do it? You had everything.” The tragic reply was, “When the parties were over, the friends left, the music stopped, all I had left was me. That isn’t enough. I can’t live with just me.”
When we can’t cope with “just me,” we hide from “me.” Some of us do it with alcohol and drugs. Others do it through noise and relationships. They are all addictions. They are all emotional aspirins, taken to dull the pain. We think that if we just turn up the volume outside of ourselves it will drown out the cry of the inner voice.
God has another plan. He has a better idea. True Christianity is the opposite of escapism. You take drugs to run away; you receive Jesus to know the truth. The truth of Jesus sets us free. He takes us to the desert so that we can meet ourselves there. There is no background noise in the desert. All is quiet.
The desert is the place to discover God; it is also the place we discover ourselves. Many of us are like Rita’s friend. The truth is, we don’t like ourselves very much—so we avoid our own company. After all, why spend any more time than you have to with someone you are not fond of? Most of the driven people I have met are driven because they don’t like themselves and they think that if they only manage to do something significant then they will be significant. If they only do something worthwhile with their life, then they will have self-worth. The problem with living like that is there is never any peace, never any rest. The good feeling that comes with each achievement only lasts a short time. Then you have to go again. Life becomes exhausting. It is like taking a perpetual exam that you know you can’t pass.
Jesus knew a different way. He knew who He was. He had nothing to prove, so He never did things to win people’s approval. He knew who He was, because He knew whose He was. The words at His baptism, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), were uttered before Jesus performed one miracle, before He preached any sermon and three years before He went to the Cross. He was secure in the love and affirmation of His Father. Jesus’ ministry was not a frantic attempt to be somebody; rather, it came out of the security of knowing Himself as the beloved of the Father.
My friends Martyn and Emily Layzell were recently expecting their first child. Before the baby was born, Emily confided to me that she was worried she might not bond with the child. She expressed the fear of most would-be parents. “What if I don’t love my baby?” Her labor was quite awful. It lasted seventeen hours before the doctors realized that she needed an emergency cesarean section. I visited Emily the day after Jack was born. The first thing I saw as I peered around the curtain in the hospital room was Emily holding little Jack (actually not so little Jack—he was nearly 10 pounds) and looking at him. I knew immediately that they had bonded. Emily told me she loved him from the first moment she saw him. I was tempted to say to Emily, “Why do you love him? He has given you nothing but pain. He gave you a backache for three months and then 17 hours of pain before being responsible for your having to be cut open! He hasn’t done anything for you—he has never washed the dishes, bought you a Mother’s Day card or changed his own diaper.” However, there was no point. Emily could not help but love her boy.
We have caused God nothing but pain. We have given Him grief at every turn, and yet He loves us. We don’t deserve it but that was never the issue—we just have to receive it. Those who think they are worthless find it difficult to receive the unconditional love of God. The Lord wants to quiet the inner voice that tells us we are worth nothing, so we may hear and receive the truth of His Word. The desert is one of the places God shows us His love. It is there He slows us down so that we are ready to receive it.
Discovering We Are Sick
The painful truth is that when humanity turned from a relationship of dependence and trust in God, we lost more than relationship with God—we lost the only true means of knowing who we are. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God said: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer. 2:13).
When we turn from the spring of living water, we try to satisfy ourselves by drinking from any contaminated pool. We then become contaminated and diseased. Instead of seeking healing, we live in denial that there is anything wrong. The desert is a place of healing. Before that, however, it has to be the place where we discover that we are sick. When all the props have been taken away, we come face-to-face with our bankruptcy. The gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news. In the desert we find that we are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Only then can we truly receive the Savior. Only when we truly thirst in the dry and arid desert can we begin to drink the living water.
How does this pan out in practice? I know that when life becomes hectic, and especially when it seems to be going well, I can settle for a satisfactory working relationship with the Lord. I go from meeting to meeting, event to event and begin to find self-worth and significance in what I do. I begin to live for the nice comments as the applause feeds me, and I start to crave more. The trouble is, as with any drug, it is never enough. Then, because He loves me, the Lord gets to work: someone writes me a nasty letter; there is a misunderstanding in a relationship; a meeting goes badly; worst of all, no one laughs at my jokes. What is the point of doing all this, I ask myself, when they don’t appreciate me? I then enjoy a good dose of “pity me.” My craving for recognition and applause is suddenly not satisfied—my supply has been temporarily cut off. I am faced with a choice. Either I can find a shovel and frantically dig a broken cistern that will briefly bring respite, or I can sit in the desert and face my pitiful poverty. I can choose to face reality—the poverty of my motives, the nakedness of my ambition, the blindness of my heart. This is painful. That is why we avoid it.
We have a tendency to do anything and everything we can to avoid pain. We see pain as an enemy and will go to great lengths in order to live pain-free lives. Pain is actually a friend. Pain is a God-given way of telling us something is wrong. Imagine if your appendix burst and you did not feel any pain. Very soon you would be dead. The same applies to emotional pain. Instead of taking an emotional aspirin or denying that there is a problem, we must ask God and ourselves what the pain is telling us. Then we need to ask how we can deal with the cause of the pain and not simply relieve the symptoms. We need to stop living in denial and face the truth, because only the truth sets us free.
Waiting for Healing
What is the alternative to finding the temporary relief that all broken cisterns provide? It is to wait in the desert when we find ourselves there. This is not at first glance an attractive option. It is, however, the only option for those who want to pursue God and who know lasting freedom is only found in Him. (Only when we discover who we belong to can we answer the age-old question, Who am I?) God is not into relieving the symptoms. He is into healing the cause. Did your mom ever tell you “All good things come to those who wait”? Mine did. I never did listen to her. I have since discovered the saying to be true if I want change, not just temporarily and on the outside, but permanently and within. The time in the desert always seems too long. Then, when we think we can’t bear it anymore, He walks across the sand to meet us. He comes to bind up the brokenhearted, to set the captive free. When I look inside and face my own poverty, the goodness of His grace is good news—it is the gospel.
We know that drug and alcohol dependence are often attempts to escape reality. The truth is, all other forms of dependence are seeking to do the same thing. We can be people dependent, success dependent, even chocolate dependent. They are all attempts to escape from the desert. Don’t escape. Don’t run away. Don’t drink anymore from a broken cistern. Let the desert make you really thirsty; then cry out for Jesus, the living water. Accept no imitations.