In which this is the wilderness life :: guest post by Adam S. McHugh

Very happy to make a bit of room here for author, speaker, spiritual director, and future wine-sommelier (yes, for real), Adam S. McHugh.

He wrote Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture and is working on his second book now, tentatively called The Listening Life. You can read Adam’s blog here or follow him on Twitter. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad he’s my pal.

(P.S. This post here would have made a big difference to me personally during my own wilderness season, so I’m honoured to share it now –  for all of us who have spent a bit of time in the wilderness.)  


There are those moments in the Bible when the people are gathered in the radiant city praising God and having the goodwill of all.

Have you ever noticed that those moments are few and far between?

Is it just me or is the wilderness actually the mailing address for God’s people, and occasionally they buy a pilgrim fare to the city on the hill? Even when a fortunate generation lives in the vicinity of the temple, the wilderness outside the city walls seems to lie in wait, ready to swallow them when the Babylonians come to town.

Whether it’s Adam and Eve chased out of the garden by an angry flaming sword, Cain wearing an L for Loser on his forehead, Abraham finally moving out of his parents’ house at age 75, the Hebrews on their way out of Egypt to receive the covenant they will struggle to keep, Israel circling the desert like buzzards waiting for death, David pursued by a schizophrenic king who is calmed by classical music like Hannibal Lecter, the northern kingdom fleeing from Assyria, the southern kingdom scattering from Babylon, John the Baptist getting his weird on out by the Jordan, Jesus saying WHAT UP to the Adversary for 40 days, or John the Revelator going all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy on Patmos, the proper context for God’s people seems to be….the wilderness.

I am in a wilderness season right now. Why am I surprised?

I should probably be surprised when I’m not in a wilderness season. The life of faith in this world seems to get expressed mostly in the wilderness. Perhaps this broken, visited, and waiting world is the wilderness.

Two weeks ago I left professional ministry. I spent 15 years preaching from pulpits and warped music stands, teaching eager college students and drooling senior citizens, praying that God would bless food to people’s bodies even though food is already blessed, sharing powerful insights with others about marriage and the spiritual life and boundaries that I don’t keep myself, sitting in hospital rooms looking awkward, standing by death-beds looking awkward, standing by the church door after the service looking really awkward, and drinking, without exaggeration, billions of cups of coffee with people, all the while wishing I was drinking beer, if for no other reason that I could kill this caffeine buzz that I’ve had for 15 freaking years.

Now I am cast out of the city walls and find myself, once again, as a wilderness dweller. I won’t lie: when it gets dark, there are a lot of scary eyes out here. I suppose I could spend the next months fighting the wild beasts, but I have learned from experience that they will overpower me if I try. So I’ve decided to befriend my befriend my blood thirsty companions. I’ve given them names and know just what treats will keep them from eating me. Clyde the Jackal of Despair likes skittles. Muffin the Wolf of Failure enjoys chocolate. Cuddles the Veloceraptor of Where the EFF am I Going? is soothed by a good snuggle.


What is the wilderness?

The wilderness is a place of loss. I cannot help but look back and remember what has been a part of my life that no longer is. I grieve the end of relationships that I treasured.

The wilderness is a place where time is slow. City life moves fast. The wilderness has no clocks.

The wilderness is a place of desolation. There is nowhere we can flee from the presence of God, but I’ll be damned if I know where he is.

The wilderness is a place of transition. Transition is the in-between space, suspended between what has come and what will come. Another way of putting it is that transition is a place of ANXIETY.

The wilderness is a place of wandering. There is no cut path, no road signs, no GPS. Destinations usually prove to be mirages. You must wait for someone to show you the way out, and you have no idea when they’ll come.

The wilderness is a place of quiet. It is lonely and secluded and private, no matter who else is in there with you. Sometimes it is a peaceful quiet. Sometimes it is a terrifying quiet.

The wilderness is a place of changing identity. You go in as one person. You invariably come out as another. You have surprisingly little control over this process.

Some will tell you that you can avoid or get out of the wilderness with the right prayer, the right Bible verse, the right counsel, the right church, or the right book. I suspect that the people who tell you that are in the wilderness themselves. Trust this former pastor and chaplain when he says this: you cannot avoid the wilderness. Hell, I wrote “the right book” and I promise you it’s not gonna save you from the wilderness. It didn’t save me from it. If you don’t go to the wilderness, the wilderness will come to you.

It’s your choice. You can try and fight the wilderness. You can try to escape the longing, the pain, the struggle, the doubts, the anxiety, and the ominous quiet. Or you can set up camp and embrace the wilderness life, the life without control, without constant noise, without certainty, without clear agenda.

In the wilderness you will be hungry. Sometimes God prepares a feast in the presence of the wild beasts.

Adam McHughAdam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church. He drinks wine in the wilderness.


  • D.L. Mayfield

    thanks adam. i am reading through the gospels and shocked by how much jesus seems to crave the desolate place, how he tells his bouncy, pumped-up followers to willing go to the desert, to the quiet, to the seemingly “bleak” place to meet with God. i am only just now realizing i need to be obedient to the call of the wilderness.

  • Lisa Bartelt

    Thanks for this perspective. My husband and I have been in a wilderness time for a year now. He graduated from seminary last year with the intent of going into full-time pastoral ministry. Our denomination has no suitable opportunities for us, and we’ve since found ourselves rethinking what ministry is all about for us anyway. My husband now works at Chick-fil-A, and we’re *this close* to giving up “the dream” of full-time ministry. I’ve been trying to get out of the wilderness any way I can think of, but I’m encouraged by these words to embrace the wilderness life.

  • Loril

    Thanks, Adam. Saturday, the church I serve will make a decision: sell our building and lease back worship space for the senior folks, and take some of the money from the sale and begin the journey to becoming a multi-site church, OR just let the church die, at which time, I will be out of a job. My pastoral life has been though, mostly crisis intervention work. Now I am at an age where I’m too young to retire, but not quite young enough to secure another position. That along with the more interim/shorter termed calls of my 13 years in ministry, no church wants to take the risk to call me, fearing I will “just leave.” God has called me to some really hard ministry, and I made the mistake of saying yes. Now, I’m paying for my wanting to be obedient. And if all of that isn’t tough enough, my denomination has very few churches seeking pastors. Like 400 churches and 1300 pastors looking, and many of the open pulpits can’t pay enough to give someone an honest wage. I’m a single woman with no family. So, I am in a very anxious place. Wilderness, indeed. Like living on the street wilderness. I’m about to enter the world of Job. Your words were inspiring. Just wish I felt more hope, trust, and inspiration about now. Peace.

    • Loril

      Whoops, I meant 2500 pastor’s looking for churches, not 1300. 400 churches seeking pastors and 2500 pastors looking for churches.

  • CS

    I would never have the courage to write and post this on the internet as you have, but so much of this is exactly how I would describe my ‘wilderness’ experiences over the years. I’ve tended to name it ‘the desert’, but it is the same thing! I think I’m getting ready to enter another of those times of wandering through the stark and ‘brutiful’ landscape. I hope you have just the right number of whirlwinds, caves, burning bushes, and shade, along with oases and feasts at just the right moments as well. I would say, ‘Go with God’…..but I know God is with you – desolate though it may seem! (By the way, I don’t know how you feel about fiction, but I find ‘Lilith’ by George McDonald to be good wilderness fare.)

  • Morag Renfro

    Made me cry and laugh with recognition. Been in the wilderness for quite some time now! Waiting for my guide to show me the way out….

  • pastordt

    AMEN. Yes, this is a wilderness life. And sometimes there are lovely things in the wilderness with you, like family and home and the beauties of creation. Even so, it can be disorienting to not be sure of who you are, who God is. Blessings as you work your way through this particular wilderness, Adam. Sometimes it’s lonely and scary. But it is always, ultimately, good. Yes, it is.

  • CC

    Well good grief. Talk about hitting the nail on the head. I think if Christians (I) embraced the fact that we spend more time in the wilderness than anywhere else, our changed expectations might affect our attitudes about being stuck there. Also: Clyde, Muffin and Cuddles? Genius.

  • Renee

    This post is quite relevant at this time for me, as I imagine for countless others too. Thank you.

  • Andrea

    This is SO very good. Thank you.

  • hballaman

    Adam, where is your tent? I want to camp with you. Thank you for this.

  • Natasha Metzler

    Great post.

  • Mary1912

    Check. Check. Check. Check. Yep….I have experienced ALL of these. I’ve been in a wilderness for the better part of the last 18 years.

  • Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    Love this reminder, Adam, thank you. It reminds me of a Francis Chan quote I tweeted the other day: “Why do you need a Great Comforter, if you’re comfortable?”

  • Julie

    oh man.. I have been there it seems way too many times..and feel another one coming on as discontent has settled upon my husband and I. my thought the other day was..great…here we go again..churchless..Maybe just maybe we will have to change the way we think about this and say instead.. We GET to go to the wilderness! Its gonna be a great journey! Thanks Adam for sharing this today. Makes me smile and know that God has something wonderful for us.

  • Charlotte

    Thank you for this. I feel like I’ve been living in a perpetual wilderness for the past few years.

  • Shannon Craig

    This is so timely for my current stage in life, and so encouraging to remember we are not alone. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • BrennaDA

    “…all the while wishing I was drinking beer, if for no other reason that I could kill this caffeine buzz that I’ve had for 15 freaking years.”

    And this is why, when our pastor comes over, I always offer her wine!

  • HopefulLeigh

    Adam, not only is this beautifully written, it was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you for sharing this with us. You’re a good one.

  • Amanda Williams

    “The wilderness has no clocks.” A-freakin-men. I liked this in more ways than I care to articulate at this point in the evening/wine drinking. Suffice it to say that I will be adding your blog to my google reader. OH WAIT.

  • Judy S

    Love this outside the box perspective(and just ordered your book, Adam, and thank you ahead of time for addressing the issue). So fellow wilderness wanderers, with all of us out there, I’m bound to bump into a fellow traveler, so we need a password….clyde, muffin and cuddles works, and for those not in the loop, well, they think i’m an odd duck anyway. Thank you Sarah, and Adam.

  • Jackie Turner

    Oh, this is just phenomenal, brother. Thank you so much. “The wilderness is a place of desolation. There is nowhere we can flee from the presence of God, but I’ll be damned if I know where he is.” I have been pleading with the Lord for some time now – where are you, what IS this???? I get terrified, and triggered, when I can’t find him. I really appreciate this word.

  • John

    Been to the wilderness more than once and yet, those have also been the times when my faith has grown, not because it was easy but because it was hard.

  • Carol Vinson

    This is fabulous!! I think we would all do well to embrace our time on the wilderness!!

  • KellyW2010

    ADAM (and Sarah)! I think many of us are in the wilderness at the same time, but seldom can we see or hear each other so we think we are alone. Thank you for making a little clearing with a warm campfire to bring our stories and hear others. Tonight my sleepless wilderness walk will be a little easier…

  • Lorilyn Wiering

    Adam, thanks for sharing your cup. I’ve been drinking out of the same one, but it’s good to keep finding such good company.

  • Erin

    Beautiful. I’ve been thinking about wilderness more in the past weeks since we are in Lent, and there seem to be so many wilderness/desert texts in Lent scripture readings.
    This is just a lovely post.

  • Tanya Marlow

    I ha

  • Tanya Marlow

    I’m latehere but glad I came. So glad. Wilderness is my address at the moment – it’s hard-going spending so much time under canvas while others seem so comfortable. I cannot tell you how much I needed this. Thank you, both.

  • Lisa

    Wow. I resigned from long term paid ministry almost two years ago now, and never have I read my experience. I have now. Powerful, healing, freeing words.

  • Bethany

    This was absolutely wonderful. Thanks for sharing, Adam.

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  • Bethany Bassett

    I know the wilderness very very well (laugh-crying over Cuddles the Veloceraptor of Where the EFF am I Going!), but I’ve never once thought of it as my mailing address. I’ve always seen it as lostness, as evidence of wrong footing and a God who happily tracks down wandering sheep but expects wandering humans to fix their own damn messes. You are spot on that no “right” Christian prescription will inoculate us against the wilderness, and I’m so grateful to see honesty in place of the typical 9-point action plan. It makes it a little bit easier to see this camping outpost as an adventure rather than a mistake.

  • John Fenner

    Thank you Adam. A participant in a Center for Courage & Renewal program entitled “A Geography of Grace”, in which we use landscape metaphors to explore the spiritual journey, shared your beautiful place with me.

  • Renee Ronika

    I love your writing style, Adam, and I think you’re on to something profound and true here. Thank you for the reminder that the place from where we try to escape may be the place we’ve been needing all along.

  • Exequel P. Abad Santos

    A good read indeed! Adam McHugh is one of the most passionate and most sagacious spiritual writers in our time. He writes elaborately on introversion, wilderness and reflection. These topics are what the world needs now to change inwardly. God bless this man of God!