How God Uses Wilderness to Shape Us

The idea of God using wilderness experiences to shape us has been on my radar for years. Probably ever since I spent my first summer leading kids on canoe trips in the Boundary Waters back in 1987.

"how God uses wilderness" with image of canoeists on a wilderness lake

[This post was originally written in 2017, and has been updated.]

And I don’t mean what Christians sometimes refer to as a “wilderness experience,” as in symbolism for a hard time. But actual wilderness!

There’s an obscure passage in an obscure book of the Old Testament, Hosea 2:14-15:

Therefore behold, I will allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
I will give her vineyards from there,
    and the valley of Achor for a door of hope…

Achor means trouble. God is saying He’ll turn Israel’s valley of Trouble into a door of hope. He can do that for us, too.

Why would God Intentionally Lead His People to the Wilderness?

My friends at Solid Rock Outdoor Ministries (SROM) shared on this theme in one of their email newsletters. They gave me permission to quote some of it here:

“There’s a strong sense of abandonment in the generations we serve through SROM, and a deep need for acceptance and role models.

“That’s why we continue to be a firm advocate for intentional face-to-face time spent in authentic community. We consistently see this restorative community formed through the time spent and challenges faced on a wilderness course.

“This is why we believe wilderness is so essential to every human being…

“Wilderness is a place of wonder. A place that’s still wild and challenges our more modern way of life. It’s a place where we see the Majesty of God in all of its created glory!…

a group of teen boys on a mountain summit, overlooking miles of mountains
The epic photo is courtesy of SROM—it’s from their 20-day Teen Boys Course from 2017

“Wilderness is a place to encounter God. It’s where all the ‘extras’ are gone, and we can simplify our lives to hear Him…

“God has used the wilderness to draw His children closer to Him. Even in the times they turned from Him, He constantly pursued them, drawing them ever closer into relationship with Him…

“God also uses the wilderness to humble and test the hearts and character of His children…

“He knows that in giving us these tests and challenges in the wilderness we grow in strength, courage, knowledge, and faith.

“James says it well when he says: ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.’ (James 1:2-3 NIV)

“God wants us to grow in relationship with Him. He often uses wilderness to teach and enrich our lives without distractions so we learn to rely on Him for our every need.”

Variations on a Theme

This theme was reinforced to Krista, Sarah, Marissa and me during a 3-day Boundary Waters trip back in August of 2017. Yes, that was 5 years ago now…but the memories remain vivid!

woman portaging a canoe
A “normal” Boundary Waters portage

We were looking forward to a 30-mile route, knowing we’d only have to paddle and portage 10 miles a day. After all, 3 of the 4 of us had just done a 21-mile day trip together the month before. This would be great!

And the first half of the first day went just as expected. Beautiful weather, beautiful lakes, decent portages…although we had to make two trips on each portage, since we had four large packs and two canoes between the four of us (all women). But no problem.

That all changed shortly after lunch when we encountered the worst portage I had ever been on. It looked like it hadn’t been maintained in years. Muck. Mud. Swamp. Bog. Rocks. Fallen trees criss-crossed over the path.

The branches crowding the trail were so thick we had to portage the canoes with two people instead of just one so we could fight through them—continuously navigating turns between the trees with our 17-foot canoes.

There was so much ground cover that had grown up that the trail was often hard to detect. I had to constantly lift the bow of the canoe off my shoulders to be able to see ahead of me to even know we were still on track.

And did I mention it was raining by then? Everything was wet and slippery.

The portage was 140 rods—not quite half a mile. And remember we had to go back and do it again with the rest of the equipment.

The next portage was shorter, but the same…and the next was the same again.

three women get loaded canoes ready for the water from a portage
Getting onto the water again from a “normal” portage

After hours of this we were physically exhausted…mentally exhausted…our shoulders were killing us…we had all slipped and fallen on the rocks or sunk into the mud at least once. Emotionally…well, none of us had cried yet!

Then we hit a dead end. The third portage was supposed to jog to the right taking us to the next lake—and it just ended at a beaver pond. The only thing to the right was a bog, and the thick forest behind us. We spent another hour trying to find the rest of trail, but it just wasn’t there.

We made the decision to turn around—knowing we’d have to do all three of those horrible portages again…twice each! Nooooooo!!

By now it was evening. Because it was overcast there would be no moon that night, which meant pitch blackness in about 1-1/2 hours.

We only had time to make our two trips back to the beginning of this portage, set up one of our tents, put all our packs under a tarp to keep them dry and climb into our bags. There was nowhere to build a fire to cook, even if we had had enough energy left for it!

Our food pack was just a few feet from our tent—a big Boundary Waters no-no. But I thought to myself, “No bear is stupid enough to be on this portage!” We were just too spent and sore to worry about it.

Not long after we got into bed, Krista whispered, “Did you hear those gunshots?” I had been moving around in my sleeping bag and didn’t hear anything. But then we all heard a loud splash in the lake—like a rock the size of my hand had just been tossed in.

All I could think of was a story a friend had recently told me about a few disgruntled men who had shot at some Boundary Waters campsites, trying to scare the campers.

So then we were dealing with fear! Here we were—four women alone in the wilderness, not another soul around, no way to get help, feeling completely vulnerable.

Looking out to a lake at sunrise, beside a tent with a canoe on-shore
Our portage campsite the next morning (from the side of the tent).

How God Used this Intense Wilderness Experience

You learn what’s inside you.

We each chose to NOT complain. I think we were each thinking of the others, and knew griping would only make a bad situation worse.

Not only that, Krista made a heroic effort to verbalize things like: “Wow, isn’t that the coolest mushroom?!” while we were trudging over rocks and through muck with a 70-pound canoe on our backs.

Attitude is definitely a choice!

You learn you can do it.

We were 10 miles into the Boundary Waters. It would be black as ink in less than 2 hours. No one was coming to help us. We had no choice but to keep going even when it meant turning back.

I think that’s one of the most powerful lessons of the wilderness: When it’s impossible to quit, you’ll find you can keep going.

How many life situations can we apply that to?!

This stuff doesn’t get easier!

Krista and I were both 52 at the time. This stuff doesn’t get easier at our age! Sarah and Marissa, the 20-somethings, dug in and pulled more than their share when things got this tough.

Where did they find the strength for that? By being selfless and constantly praying for grace!

woman sitting on a rock between two tents at a Boundary Waters campsite
Happy to spend a night at a real campsite!

You build authentic community

…that is, if you don’t gripe and give in to self-pity!

Pulling together in unity in a time like this deepens the relationships with the ones you’re with. That’s a precious thing.

As bad as things were, we knew it could’ve been worse. Just one example: of those three horrible portages, there was only one spot with enough level space to set up a tent that wasn’t in a swamp—and we were on it.

We were out of the bugs, out of the rain and we were laying down. Hallelujah!

Fear is a powerful force. But…

…God’s presence and promises are more powerful! Sometimes all you can do is corral your thoughts into submission and trust God.

And you learn you can do that.

You learn perseverance.

We knew we still had two nasty portages facing us in the morning, including the longest one. But this time we were mentally ready. We knew what to expect, knew it would all be over in three hours. We put one foot in front of the other and did it.

Let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us

Hebrews 12:1 (World English Bible, public domain)

Sarah dubbed the longest one Victory Portage

And now we’ll have stories to tell the rest of our lives. That’s what you call a testimony!

Three women with thumbs up, with their canoe and gear at a portage
The end of Victory Portage—the 6th and final time. Hooray! (And it was sunny that morning—what a big difference that made)

Here’s more…

Sharon Brodin