January 27, 2021


Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Lost (David Cornwell)
Photos by David Cornwell

Have you ever been lost in an actual physical wilderness? I have—sort of.

The place is a an environmental research center not far from my home. It’s a protected wetland environment, along with peat bogs, prairie and savanna restorations, and woods. Maybe it wouldn’t technically fit the definition of wilderness, but for Indiana it’s close enough. I go there as often as I can for hiking, photography, praying, and thinking. Once when I went there, I got lost, and it was getting uncomfortably close to sunset. I had been there wandering the trails often in the past, and had assumed I knew the place well enough to try some different trails. I didn’t have a map or a compass. It was cloudy and I couldn’t make out the sun.

The problem was something I hadn’t expected. There was more acreage than I was aware of and the part I’d wondered into was through a more narrow connection of one area with another. But when I tried to return back to the parking area and go home for the evening, the trails became very confusing. A couple of times I ended up back at the exact same location. Eventually I could see something in the distance that I was familiar with and was able to work my way back to the car.

When I got home I found a map and realized the place was a lot bigger than I assumed, and more complex. Now when I go, I take a map and preferably a compass.

Once I was lost in a spiritual wilderness that was more complex, darker, and much more scary. The maps I’d depended on in the past didn’t seem to work, or seemed at that time to be irrelevant.

I’d left the parish ministry and went to work for a private company. The work, however, wasn’t the problem. My spiritual compass was broken and never pointed in a recognizable direction.

Try as I may, prayer seemed to go nowhere. I’d take long walks in the city where I lived and try to pray. I felt nothing. God didn’t answer, or so it seemed. The conversation wasn’t an easy one, because there was no one listening.

For a long time I went without even seriously thinking of attending church. For one thing I felt some alienation toward the denomination that had been my home from infancy. For another, they simply didn’t seem to care what had happened to a former pastor. Self pity? Some of that too. Whatever the causes, I felt lost in some kind of spiritually barren spot.

Questions came to mind, doubts that I’d never seriously considered any other time in my life. One of the main ones was the perennial problem of evil. How to explain it? Another was the black and white thinking that seemed to dominate so much of conservative theology. Just ask a question, out popped sure and pious answer. And on top of it all there was lingering family turmoil and what seemed to be unanswered prayer.

I can’t pinpoint where things began to change. It wasn’t a matter of days or months. It was more like a couple of years. The darkest point, and also, I suppose in some ways, the turning point came when I learned I had colon cancer. It was something of a miracle that it was discovered in time. Barely. For weeks and then months I faced possible death. That possibility carries with it a soul searing fear of the unknown.

My faith didn’t suddenly return. But I learned to live from day to day. When I went to bed a childhood prayer came back to me almost nightly. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It didn’t take much faith to say that prayer. It was my reality.

Also I’d recite or sing hymns from the hymnal as I drove to get another dose of radiation or chemotherapy. Hymns like “Love divine,  all loves excelling…”.  Thank you Mr. Wesley.  And always “Precious Lord, take my hand…”.

In the middle of the night, lying in bed, Psalms would came to mind. And I was glad I could recite some of them. “The Lord is my shepherd…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”.   When I prayed it was always prefaced or ended with the Lord’s Prayer. These things, learned from my parents and my church, brought to me real comfort and many times good sleep.

The surgery went well. Chemotherapy went on for six months or so. I went back to work, sometimes so tired from the therapy that thinking was difficult. But I survived. More importantly than surviving I was aware of God’s presence once again.

The answer to the problem of evil didn’t suddenly resolve itself. It still hasn’t. It’s a mystery beyond my understanding. But I do know that through Christ, God has taken on evil. Jesus understood evil better than any of us, and takes onto Himself its sting. Other theological questions have failed to resolve themselves with any certainty. But we found a congregation that didn’t claim to have all the answers. From day one it felt like home. They practiced an informal liturgy each week, sang the great hymns, administered the sacraments, and the pastor preached from the lectionary. More than that we were surrounded by people who loved us. And while searching for a more sane evangelical connection, I found Internet Monk. Mostly sane anyway!

I quit trying to connect all the theological dots, because when one was fixed, another one slipped away. But the story of Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection, and his coming again are more important to me now than ever. In the end it comes back to His story. So—“Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above, Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. Tell me the story simply, as to a little child…” You know, this is the same story I heard my mother tell when I was a toddler. And repeated by my Sunday School teachers who handed out little leaflets with bible pictures. The same story I heard at Christmas and Good Friday and Easter every single year. When I’m dead I want the pastor, to once again, tell the story. And point me toward the promise of His coming.

I suppose I still live in a wilderness, just like we all do. But across the way, I can see something else. Can’t you?


  1. Dave K eh? says

    Fantastic post, I can definitely relate. For about a year, I rarely attended church because I felt I would be judged if I really opened up about my spiritual struggles & doubts to someone who has “all of the answers”. And so began a cycle of alienating myself from others and cynicism about all things spiritual. Nothing changed overnight, but I’ve since realized that I don’t have answers to everything and neither does anyone else, so why worry about the possibility of being judged by others? Why not be more open to discussion about things that I struggle with and have doubts about? I have found that there are many people in my own church who think about the exact sort of things that I think about. I’ve left the cynicism behind for a new sense of wonder and appreciation of God and my faith. Life is good 🙂

    • David Cornwell says

      “I’ve since realized that I don’t have answers to everything and neither does anyone else,”

      I agree. The quest for answers goes on and on. I think the best we can do are to find clues and hints to the intractable issues. God has chosen to reveal to us only in part, but we know enough. I believe more than ever in the ultimate triumph of what God deems to be good. This is what Good Friday and Easter are all about. I don’t understand it all, but I can affirm the love of God.

  2. Thank you, David.

    The Lord does stay with us, in our lostness. But it often seems as if He’s left us. I feel that way and I have never had to go through anything like you have (not yet).

    Wonderful, encouraging words. And beautiful photos, as well.

    Oh…and yes..I can see it…barely, and dimly…but it is there. I know it is. He has promised it.

    Thanks, my friend.

    God bless you.

  3. Beautiful post, and one that surely speaks to me,

    When the evil, suffering, and pain hit home, all I can do is clutch my most basic faith like a child, and trust that Papa is taking care of everything that my little brain and soul can NOT understand, at least not on this side of the veil.

    It also means trusting that Papa is still HERE and involved with loving me, even if He hasn’t visited or even sent a post card lately.

  4. Like you, David, I’ve found that God sometimes gives peace before he gives answers. I still don’t know why the heart-breaking things that used to keep me from faith ever happened, but somehow I have become content to trust God without those answers. It’s hard, though, to talk with people who are still wrestling, who are still wandering in the wilderness where so many of us have spent time. If I tell them, “I don’t know why there’s evil, but it doesn’t bother me so much any more,” then I suspect they think I’m shallow and petty — and I can sympathize.

  5. Wow. I’ve said it so many times before, but David Cornwell is without a doubt the iMonk commenter that I would most like to share an afternoon of coffee and conversation with. I think that there are likely many of us here in the community that feel the same way. Thanks, David, for sharing your wisdom and heart with us.

    • David Cornwell says

      Lee, maybe if we could sit down together over that coffee we could arrive at some answers and solve a lot of these problems, once and for all!?

  6. I have travelled a parallel path that had me gone for twenty plus years and those simple prayers were used powerfully by the Holy Spirit. I was touched by your story. Thanks David. ‘ …from thy bounty, amen.’

  7. Thanks for sharing this story, David. I’ve walked through plenty of wilderness myself, and I completely relate to your experience of finding that after all the theology keeps slipping away, you still find yourself clinging to Jesus. If it weren’t for him – if I didn’t believe that “old, old story” that tells me Jesus is the Son of God and the savior of the world – I’d’ve given up on faith a long time ago. Even if I continued to believe in God, I wouldn’t have any reason to believe that God is good or is worth my love and my service if I didn’t trust that when I look at Jesus, I’m seeing the only perfect representation we’ve been given of who God is.

  8. Thank You for the insightful post. I was reading this morning on how in difficulties we can allow our love for God diminish through those things, however God’s love for us never changes. “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, no thomelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture” Romans Ch 8 (The Message by Eugene Peterson. May God’s word encourage you and so do I.

  9. Richard Hershberger says

    A practical tip: when hiking on an unfamiliar trail, every time the trail splits and you have to choose one fork or the other, hike up that fork for ten yards or so and then turn around. Look at what the fork looks like from that direction, so you will recognize it on your return. This makes it much less likely that you will wander down the wrong fork without even noticing.

    I’m not sure how this advise applies to spiritual wanderings.

    • David Cornwell says

      I’ll remember this advice on my next outing. It might work on spiritual wanderings also, because sometimes we tend to take the same old circles around and around. expecting a different outcome. Maybe just look back at that fork in the road and do something different.

  10. David Cornwell says

    I will be away the remainder of today and until tomorrow, so just want to say “thank you” to Chaplain Mike and to all those who read and respond to this piece. I have great respect for this blog, it’s writers, and everyone who contributes.

    And thanks for the gracious comments.

  11. Hi David,

    Thanks for the post. I find myself at a bit of a crossroads and like Chaplain Mike and some others am finding there may be no place for me in Evangelicalism.

    Like you, I found the Internet Monk several years ago and heard Michael saying things I was thinking. There really was some sanity to be found after all.

  12. I had a scary experience at age 14. I wandered off a track in a national park and got lost for over two hours. I didn’t know whether I would get out.

  13. Great message David! Yours is one byline that I ALWAYS look for in the comments section.

    I’ve never been lost, physically, but my first Christian experience began with my conversion with a Christian cult, the Children of God, back in ’71. My whole Christian faith foundation was skewed from the beginning, so after 3 years i found myself separated from the group, adrift and far from the sight of land, all I had to cling to after a brief sojourn in the Wilderness of Sin was my initial experience with Christ. That was my compass, not some denominational handbook or some ancient confessional.

    Over the years I have strayed slightly at times but always return to my lode stone, my relationship with my Creator. No one points to me as a fine example of a church person, (I would be horrified if they DID), even though I am active as a teacher and home group leader. I would rather people find their OWN way in the wilderness, but if I can help point the way then I am satisfied.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’ve never been lost, physically, but my first Christian experience began with my conversion with a Christian cult, the Children of God, back in ’71. My whole Christian faith foundation was skewed from the beginning…

      — Oscar

      With Mo David and the COGs, I’m not surprised. My first experience was with the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay seasoned with Jack Chick, and that messed me up enough. (Amazing how that colors your view of God and Christ from then on, huh?) Mo David was about three standard deviations farther into Weird City and Creepytown.

  14. Sometimes we hold to the slimmest of cords and sometimes it holds us. Sometimes the prayer is find me Lord Jesus. Find me. I’m searched out and beaten. Find me oh Shepherd of souls or I am most certainly lost.

  15. “The answer to the problem of evil didn’t suddenly resolve itself. It still hasn’t. It’s a mystery beyond my understanding. But I do know that through Christ, God has taken on evil. Jesus understood evil better than any of us, and takes onto Himself its sting. Other theological questions have failed to resolve themselves with any certainty.”

    Wonderful post. Thank you. It probably won’t receive 200+ comments, even though it deserves it. But good words can leave one Speechless.

  16. It reminds me of Jesus’ words, that those who think they are well have no need of a physician. Those who with their morbid, clockwork logic who think they have the answers to every abstract question or event, who are never lost, have no need of a Shepherd. But we men are notorious for not admitting when we are lost and need to stop and ask for directions. Mercy.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Those who with their morbid, clockwork logic who think they have the answers to every abstract question or event, who are never lost, have no need of a Shepherd. ”

      I’m truly thankful that God sent a person, Jesus, to teach us shepherd us, and die for us, rather than an additional list of propositions, laws, precepts, and conditions. We’d need more lawyers and logicians to interpret, various schools of thought would result, and we’d in a much deeper wilderness. What a mess that would be. But
      even the most lowly of us can understand the love of Jesus.

  17. Satan asked God if he could have Job and God said yes but don’t kill him. God’s sovereignty allowing secondary causes, i.e. Satan or climate is not the same as God with His finger being the secondary cause Himself. He may allow certain things in His sovereignty. But as He rebuked Job and his counselors for speculating as to why things happen. They said it was because he was in sin, wrong. The disciples also asked Jesus about the man blind from youth if it was so because of his or anthers sin. Jesus dismissed that. Sure God is in control of everything but we are not given the details as to specifics of this or that. Deut 29.29 says the things that are revealed are for us and our children, but the secret things belong unto the Lord our God-Jobs lesson in a nutshell. Something Piper should remember. At least Jobs friends sat and weeped with Job for two weeks in sackcloth and ashes out of sympathy before they started their erroneous speculating and reading tea leaves. But Piper couldn’t even wait and mourn 24 hours before posting his horrendously timed and horrendously out of context post.

  18. Now I lay me down to sleep was the only prayer I could manage a few years ago… Touches my heart to read I was in such humble & holy company…I’m not all that good or clever with words so a mere: Bless-You & Thank-You David for penning such a thoughtful & heart-felt post.

  19. Grateful for this piece – thank you for the honesty and openness, David.

  20. So helpful David. I’m not in a good place at all spritually 16 months after my Mum’s death from cancer when I felt abandoned by God in a very profound way. One day I hope I can describe this as a time in the wilderness, we’ll see. But I am encouraged by you, even as I am dismayed by currently being a great evangelical failure.

  21. Thank you for telling your story and God’s faithfulness to you. My husband and I both received a cancer diagnosis this past December and are presently in treatment. My husband was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s a month prior to his diagnosis of advanced prostate ca. Now is a time of learning to trust our heavenly Father and a time of discovering whether we truly believe everything we’ve said we do all these many years of following the Lord. The wilderness part threatens to overwhelm as well-meaning people tell us simply to rebuke these diseases and we will be healed. Am so encouraged by my visits here. God bless this ministry!

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