My mom used to love this song by Building 429, “Where I Belong.” One of the last videos we have of her leading worship at church was her singing that song. Helen Keller used to sing it on the praise team all the time, and Mom loved it. It’s about not fitting anywhere. It’s about knowing that where you are now isn’t permanent, and that just maybe there’s a purpose for it anyway. It’s about finding the place you belong in your faith rather than in the day to day locations that life demands. The chorus says, “All I know is I’m not home yet/ This is not where I belong/ Take this world and give me Jesus/ This is not where I belong.” It reminds me of the C.S. Lewis quote I love so much that says, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” For better or worse, this has felt more and more real to me with every passing day. For most of my life I’ve felt like the misfit, but this past two years, it has become a more pronounced fear, the pink elephant that follows me into every room I occupy. “You don’t belong here,” it whispers. “Maybe you don’t really belong anywhere.”
A month or so ago, Mary Ann and I watched Pitch Perfect and there’s this scene where Becca says, “Wait, that oath was serious?” And Aubrey responds, “Dixie Chicks serious.” This planted a deep need in my soul to listen to the Dixie Chicks again, because they were the music of my soul growing up and I loved them deeply from like, the third grade, until forever, even when Natalie insisted on throwing shade at Toby Keith and the political establishment and kind of ruined everything for a while. So yesterday as I’m working, I’m listening to one of the three Dixie Chicks albums, and this song from 1998 came on: “Loving Arms.” It’s a soulful ballad about how she left a relationship thinking she wanted to be free, and discovered that she missed the very person she’d been running from. She says, “Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains, lying in your loving arms again.” It started me thinking about something My Friend and I discussed, how sometimes I find myself longing for a time that was so bad for me rather than being able to enjoy my newfound freedom. And then that led to me thinking about the story of the Israelites in Exodus and some things Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. (I know. It’s a strange journey to go through what happens in my head, like a ball of yarn you might wish you had never started to unravel).
Anyway, Viktor Frankl wrote, when describing the first taste of freedom for the prisoners rescued from concentration camps following World War II, that they had longed for freedom but when they finally experienced it, they could not grasp the fact that it was truly theirs. He said, “In the evening, when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, ‘Tell me, were you pleased today?’ And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know we all felt similarly, ‘Truthfully, no!’ We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.” He talks about how, psychologically, going from being completely under another’s control to having unlimited freedom could cause injury to the mind the way that a diver rising to the surface too quickly would suffer bodily injury. And then he says that one day, he was walking through the country with nothing but the sound of birds surrounding him and he says he dropped to his knees and the only sentence running through his mind was, “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison, and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
It wasn’t just Viktor Frankl either. Looking back into the Exodus story in the Old Testament where the Israelite people were freed from the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh, they experienced a similar phenomenon. After witnessing the ten plagues, then running for their lives straight into the Red Sea where their pursuers drowned in the same place they had walked across on dry land, after being given manna from heaven to sustain them, followed by quail after their grumblings that they wanted meat. After having the presence of God to lead them, and being told that they were headed towards the promised land, they grumbled and complained. They longed for Egypt. They had seen the numerous ways that God was able to provide for them and keep them safe in the face of impossible circumstances, but let them get a little bit uncomfortable, and all of the sudden they accused Moses of leading them out into the wilderness to die. They saw the manna covering the ground, enough for them to feed their entire families, and instead of celebrating the provision of God, they said, “All we see is manna! Back in Egypt we had leeks and onions and garlic.” I’ve generally been pretty harsh and judgmental of these people in the Bible because, look how far God had brought them. Then He set them free from all this pain and oppression, but all of the sudden, because they couldn’t just get it together and trust God, they ended up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years instead of going right into their promised land. Because they couldn’t just have a grateful heart and trust.
But now, if I’m honest, I get it. I mean, they were treated harshly in Egypt, but they knew exactly what to expect. Their children were enslaved and they had no freedom, but they could count on a place to live and their next meal. Now, with this overwhelming freedom, all stability was gone. They had to follow a cloud by day and a flame by night, and never knew where they would find water until God revealed it to them. They received manna the night before, but they had to trust that God would also provide it the next day, and the next. They had been slaves to Pharaoh before, but now I wonder if sometimes they felt like they were slaves to freedom. They had to work at it, and they had no choice, and their promised reward never seemed to materialize. It was like a carrot on a stick and every step they took, the carrot took one too, until it seemed they would never receive what they’d been promised. It’s like when I was a little girl and I would long for the days when I could be a teenager, then a driver, then a college student, then a wife, and my mom would tell me, “One day you’re going to be all those things, and you’re going to say to yourself, ‘This is it? This is what I was in a hurry for?’”
Deep down, I might be thinking, just like they were thinking, “Yeah, I’m free, but what’s the point? Before I had to work hard, and I was mistreated, but at least I knew what I was getting into. And I fit there. I had a purpose and I had an identity. Freedom was supposed to be so great, but all I feel is lost and overwhelmed.”
There’s a reason why, when people set out on an adventure, they call it “The Great Unknown.” Because if they called it what it really was, “The Terrifying Unknown,” no one would ever go. Now, with this knowledge about myself, stripped down from the self-righteous attitude I had before life happened, the way I read the Exodus story has been affected. As I was reading, I prayed, “God, what was the point? I mean, yeah, they were free, but they were miserable.”
And just like He has so many times before, He knew that what I was really asking was, “God, what’s the point? Why did I need to be set free in the first place if you didn’t have anything better for me waiting? I mean, yeah, things were bad, but I didn’t know they were bad, and I was content. Life was predictable, I felt pretty good about myself and how things were going, and I would’ve stayed that way forever without knowing there was anything wrong with it. What was the point in setting me free so that I could feel like I’m never going to fit anywhere ever again?” I know, I know. Some people are very uncomfortable with questioning God, but I am not one of those people. If we have questions, who better to ask than the One with all the answers?
Immediately a verse came to mind. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). This was interesting to me because, in Exodus, the reason that Moses gives to Pharaoh for why the people need to be free from his captivity is so that they can worship him (Ex. Chapter 4, 5). But here, in answer to my question, it was for the very sake of freedom itself. Before, the lie I was telling myself was that God didn’t set those people free for their own sakes. He set them free for His sake. So they’d worship Him. But when you read it in relation with Galatians, yeah, He set them free so that they could worship Him, but also for their own freedom. So we would all have a choice. What will we do with our freedom? We have the option to use it to follow His will and His purpose, but we also have the freedom to turn away. And He knows that, but He grants the freedom anyway. He wants us to have a choice.
It was also interesting to me that in Galatians, Paul had to explicitly tell the people, “And once you’re free, don’t go back to that thing that enslaved you.” It brought me so much comfort because that means I’m not the only one tempted to look back and think I had it better way back when. I’m not the only one who found comfort in captivity. I’m not the only one who finds freedom overwhelming. I’m one of the many who go right back to their old patterns of thought and their old ways of living for comfort, much like a child to a favorite blanket, or an alcoholic to a favorite drink. My captivity had been the way I managed my grief. It had been the way I could hide from all the things that were really happening in my life so I didn’t have to deal with them. It had allowed me to stick my head in the sand and pretend that I was great and life was great and things were exactly as they should be while really, the whole world was falling apart without my ever acknowledging it.
And so I sat with these thoughts for another week. This idea that, although freedom is overwhelming, God wanted it for me. He wanted me to experience it, knowing I would be uncomfortable and I might mess it up. He wanted me to have the chance to make the choice for myself. He loved me enough to want me out of the bondage that took away my choices, even knowing that those choices might turn out to be a mess. But I just couldn’t let it go. Inside I was like, “OK. I can understand that. I can even appreciate it. But what’s the point? Those people in Exodus were miserable. Most of them died before they even saw the promised land. Were they any better off for having their freedom? Is that what’s going to happen to me too? I was free for the sake of freedom but then nothing ever gets better? I never feel a sense of purpose again? I never feel a sense of fulfillment? I never find my people or my niche? I just wander around for the rest of my life like the Israelites in the desert until God gets frustrated with my complaining and my questions and just lets me die?” (I know. I’m a little dramatic, but this is me. Sometimes I’m a little too much, but it is what it is).
And then for a few days I stopped thinking about it at all. I got caught up in work, and I had a few books I was reading, and there was just life. But this weekend I woke up and I was looking through my mom’s journals, hoping to find something about Abraham and Isaac (my current wrestling match), and instead I found this: a brief description of where I’d been, where I am, and where I hope I’m going.
My mom had literally outlined in three points, the purpose of Egypt, the Wilderness, and the Promised Land. And that’s when it came to me. “Your problem is the same as the one the Israelites faced. They thought they were going straight from Egypt to the Promised Land, and when they found themselves in the Wilderness they were angry and frustrated and they didn’t understand the process. You’re not supposed to be happy and content and fulfilled in the wilderness. The wilderness is where you learn what you need to learn so you’ll be prepared for the Promised Land.”
We are not meant to find contentment in the wilderness. We are not meant to stay there forever. But we are also not meant to go straight from captivity to the Promised Land. If that were our journey, if we circumvented the process and the order that God has set up, then upon discovering that there were giants to fight to defend our land, we would stumble and be struck down. We would be unprepared. Exodus 13:17 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt. So God led the people around the desert road towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.”
They thought they were ready to fight anything, but there was no one to fight. No one except for their own will. They had to learn to trust. They had to learn to take one step at a time without any clear answers. They had to learn that God was sufficient, and that they were insufficient in themselves. They had to learn dependence on their creator before they would be ready for the Promised Land. I came out of Egypt in my battle clothes, ready to fight someone on every corner because they all felt like a threat. After living in a defensive posture for so long, there was no other way to exist in my mind. But in the wilderness, around every tree looking for an enemy, instead I find only mirrors, showing me myself. Who I am, a person so completely different from who I imagined, waiting to be given clear direction for next steps. Like the Israelites I grumble and I complain. I lament the loss of the predictability of captivity. I long for Egypt as if it were a place of ultimate comfort, as if it were the Promised Land itself. And yet God is showing me how to die out to myself, how to release the old coping mechanisms, and step into the position of soldier when I’m ready, but not yet. He’s showing me that, before, I had to fight to survive. Now is not my time to fight, it’s my time to trust. My time to look for manna on the ground and quail and water from the rock. My time to trust in the sufficiency of God so that when I fight a battle bigger than I can win, I know who can help me fight it. The Promised Land was inhabited by giants. Giants that would’ve seemed impossible to fight if not for the trust in God that the people learned in the Wilderness.
My Crazy Lady likes to tell me that my relationship with my mom isn’t over, that it’s just changed. That she still talks to me, and I still talk to her, and that the same God that she taught me to follow and love lives in me still, leading me just like He led her. Finding notes like this, I think she’s right. Maybe there was even a time when my mom longed for Egypt too. I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re not happy with where you are now, and you don’t see a purpose, just remember that maybe this is not your Promised Land. This is just your wilderness. You don’t go right from Egypt to Canaan. There’s a desert in the middle. If you’re not seeing the milk flowing with honey right now, you haven’t arrived yet. But you’re on your way if you don’t give up. This is preparation season. Wear your battle clothes, stay alert, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.