Finding Help in the Wilderness

One of the sadder stories you’ll hear is that of Chris McCandless’ tragic demise. In his book Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer tells how McCandless turned his back on society and attempted to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness. In spite of his hunting and foraging skills, McCandless succumbed to starvation less than four months after entering the bush. McCandless kept a journal during his time in the wilderness which reveals that before he died, he actually decided to give up and return to civilization. Unfortunately, when he tried to return, he discovered that the river that he had crossed on his way out had become impassable due to rain and snow and glacial melt, as many Alaskan rivers do in summertime. McCandless felt trapped. He posted an SOS note on a window of the abandoned bus in which he had taken refuge, begging anyone who might come by while he was out gathering food to help him. He was found dead in the bus two months later.  

What makes McCandless’ story truly tragic is that he failed to realize that only a half mile away from where he had first crossed the river there was an abandoned hand-operated cable car that could have carried him safely across the raging rapids. All he needed was there; he simply did not realize it.

While we might not be able to identify with McCandless’ desire to turn his back on society or even his desire to forge a life in the wild, we’ve probably all fell pray to the temptation to live a self-sufficient life in one form or fashion. And, like McCandless, we too have probably found at one point or another that such a life was unlivable and that we needed help. How often though have we been guilty of starving when salvation was nearby?

One day in a deserted area near the sea of Galilee, a crowd of 5000 men, not counting women and children, was gathered to hear Jesus. Not one of those men, including the twelve that followed Jesus, had thought to bring anything to eat that day, and, as the sun was going down, everyone was understandably hungry. The disciples’ solution was to tell Jesus, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food” (Matthew 14:15). Jesus responded by saying, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v. 16). Jesus knew quite well that they couldn’t do this; John reveals that this was a test (John 6:6).

Philip evidently failed the test. He said, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little” (John 6:7). Evidently, Philip focused on what he and the other disciples didn’t have. Effectively he said, “Even if we had two hundred days’ worth of wages – which we don’t – we’d only be able to give each of them a little bit.” Philip focused on what they didn’t have and what little it could do even if they did have it.

Andrew did a little better. Pointing out the one little boy in the multitude who had thought to prepare for a day in the countryside, He said, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?” (John 6:9). Andrew at least tried to do an inventory of what the disciples had, but like Philip, he too reached the conclusion of insufficiency. He also failed the test.

What Philip, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve failed to realize is that salvation was nearby. It wasn’t even half a mile away; to borrow from Moses like Paul did, it was in their mouths and in their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:14; cf. Romans 10:8)! Jesus had evidently spent the day not only teaching, but healing (Matthew 14:14; Luke 9:11). He had shown the disciples His power. All they needed to do was ask for Him to help.

Even though the disciples failed the test, Jesus used the moment to prove to them and to the multitudes (and to us) that He could (and can!) provide any kind of help they (or anyone!) needed. He had taught them and healed them, and now, He would feed them. Jesus fed the 5000 with abundance; “they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish” (Mark 6:43).

We may not go into the wild like Chris McCandless, but the world is certainly a wilderness of wickedness (1 John 5:19). If we’re honest, we’ll find that in this wilderness even our best isn’t enough for survival. If you’re reading this though and feel you are losing the battle for survival, there’s no reason to starve. The day after Jesus fed the 5000, he told the once again assembled crowds, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Never fear that you won’t make it out of the wilderness, for Jesus said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). And finally, never feel like you are alone, for Jesus also said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
-Patrick Swayne