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The Joy of Going Without: On Camping and Lent

A few years ago, I overheard a friend of mine ask a man from Nigeria what he thought was the strangest part of American culture. Without missing a beat, he answered, “Camping.”

He thought it was ridiculous that people who live in nice houses with all the modern luxuries would go sleep outdoors for fun. Why would anyone subject themselves to that? At the time, I had never been camping and had no desire to try it. So in my mind, his question was its own answer. Why subject yourself to that, indeed?

But a few weeks ago, my sister and brother-in-law (both avid campers) invited me to go camping with them in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Suddenly that question, “Why go camping?” was no longer rhetorical, and, surprisingly, the answers were compelling—a beautiful place to explore, good company, a new experience. So I agreed to go.

My main concern was whether February was really the best time to see how I liked sleeping in a tent. But my sister assured me that they had the right gear and that I would be warm enough.

To be fair, if the forecast had been accurate, she probably would have been right, but the low that first night was 14°F, a full ten degrees colder than expected. None of us were warm enough. During the long hours in which I lay awake, shivering, that question returned with full force: Why did I think this was a good idea?

The next day, we planned to do a fairly strenuous eight-mile hike. Somehow (we’re still not exactly sure what happened), when we were six miles in, we discovered that we still had four miles left to go. I was really feeling the lack of sleep at that point, and with no hot shower or a warm bed to look forward to, I briefly lost the will to trudge on. But trudging on was the only option.

Perhaps fasting, like camping, is an opportunity to see things we don’t normally see—beauties off the beaten path. Jenna Harrington

And yet, in the midst of the difficulties and discomfort, we also enjoyed moments of beauty and wonder. Majestic bucks strolled, relatively unconcerned, through the campground. The first night, as we were setting up our tents, a small hog tore past our campsite, squealing in panic, chased by two coyotes. The next day on our hike, a bald eagle circled overhead as we ate lunch. On Sunday afternoon, we watched an otter fish in the river. All weekend, we basked in the peacefulness of a beautiful place and in the glorious views we encountered while hiking.

By the end of the trip, I was beginning to understand. Those moments are why you go camping. That’s why you sleep on the cold, hard ground; why you go without electricity and hot showers for a few days; why you hike eight (or ten) miles on just a few hours of sleep. The uncomfortable parts of the trip, I found, were worth it because of the beauty I was able to experience. Even the discomfort itself brought a certain kind of satisfaction, as I grew in my ability to endure difficulty.

Here at the beginning of Lent, I have found myself thinking of this season of fasting as a kind of spiritual equivalent to camping. Lent is modeled after Jesus’ forty days (and the Israelites’ forty years) in the wilderness, so it seems natural to understand it as a kind of wilderness journey. And it can certainly sound as crazy as going camping in February. Why in the world would you give something up for six weeks? Especially if you believe that it doesn’t gain you any favor with God.

Perhaps fasting, like camping, is an opportunity to see things we don’t normally see—beauties off the beaten path. Of course, just like anything that involves giving up our normal routines, this will involve discomfort. But we twenty-first-century Americans are so unused to discomfort that we are more afraid of it than we ought to be. We often don’t consider that there might be good things that we can only find by first giving up and going without.

Maybe there are spiritual equivalents of the coyotes and the otter—things we will never see unless we go out into the wilderness. Maybe there is freedom in relinquishing comfort and ease for a time. Maybe there is joy in enduring difficulty and, as a result, gaining experience and wisdom we didn’t have before. Maybe there is renewed gratitude on the other side of deprivation.

The point isn’t to wallow in misery or gloat in suffering as if it makes us more holy. Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. He tells us to lose our lives because that’s the only way to keep them. Paul wanted to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings because what he really wanted was to experience the resurrection from the dead.

In the Bible, the wilderness is not usually a pleasant place to be. For the Israelites, it was a place of deprivation, testing, and judgment—a place of bitter water and fiery serpents. For Jesus, it was a place of hunger and temptation. But the wilderness was also where the Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud and fire and where they ate manna from heaven every day. The wilderness was where angels came and ministered to Jesus. Lent is a comparatively mild wilderness journey, but through this season perhaps we too can, in the midst of our discomfort, encounter God.

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