The wilderness….the desert….the dry and weary land….but is it? So many of us look at the desert places in our lives and desire to be elsewhere. Having lived in the actual desert for one year, I can certainly testify that the physical desert is NOT the business. It’s unyielding heat, it’s lack of moisture, it’s dusty wind patterns are unpleasant by all means; and I quickly desired to get outta there – asap. But as I think about the spiritual, mental and emotional deserts that I’ve found myself in a time or two -I have begun to have a different outlook on the desire for immediate escape.
You see I have begun to see the wilderness moments in life not as places we should immediately cast down as being out of the will or purpose of God. While the wilderness isn’t our ultimate destination we should look at the wilderness as being apart of the journey to it. The wilderness is often used to do a number of things for our transformation. Thus the wilderness in and of itself is not a bad or negative place to be. Growing up I’ve heard many of sermons that painted a negative picture of the wilderness. Many have said this is not where God wants you to be and if you are in it you are obviously doing something wrong. So you must find what it is you are doing to prevent you from stepping into the promised land. The place where God wants you to be.
This theology has become problematic for me as I’ve come to understand the use of the wilderness in a different light. Now speaking of light, the wilderness is often referred to as the place of darkness. The place of wandering aimlessly in a wasteland without an end in sight. While this can be one reality of the wilderness, what if there is another? What if the wilderness is a place of preparation with intentionality instead of a meaningless wandering? What if the wilderness is the bulk of where we are supposed to live and spend our time in instead of rushing out of it to get “there.” And “there” meaning the fruitful land of the living. You see when I look over scripture I see where God uses the wilderness to shape, prepare and transform people into maturity and into the fullness of purpose.
You see what we fail to realize when we are in the wilderness is that God is still providing and is still present in many ways. Even though we feel God isn’t and we feel we are grasping in the darkness, we can only be at rest in the wilderness when we come to this understanding. Knowing that the wilderness has it’s life transforming purpose for our good. We can still remain active in our faith and trust that God is still speaking to us. Numbers 9: 1-5 show us this very reality where the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness and the people kept the Passover during their time in the wilderness as well. God was still active and so were the people. This is a great example of how we can view the wilderness as an active reality. Not a passive one. Where we are just stuck, dry and wandering aimlessly waiting to get out of it.
When we flip to New Testament scripture we see this truth play out again in the life of John the Baptist; also known as “the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness.” You see John spent 30 years in the wilderness (both literally and spiritually). But John was not inactive during those years. No, in fact, his life and faith was quite the opposite of passive as he spent much time engaged in deep prayer and devotion with God. He also spent much time engaged in community with a few disciples who journeyed with him. The wilderness was not punishment for John. The wilderness was necessary preparation for John. Those 30 years were necessary for the 6 months of public ministry that he executed. Oh what a crazy ratio that is. 30 to 6. 30 years to produce 6 months. Wow! So many of us are so gung-ho to jump to the end in our gusto to do things for God. Thus we insert ourselves by jumping into a ministry capacity without allowing the process of the wilderness preparation. Can the wilderness experience happen while we are in a ministry role? – absolutely. This is not what I am rebutting. What I am saying is that I have encountered many believers in Christ who have giftings and a desire to do a certain thing in a positional capacity and wonder when they will reach that place to do it. They fight themselves and God as they remain in what appears to be a wilderness journey for them. They have this view that the wilderness is a negative holding pattern for which they wonder if they will ever escape – neglecting the very life-transforming purpose of why they are there in the first place.
Samuel Whitefield writes in his online devotional: Though John’s life was in the desert and, no doubt, lonely at times, it was not the life of a hermit. He was faithful to minister to others in the desert. John actively taught and invested in a group of young men known as his disciples (Matthew 9:14, 11:2, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33, 7:18–19, 11:1, John 1:35, 3:25, 4:1). While God cuts us off from many distracting things when He sends us to desert places, that is not the same as isolating ourselves from the body and refusing to engage with others. John was faithful in small things by leading a small group while God constrained the rest of his life.
We are obsessed with efficiency, but God is not. He is both urgent and patient all at the same time. John was a blaze of urgency for 6 months, but God nurtured and maintained that urgency for 30 years. In the same way, when God responded to Israel’s cries for deliverance from Egypt, He began by spending 80 years forming Moses to lead the people. The last 40 of those years He put Moses aside out in a desert.
God does not consider that kind of investment extravagant. Why? Because He didn’t form John only for 6 months of ministry. He formed John to minister to Him for a billion years. John will be proclaiming the glory of his cousin for billions of years. God is not forming us only for a ministry function. He is forming us to dwell with Him forever. God values natural process and time more than we do. He makes men, individually and uniquely over time. He presses and forms them through the processes of life. He does not wring His hands in despair over the time that it takes to form a vessel. This is the biblical view of urgency.
Our view of urgency is that it must be done “now.” God’s view is very different because it is the magnitude of what is coming that demands urgency. God’s will address the magnitude of the challenge with equal magnitude. Therefore the proper response to urgency is to build things that will withstand the strength of what is coming. God does not do that overnight. He does it over decades. He usually moves more slowly than we like to prepare something that will endure the conflict.
Whitefield goes on to say: There is more than one kind of desert and it is critical to understand the difference in your own life in order to respond rightly because the goal is not always to leave the desert.
The desert of testing is a place of battle and it is temporary. Faith is tested here and refined and Jesus’ own life is one of the best examples. Jesus battled the devil in the wilderness when He was tempted he then emerged in power. The desert of testing is temporary and it is for the sake of war.
God who is jealous for a relationship sees where it is not possible in the midst of distraction and competing affections. This is part of the desert. Just as the stars seems more brilliant away from the lights of the city, so too the person of God burns most vividly in the place of the desert. Here, there is an entirely different kind of desert. It is the desert of communion. It is the place where God lovingly calls you to come away with Him to a place of communion. His voice calls, “come away with Me.” It is the place where God calls you away and detoxes you simply because He made you for Himself.
Robert Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline: Those who go into the deserts of silence and solitude do so for others they are to bring back any word they receive from God and share it with others. This is a gracious service to be rendered, for no individual can hear all that God wants to say. We are dependent upon one another to received the full counsel of God.
Thus you can see that the desert or “the wilderness” has a myriad of purposes. It is not in and of itself a negative place to be. Once we recognize the desert place we are in, we can then use that place for our transformative benefit which will produce the outcome of fruitfulness in the fullness of time.