Don't forget the wilderness
'Desert’ or ‘wilderness’ experiences are not generally part of our life’s plan.The spiritual wilderness experience is not what we would normally choose.
If we did have a choice, ‘green pastures’ next to ‘streams of water’ would always be preferable, metaphorically speaking. (Spiritual 'glamping' on our own terms).
‘Valleys of the shadow of death’ do not generally make it onto our bucket lists or 5-year plans, (unless you are bungee jumping or free-falling out of a plane).
Our plans usually include ease, comfort and happiness; because our plans are usually about us.
Seasons of discouragement, disappointment, despair and loneliness would all qualify as ‘wilderness’ experiences - a time when God, from our perspective, seems distant and far off. A season where nothing goes the way we wanted or planned and we cannot see beyond the dryness and struggle; where melancholy thoughts, doubts and lack of faith crowd our mind.
It can be an experience where darkness seems to hold the comfort of our faith at bay.
That time when the words of Anne of Green Gables become our own: ‘My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.’
Jon Bloom articulates it this way: ‘There are these seasons when an unrelenting darkness descends. Or an arid wind we don’t even understand blows across our spiritual landscape, leaving the crust of our soul cracked and parched. And we cry to God in our confused anguish and he just seems silent. He seems absent.’
The OT narrative of the Israelites’ 40 year sojourn in the desert sheds light on God’s intention for their season of wandering. The heart of their experience is found in Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 8:2f, as they are on the brink of entering the Promised Land:
‘And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not….and he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God… who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.'
These are sobering words – not the motivational speech we might expect at a ribbon cutting ceremony.
On the brink of looking forward, Moses spends much of his
speech reminding them to look back; lest they forget.
Moses’ surprising, but realistic warning, is that on their entry into the Promised Land, where they will experience plenty, they must beware lest they say in their hearts, 'my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ [Deuteronomy 8:17].
The lesson is clear. We are prone to forget.
When things go well, we are tempted to forget the Lord our God. When we are in the wilderness, we tend to forget God. But there are unique experiences of God that shape us, grow us and illustrate His attributes as no other circumstance can when we consider our time in the wilderness.
The wilderness is never a wasted journey.
It is God’s intended itinerary.
‘All of God’s saints, if allowed to live long enough, are led into the lonely, disorienting, weary wilderness.’ [Jon Bloom]
Forgetting the wilderness stunts our faith and shrinks our view of God, who always shows up – sometimes spectacularly, but always providentially, graciously and timeously.
Losing our focus:
We just don’t like to acknowledge God’s intervention, because the wilderness means we didn’t get our own way, so we often choose not to see God’s sovereign hand. Our perception of God’s perceived absence and silence is what controls our attitudes, mind-set and view of Him.
Our feelings are the script we choose to read from, but our feelings are never the truth.
As we focus on our feelings, we miss the wonder of all God’s holy and perfect ‘omni’s.’
(His omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience and omnisapiens)
We focus on our smallness and miss His greatness.
We focus on our weakness and forget His strength and power.
We focus on our own isolation and ignore God’s ready presence.
We focus on our own thinking and dismiss His wisdom.
And in the process – we make God to be functionally small, weak, clueless and far away.
And then we choose to believe that.
That is what Satan tempts us to believe, and in those moments, or days or months or years, it looks like he is winning.
And so we sulk and slink into the ready pit of self-pity because we are not happy with the way God is doing what He is doing. And the most important thing in our depraved thinking is to be happy.
Tim Keller has said, ‘If the meaning of life is happiness – then when hardship or suffering (or wilderness experiences) come, we have lost the meaning of life.’
In our depraved pursuit of self-happiness, we become so consumed with looking around, looking inward and looking down, that we miss it all.
Toppling our idols:
If we were more humble and less stubborn, we would probably have more altars than golden calves when we look back. And yet, as our weaknesses are exposed, and our hearts are tested, we come to experience the gracious patience, merciful forgiveness and steadfast love of the Lord our God.
Speaking boldly and directly, Charles Spurgeon, said, ‘Be thankful for the thorns and the thistles, which keep you from being in love with this world and becoming an idolater.’
Becoming idolaters is our innate default. It becomes easy to dethrone God.
Wilderness experiences tend to be where the idols lurking in our hearts are painfully exposed. God, in his holy jealousy and fatherly love, uses these circumstances to topple our idols and reshape our view of Him.
God is always after our whole hearts.
A divided heart He will not abide.
Of course – while we traverse in the wilderness we do not necessarily appreciate the daily manna. The pillar of fire by night seems ominous and the cloud by day – well, we perceive that as a dark cloud, adding to our depression. We choose not to see these as God’s new morning mercies, that He never slumbers or sleeps and that He is ALWAYS guiding his children.
We learn powerful and necessary lessons in God’s intentional leading of us into the wilderness. I would submit that these experiences are more to do with God than about us – reminding us, in our hearts, to reinstate God to His throne and to reverently acknowledge and worship Jesus at His right hand.
Choosing to see:
We must choose to see and we must not forget the wilderness.
Forgetting the wilderness makes us forget who
we really are and who God really is.
Just like the Israelites in Numbers 21, we are impatient and speak against God. Grumbling, complaining and questioning are ready on our lips.
When the disease or suffering or heartache or loss seem overwhelming, and when we are weak and despairing, God says to us as He said to the Israelites – ‘LOOK UP! Just look up.
From where you are in your pain and anguish and guilt and shame and despair – lift your eyes and look up at the bronze snake and you will be healed.’
The bronze snake in the desert is the foreshadowing of Jesus, raised on the cross.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of night, He picked this analogy to explain what He came to do:
‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ [John 3:14-15]
‘The means God chooses to rescue the people from his own curse is a picture of the curse itself. All they have to do in order to be saved from God’s wrath is look at his provision hanging on a pole.’ [John Piper]
God has to bring us to the end of ourselves to start to see the beginning of Him. And the place He often chooses to do that is in the wilderness.
It is only then that we are ready to acknowledge our sin and come to the foot of the cross in humble repentance and look up at our Saviour. This is what He says: ‘Come unto to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’
Look up from your wilderness of self-sufficiency and hopelessness and despair and self-autonomy and shame and doubt and materialism and narcissism and fear of man and needing the world’s approval.
For each of us, the wilderness experience is uniquely tailored to expose our personal sin profiles and idols of our hearts - opportunities to redefine what utter surrender and dependency look like and to sacrifice self-sufficiency and autonomy.
Focusing on Jesus:
Jesus was led into the wilderness to overcome the persecutor of our souls. He chose to set aside His glory and strength, becoming weak and vulnerable and isolated. And in that moment, because He was the Son of God, He overcome Satan’s temptation. In the wilderness, Jesus won. That is why we focus on Him. He has gone before.
He will gently guide us through the valley of the shadow of death and take us to the high places.
When we get there – we are likely to have the scars, the limp, the losses and the memories to remind us of our glorious Father who led us there, was with us there and faithfully led us out.
We are never the same when we come out of the wilderness.
That is the gain.
We are changed and transformed, which is the painful but beautifully rewarding process of sanctification. We start to truly see ourselves for who we are and God for who He truly is.
May we not forget the wilderness. It is where God’s faithfulness shines the brightest.
It is where we are humbled and tested, so that God may do good to us in the end.
It is where Romans 8:28-29 and James 1:2-4 come alive.
For some further encouragement- please listen to Lauren Daigle’s song, ‘Remember,’ from her album, ‘Look Up, Child.’
For a different perspective in remembering what God has done in our lives, read the following blog, ‘Show and Tell’