Every life has its share of wilderness periods, times when the façade of security is stripped away and we come face to face with our own vulnerability.
Many things can lead us into the desert: the loss of a beloved friend, an unexpected illness, a heart-shattering betrayal. The need for social distancing. Bare shelves. A stock market crash. Or simply cumulative grey days and sleepless nights. For me a desert can look like a chronic illness flare. Sin (our own or others’) can can lead us into the desert. And so can the Holy Spirit (John 4:1).
When desert days come, I often ask, “How do I live this well?”
These last couple of weeks I’ve realized that to answer that question, I need to ask a deeper one: “What is this desert about? What is its purpose?” Often, in the midst of the desert, I won’t know the specific purpose of this desert. (In fact, that inability to understand is often part of the desert.) But as I’ve pondered and prayed and talked with others, I’ve been brought back to these three more general answers to this question. Each offers me hope.
1. The desert is a wooing place
Whether God himself leads us into the desert, or whether we find ourselves there because of viruses or sin or the simple ups and downs of life in this world, God’s heart for us in the desert is always the same: to draw us closer to himself and settle us more deeply into his love.
“And now, here’s what I’m going to do:
I’m going to start all over again.
I’m taking her back out into the wilderness
where we had our first date, and I’ll court her.
I’ll give her bouquets of roses.
I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope.
She’ll respond like she did as a young girl,
those days when she was fresh out of Egypt.
“At that time”—this is God’s Message still—
“you’ll address me, ‘Dear husband!’
Never again will you address me,
‘My slave-master!’ (Hosea 2:14-16 The Message)
When I remember that the desert is a woo-ing place—that God is always alive and present and acting in love, even though I may not see it—it’s much easier for me to turn to the One who is seeking my heart in the desert. And it’s also easier to remember these next two truths:
2. The desert is a place of provision.
Often it’s when things are most difficult that we experience God’s tender care and provision most deeply. God doesn’t provide manna in Egypt. He doesn’t need to. But out in the desert? There he drops bread from heaven and draws water from a rock. In the desert we learn that it is God who gives us our daily bread. We grow in trust.
3. The desert is a place of purification...
. . .and purification is always part of our journey into freedom. In the desert, God loosens our grip on old, familiar patters and rhythms of bondage, and prepares us to enter the promised land not just with our bodies but with our hearts and souls. This can take a long time. For the Israelites, it was forty years. But they couldn’t enter the promised land until they had learned to trust God enough to follow him into it. Later, Israel couldn’t learn again to call God her husband until she had been separated from her false lovers. Being separated from our false lovers and pretend securities is painful. And it is grace.
We don’t get to choose whether or not to be in the desert, but we do get to choose how we live there.
We can direct our attention to the wild beasts, or we can notice and savor the ways God is caring for us in the midst of the pain. Though we may not be able to offer God what we’d like to, there is always something else we can offer: our longing, our openness, our honesty, our willingness to engage with him and wait for him and be filled by him in our weakness and emptiness.
And we can remember: Jesus has been there too. Even Jesus, immediately after being publicly named God’s beloved Son, was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert. He needed no purification, but he was stretched and tested and proven. Even Jesus had to choose to trust his Father's love and provision. And, both when his testing took place in an external wilderness with wild beasts and in a garden that felt like the most wild, tormenting place in his life, he was tenderly cared for (Matt 4:11, Luke 11:43). This comforts me, because it means at least these three things: Jesus understands. Comfort will come. And we may be exactly where we’re meant to be for this time, being wooed and drawn a little more deeply into God's love.