How to Survive a Desert
O God you are my God. Earnestly will I seek you; my inner self thirsts for you, my flesh longs for and is faint for you, in a dry and thirsty land where no water is. Psalm 63: 1 (AMP)
Then Jesus was led (guided) by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (tested and tried) by the devil. Matt 4: 1 (AMP)</>
There are times in our Christian walk when all seems dry and dead within and around us. God seems silent and distant, and despite our best efforts, we can’t seem to find or connect with him.
During these times our appetite for the things of God (worship, the Word, fellowship with other believers etc.) seems to wither. Doubts and questions bubble to the surface, challenging even our most fundamental beliefs. Prayer becomes a struggle and we end up feeling alone, confused, abandoned, despondent; trying to figure out what we’ve done (or failed to do) to end up in such a place. We wander in our minds, trying this and that in a bid to restore the sense of joy and fellowship that we have with the Lord.
These past 3 – 4 years have been a desert experience in my life. I have experienced dryness, confusion and perplexity, and many others of the emotions described above. I have had periods when I have doubted even the fundamental articles of my faith. I have questioned my motives and values, my professional and personal pursuits, in the light of eternity. And I have fallen short often, if not always, in my own estimation. In a manner of speaking, it has been a time of wrestling through my own inner demons. Ultimately, I have settled in a place of “bruised wholeness” (See Genesis 32: 31) a place where I do not feel completely whole, or confident, yet have received enough grace to function. I continue to trust the Lord for answers.
The term “wilderness experience” is commonly used in the Body of Christ to describe these times. They can be some of the most challenging times in our Christian walk – or can become some of the most rewarding times, depending on how we respond to God’s dealings with us.
Looking through the Bible, it is evident that we can end up in a wilderness experience as a result of our own choices/actions, or can be driven into them by circumstances – by stress, loss, pain or disappointment. Or we can be led into such a place by the Spirit, to be refined. We see this demonstrated in the lives of both old and New Testament saints, and in the life of the Lord Jesus Himself.
In Exodus 2 and I Kings 19 we see examples of how our personal choices and actions can lead us into a desert place.
Moses fled to the wilderness after committing murder. He was driven there by circumstances, partly of his own making. He’d sensed God’s call upon his life, but had tried to fulfill it using the methods of Egypt. And there he stayed for 40 years – a period of time equivalent to the time he’d spent in Egypt – until all the pride and self-assurance of Egypt had been leached out of him (see Exodus 3: 10-11).
At the end of that experience, the Bible records that he was the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3) – a far cry from the proud, self-assured prince of Egypt that he’d been in his youth. It also seems that he’d lost all desire for anything except the presence of God after that encounter in Sinai (Exod 33: 13, 15).
Elijah is an example of a man who fled into the wilderness of his own choice. In 1 Kings 18, we see the prophet Elijah confront the entire nation of Israel and the priests of Baal that led them into deception.
He called fire down from heaven, executed the priests of Baal, and prayed a prayer that broke the drought over the land – then capped the day off by outrunning a horse-drawn chariot over a 20 mile distance. A good day of ministry if ever there was one! But the next day, he ran again – this time into the desert, in fear of the queen Jezebel, who had threatened to kill him. And he was there for at least 40 days. The bible records that he even felt suicidal during this time. His journey led him to Mt. Horeb, where he met God in an encounter that changed the entire direction of his life and ministry thereafter.
Jesus also went into the wilderness (Matt 4: 1, Luke 4:1-2) It is recorded that he went willingly, in obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to be tested by the enemy. It could have not been easy to wait 40 days fasting, all alone, and after that endure the temptations that He did. But he did so, and passed the test. And then he returned in the power of the Holy Spirit, which fueled his distinctive earthly ministry (Luke 4: 14-15).
Paul is another person who went into a desert place willingly. After his dramatic conversion in Acts 8, he retired into the deserts of Arabia (Gal 1: 17) for a time. It is not recorded what happened to him during that time but it can be assumed that it was part of the process that transformed him from the zealot who led the persecution of the early church to the apostle who carried the message of Christ to most of the known world. The impact of that life and ministry resonates till this day.
There are many other examples, of course: men like Job, David, Jacob, Joseph, and Jonah, who all endured long spells of time when God’s purposes and his dealings were obscure and circumstances were challenging. Ultimately, the Lord led them all into a broad place in Himself (Ps 66:10-12).
Deserts are unpleasant. They test us, try us, and reveal what’s in us. They bring us to the end of ourselves (see Jacob’s prayer in Gen 32: 9-11) and force us to confront the ugliness hidden in the depths of our own hearts. They remind us of the fact that we are utterly dependent on Him; that whatever good we think is in us is only a result of His mercy and grace working in us (Rom 9:16, Jude 21) And when we recognize this and turn to Him anew, He brings us into a broad place, a new place in Him, of fellowship and service and ministry. Ultimately, the choice is ours.