Purposes For the Wilderness Journey
Burning sand drags your feet. The relentless sun beats down, withering everything it touches. What little breeze there is feels like an oven's blast, lapping up every bit of moisture in your body. Your tongue is swollen and dry; swallowing is painful. You stumble onward, wondering how long you can keep going. The path seems to go on forever, no end in sight...
The wilderness. Have you ever been there? That's where I found myself for much of the last two years...though certainly not without its brighter moments as well, it was overall a time of confusion, disappointments, loss, grief, and many tears as God brought my family and I through some very difficult circumstances. I was forced to question the very basics of my faith... "Does God really love me? if so, how can He allow this?" and of course the ever-present "Why, why, why?"
As I desperately searched the Bible, I found many answers to these questions in the story of the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Scriptural record is rich with detail and glimpses of human nature that I could identify with all too well. In His dealings with the Israelites, God gives us a picture of His love and mercy for all His children...and many answers to the agonized "why" of suffering. Why does He allow His children to go through the wilderness?
This is just a glimpse of the answers God has given to my cries of "Why?" Much more is to be discovered in the pages of Scripture, and certainly I have just begun to learn to see things from God's perspective. In some ways I am not fully "out of the wilderness" even yet—and I'm beginning to realize that in many ways all of life this side of heaven is a wilderness journey. We are pilgrims and strangers here.
To deliver them from the bondage of their old life. Because they had known nothing but slavery, the Israelites didn't realize what they were missing out on. Lacking vision, they could not imagine how good the Promised Land really was, so wished to hang on to the familiar discomfort and temporal pleasures of Egypt. This is so easy to do...stepping out in faith is a very scary thing. But that's the key word there: faith. We must believe in a loving God, who sees the whole picture and works everything together for our best. It will be worth it all.
- To remove them from the distracting comforts of Egypt, so they'd learn to seek Him alone and find Him as their only source of happiness (Deut. 8:3). Often all other props must be removed before we recognize God's all-sufficiency. He alone is enough! All else is a cheap imitation and won't last (Heb. 12:26-29). The wilderness may seem quiet and empty, but as such it is the perfect place to meet with God without distraction. Jesus knew this, too, and often went to the wilderness to pray.
- To teach His children patience and endurance, strengthening their faith in a way that nothing else could accomplish. As much as we might wish it so, these virtues cannot be instantly, painlessly inserted into our lives. To be genuine, they must be worked out and grown through the circumstances of our lives. Even Jesus Himself had to learn obedience "by the things that He suffered" (Heb. 5:8).
When we pray to be made more like Jesus, God takes us seriously—it is His goal for us, too!—and He will provide the precise opportunities we need to crucify self. Each "chance to die" (as Amy Carmichael termed it) is a gift...a doorway to more of Jesus. Let us "think it not strange" (1 Peter 4:12), but instead be thankful.
- To demonstrate His love for them, and His power at work on their behalf. God's love is so much bigger than we humans can imagine. "God is kind," John Piper wrote, "in ways that will not fit your mind." God has "tough love"—the kind of love, coupled with infinite wisdom, that will only do what is best for His children...even at the risk of misunderstanding or rejection. Here, again, we need faith.
- To put the fear of God in the hearts of the watching world. The Canaanites were keeping close tabs on the Israelites' journey, and they quickly became convinced of God's power. We, too, have a watchful "audience." The difficult circumstances God allows into our lives are opportunities for Him to demonstrate His power...whether by miraculously delivering us, or by giving us the day-to-day strength to make it through victoriously. Our very weaknesses are the areas He wants to transform and use most mightily for His glory, so even those who do not know God will acknowledge His power.
- To keep the promises He made to His children. Though we may never hear God audibly speaking to us, the Bible is packed full of amazing promises...specific words to claim and cling to, from a Father who cannot lie. One of these is Ps. 84:11b: "No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly." There is so much good that can only enter our lives during the wilderness seasons, so He must allow the difficult times for our very best and fullest blessing.
- To bring them to the Promised Land. God didn't just lead the Israelites into the wilderness—He brought them out again! Even though the wilderness journey is full of blessings we'll find nowhere else, He has a far bigger plan in mind. He wants to bring us through, strengthened and prepared for far greater service to Him than before. A major victory is won when we are able to stop praying for instant deliverance from the suffering, and instead ask Him to bring us through and be much glorified in it all. That's a prayer He delights to answer! We just have to let Him do it on His timetable...He knows exactly how long we need to be in the wilderness, and it won't last a moment longer than is for our best. We will ultimately reach the end of our journey, and it'll be more than just a mirage. The Promised Land is for real!
But as I look back over the path God has brought me on in these last couple years, I am now able to genuinely thank Him for it all. By His grace, every step of the way—especially the most painful ones—has brought me closer to Him. God Himself is the goal...and it is worth any sacrifice, any struggle. He promises, "as your days, so shall your strength be" (Deut. 33:25). The best is yet to come!
This editorial was published in the January-March 2008 issue of Hidden Wisdom Magazine, copyright 2007, Abigail Paul.