We all go through seasons of wilderness. Seasons where everything feels hard and even unbearable at times. Discouragement and doubt try to creep in and take over. It becomes so tempting to either sit down and give up or to try and do things our own way. I’ve been in one of these seasons myself. All I want is for Jesus to come in and fix all of my problems. I just want to figure out how to get through this season as quickly, and painlessly, as possible.
Some days, I’ve told God all of the things that are wrong with my life, practically begging Him to rescue me from this season. Other days, I’ve decided He isn’t listening and I’ve chosen Netflix over seeking Him. But since I’ve been through the wilderness before, I know, that these two strategies are ineffective. So I have dared to do something that I haven’t really done consistently before. I’ve chosen to press into God even when it feels like I am completely devoid of the energy to do it, and even when it feels like I’m not getting what I want.
And as I’ve sought Jesus, He’s been teaching me not to despise the wilderness.
These seasons of drought and despair are as important, if not more important than the seasons of abundance and good feelings. The problem is that we do not understand the wilderness, and because we do not understand the wilderness we drag our feet every step of the way, making it as painful and long lasting as possible. If we understood the wilderness, it would feel far less burdensome to remain faithful in those seasons. If we truly grasped the purpose and the value of those seasons, we would not despise the wilderness, but would rather embrace it.
In my own life I have often attributed my desert experiences to one of two things. Either a) God was punishing me for not being good enough, faithful enough, holy enough, etc, or b) He did not love me enough to take care of me and thus had dumped me off, leaving me alone in this wasteland with no hope of improving my circumstances.
That may sound a tad dramatic seeing it written out like that, but I think if we are honest, many of us have struggled with those feelings. But we must begin to realize that these desert seasons are not a punishment, nor is it God’s way of abandoning us. In fact, the Bible says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) Not only did Jesus end up in the wilderness, He was led there by the Holy Spirit. Not to mention that He was led there by the Spirit with the purpose of being tempted.
Now, since Jesus led a sinless life, I’d say it’s safe to assume that He was not led into the wilderness as a punishment. If anyone was holy enough and had enough faith to not need to be disciplined, it was Jesus. And, since Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one, it’s probably a safe bet that Jesus wasn’t led there because God did not love Him. And, since He was led there by the Holy Spirit with whom He is one, it’s pretty clear that God did not abandon Him there.
But there was purpose in the wilderness.
You see, later in that same chapter Jesus begins His ministry and calls His first disciples. It was not until after the wilderness season that Jesus began His ministry. It was not until after He had faced intense temptation and showed His faithfulness and His dependence on God the Father, that He was able to move forward with the mission He had been given.
These desert seasons are not intended as punishment or torture. They are intended to prepare us for what God has ahead of us. It is in these seasons that God can establish a firm foundation in our lives. God knows that if we skip over the seasons of being developed, we will not be able to withstand what is to come. If we cannot learn to trust and depend on Jesus in the wilderness, we will not know how to trust and depend on Him in the Promised Land.
Another example of this is the Israelites. They were led by God into the wilderness in order to free them from slavery. God didn’t just want to break off the physical bonds of slavery. He wanted to free them from the slavery mentality they had developed. He knew if He led them straight into the Promised Land they would not know how to trust Him or walk in obedience. The wilderness was their opportunity to learn those things so that they did not squander the blessings that came with the Promised Land.
Recently I heard that it is an 11 day trek from Egypt to Canaan, also known as the Promised Land. And yet the Israelites spent 40 years in their wilderness. Now if you have read the story, you know that it was the choices they made that kept the Israelites wandering in the desert for so long. However, while clearly we can make our seasons of wilderness last longer, we cannot make them shorter or skip over them. The book of Exodus says:
When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle. (Exodus 13:17-18 NLT)
What I had never noticed before is that it says, “God did not lead them along the main road…even though that was the shortest route.” Not only did He not take them on a shortcut, “God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness.” Now, unlike me, God is not geographically challenged. God was not confused. He knew that He could get the Israelites to the Promised Land in 11 days. But He was not concerned about getting them to Canaan in the shortest amount of time. He was concerned about them.
God knew that if He took them on the shortest journey they would walk right into a battle they were not ready to face. It was not that God could not or would not give them the victory. He handed them many victories in battle after this moment. But if you read their story, it is pretty clear that they did not trust God.
If God had taken the Israelites straight into a battle, they would have turned tail and run right back into their captivity.
Instead He took them the long way around. So often we get frustrated because it seems as if the wasteland we are walking through is unending. We don’t understand why God is allowing the season of despair to drag on. But there is purpose in every step forward we take and every moment we are in that season.
God knows what we need. More than that, He wants us to be truly free from the things that have held us captive. He wants us to develop trust and obedience and faith. And He knows the path that we need to walk in order to achieve true freedom and a solid foundation. God’s plans and dreams for us are bigger than our plans and dreams for ourselves. And He knows how to get us to those things.
If we come to understand the purpose that God has for leading us into the wilderness we will not be so anxious to skip over or take a shortcut through that desert. And maybe, just maybe, if we understood the purpose of those seasons we would not drag our feet every step of the way and would actually find that we are able to thrive and flourish in the wilderness.