Abandoned bus in the desert sun

Who has spent time in the wilderness? The real question is, who hasn’t? We’re not talking about backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail, but wandering in circles through a wasteland.

Even though spending time in the wilderness is a common experience, it’s also strangely isolating.

We talked at our Bible study about what the wilderness is and how it feels. One woman zeroed in on her sense of isolation–how you could sit in a roomful of people and feel utterly alone, because no one seems to understand what you are going through. Another nodded, but said to her it felt more like silence. You couldn’t talk about it. You simply didn’t know what to say. A third mused that it felt like being in a fog. You can’t think clearly or see clearly.

Questions rise to the surface in the wilderness. “Am I being punished?” That’s a big one. “Does anyone understand?” Also, “Why doesn’t anyone seem to care?” Our perception of the people around us becomes skewed by our trial. We often feel judged, sensitive to every look or word that comes our way. “Why did she say that? What does she think of me?”

Alienation. Isolation. Silence. We’re hungry for someone–anyone–to come to us in our wilderness.

God’s Wilderness Plan

The wilderness isn’t just a theme in our lives, it’s a theme in Scripture. When we examine that theme, we uncover a central truth:

The wilderness is not an accident. God has led us there. It’s his plan, even if it’s not ours.

“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness…” (Deuteronomy 8:2a).

God himself led Israel there. The Sinai Desert was where he led them after he delivered them from slavery in Egypt. This wasn’t a wrong turn, it was God’s purpose. Israel, God’s first born son (Exodus 4:22) was taken through the Red Sea into the wilderness. You can imagine their confusion. Didn’t God just part the Red Sea for us and then drown all of Pharaoh’s army behind us? Why would he do all that to bring us here??

We usually try to protect our own kids from the wilderness. We hate to see them suffer. But God knows his children need the wilderness. It’s there that we bond with our Father. When all other help dries up, the bond of dependence is forged.

Jesus, too, was led by God into the wilderness.

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Matthew 4:1a)

This was God’s plan, even for his only begotten Son. Jesus experienced the wilderness, just like we do.

He understands.

Humbled

God’s purpose in the wilderness is to humble us. We don’t realize we need to be humbled, but we do. When things are going well, we think we’re trusting God, but we’re actually trusting ourselves. Our prayers are short or sometimes non-existent. We don’t feel the need to pray because all is well, and we assume it will stay that way.

But in the wilderness God strips us. He lets us be hungry. “And he humbled you and let you hunger…” (Deuteronomy 8:3a). He reduces our stash of usual resources. He removes our regular chain of supply.

Hunger tests us, bringing out the worst in us. We see a side of ourselves that usually hides beneath the surface during times of prosperity–

  • resentment,
  • anger,
  • grumbling,
  • self-pity,
  • blaming,
  • excuse-making.

We begin to see unbelief. God already sees it. He knows it’s there, buried inside us. But he humbles us so we will see it too. He wants us to know the worst about ourselves so we will cry out to him for help.

Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, too. “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry (my emphasis). And the tempter came and said to him…” (Matt. 4:2-3a). That’s got to be one of the biggest understatements in the Bible! But it was necessary that Jesus be as weak as the weakest human when he was tested. And it was necessary that he be tested not just by hunger, but by the devil himself. His wilderness was worse than ours.

He knows how it feels to be weak and tempted.

Wilderness Banquet

God’s purpose in the wilderness is to make us hungry, not just to test us, but so he can feed us.

When all our natural provisions are gone, our faith seems to evaporate, too. We become hopeless. We may quit praying altogether. That’s when we see that our faith was in ourselves, not in God. So we try to fix the problem. We try to stir up some faith in this dry place, but it seems to blow away. We open our Bibles but the words don’t make sense. Even when we try to trust, we still feel hopeless.

Fortunately, God doesn’t wait for us to revive our own faith. He feeds us anyway. Manna from the sky. Strength for one more day. Even comfort–at last–from the Scriptures.

You see, God doesn’t “help those who help themselves.” He helps the helpless. The wilderness tests us and we fail. But God takes care of us anyway.

Why?

Because the wilderness tested Jesus and he passed. His Father is now our Father through faith in him–a Father who sees us in the wilderness. A Father leads us in and then leads us out. A Father who feeds us in our wilderness with Christ, so we would learn that he alone is our bread of life.

Jesus came into our wilderness so he could feed us there.

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