Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
When We Walk in the Desert
Dear Friends, the spiritual desert will come sooner or later. It just will. It can’t be avoided. Those dry, often painful weeks, months, years where God seems so far away, and we struggle to find restoration and joy. The struggle leaves us bone weary and isolated, and we have nothing left.
The path into the desert can be varied – the death of a loved one, an illness, divorce, or a prodigal child. Broken relationships. The burnout we get from serving and serving and serving. It can be a moment where we are confronted by our own secret sin or an idol that has crashed down around our ears. It can be when other people’s brokenness rub against us and cut us deep.
It is in the space between hope and reality that our desert emerges — disappointment and grief at life hopes unfulfilled, barrenness that rubs raw wounds in our hearts and steals our strength. When we meet obstacles, we lie down, too tired and weary to go over the wall in front of us.
The Desert Experience
The whole of scripture is desert themed. The moment Adam and Eve sinned they lost their lush Garden where they walked with God every evening and found themselves in the wilderness where they struggled and toiled.
The moment their relationship with God was severed, their lives became marred by sin and death.
The Bible is authentic in its portrayal of the desert experience. It makes it clear that the journey through life is a hard one for both Christian and non-Christian alike. It is full of many moments where darkness and pain seem bottomless.
Here are just a few of the authentic desert moments the Bible captures:
The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years (40 years!) homeless and unmoored without a place to belong until the disobedient generation was gone (Numbers 14: 26- 40, Deut. 1: 34-40).
Naomi loses her husband and sons and returns to her homeland empty and bitter (Ruth 1:19-21)
Elijah, exhausted by the battle against wicked Ahab and Jezebel, flees into the wilderness, lamenting (wrongly) that he is alone in the struggle (I Kings 19:1-18).
Job despairs over his life as he sits in the ashes, sores covering his body, mourning the loss of his children and wealth (Job 3: 1-26). His friend’s advice in later chapters don’t help his painful situation.
In anguish, Jesus, alone (while the disciples sleep because they can’t handle his pain), sweats drops of blood as he faces death on the cross (Luke 22: 41-45).
Paul puts words to the struggle in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
The Bible is not blind to the suffering of this broken life.
Mirages in the Desert
In my own travels through the desert, I often see mirages. Those shimmering troubles where things aren’t real. Comparisons that leave me discontent while I spin the “what if” wheel – “what if I had done X?”, “what if that person had done Y?”.
The reality that the people and things I love don’t fulfill their early promises overwhelms me with hurt and loss that I can’t express and in my mind thoughts of unfairness and anger swirl until it is hard to see any good things in my life.
Reading back over my journal entries written during the desert times of my life I am struck by the language – tired, worn, bitter, angry, overwhelmed, despair, avoid, anxious, trapped, hopeless, isolation.
I rage at the unfairness and heartache in life until my hurts threaten to become bitterness. I nurse my pain, grumbling and blaming.
And, to be honest, sometimes my bitterness feels good – justified anger that makes me feel somehow righteous. I feel entitled to it.
Yet it is in the midst of my brokenness I long for the freedom of God’s oasis. I long for the abundant springs of God’s grace and wisdom. I want them to reshape me and give me life, yet I am uncertain about releasing my (imaginary) control to God. I question whether God is really enough to revive my dry and thirsty life.
The One Who Encircles Us
Yet, thankfully, God has never left me alone in the desert.
In my desert, God draws near to me even while I withdraw. When I finally look towards God, He allows me to lament my sorrow with no shame or guilt. Gently God refines me. God reminds me that I am not trapped by my feelings or the expectations of others:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11: 28-30).
And I remember how God watched over the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness leading them as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13: 21-22). He did not leave his people alone. He kept His covenant promises even when his people rebelled.
Deuteronomy 32:10 reminds me:
“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.”
I love this language. I love the protectiveness and compassion of God. The good news is that God does not change. The God that encircled the Israelites is the God who still watches over me and you in the desert no matter how we got there.
Abiding in Christ
In my desert times, weaknesses and doubts rise to the surface. Often I rely on my emotional state to determine the depth of my “Christianness.” But in the desert – the times when I feel so lost, so tired, so alone, so confused, so despairing – these are the times when I can step away from my own understanding and pride and into God’s arms. I have to. My emotions are dragging me under, and I have to put my trust in something more solid.
It is in the desert that I can authentically put my dependence on God. Not because my emotions tell me to but because, despite my feelings, I know God is the only one who holds my ultimate hope.
C.S Lewis expresses this in his allegory, Screwtape Letters, when Screwtape, the senior devil, warns Wormwood, an apprentice devil, of faith that steps forward towards God even against the grain of our feelings:
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause (the Devil’s cause), is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will (God’s will), looks around upon a universe from which all trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
In the desert, I have two choices. I can let my emotions carry me away into bitterness and rebellion, or I can pour my heart out to my God knowing he is big enough to hear my cries and my anger and walk towards him in faith.
It is in the wilderness I come face-to-face with the reality of my brokenness. I am not a very good pray-er. I want to be, but in the normal daily life, I get distracted.
But when in the desert I pray, and pray and pray. Mostly, I rant and turn to Psalms to help me put words to my feelings. Deep in my soul, I know that God’s strength will never fail even when mine does.
And here, as I pray and read and search, God scours me of my self-deception and washes away the idols I foolishly put my hope in. As Paul Miller puts it, “As I prayed, God remapped my soul.” (A Loving Life– a book I highly recommend by the way – pg 54).
When We Hope in God
Hope is often a weak word in our culture. We hope towards uncertainty.
“I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.”
“I hope I can make it to the party.”
“I hope my kids will turn out ok.”
“I hope I will get the job.”
“I hope the cancer won’t come back.”
What will the future hold?
The Bible expresses hope with strength. It is a certainty when we place our hope in the living God. Our God is the One who carries us in the desert. He is faithful and holds our future securely because He gives us a certain path in Christ (Rom. 5:3-5; Gal 5:5; Eph 1:18-23; I Thess 5:8-11; Titus 2:13-14, 3:4-7).
The beauty of the Gospel is that it doesn’t shame us in our desert times. It lets us lament and pour out our hearts in the spectrum of feelings that come at us. And then it points us to Jesus and draws comfort in a Savior who knows and understands.
He knows our despair because He Himself despaired.
He knows betrayal because He Himself was betrayed.
He knows unfairness because He suffered horrific unfair suffering on the cross.
Jesus knows what it is like in the desert and He doesn’t look away. Jesus fully embraces us with compassion and gives us a strengthen hope that knows a certain future because He rose from the dead.
His defeat of death means we have a hope that our tears in the desert are not forever. One day Jesus will return and “wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21: 4).
The desert ends forever. What a great and certain hope.
If you are in a spiritual desert how are you lamenting? Towards God? Or in anger and bitterness? What do you need to lay down so the Good Shepherd can take care of you?
If someone you know is in a spiritual desert how are you loving them? I recommend Paul E Miller’s book A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships on how to embrace people in pain with a gospel-centered love.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to hear from different voices as they tell us about their spiritual deserts. We hope that these individual experiences will encourage – you are not alone! – and remind you that we have a certain hope in the promises and sovereignty of God.
About the Author
Valerie Hooks: I like to write, read, drink tea, and research stuff. I am a passionate follower of Jesus. I have teenagers (pray for me) and a fantastic husband. I call Summit View Church in Vancouver, Washington the place I am loved, honed and challenged in my walk with Christ.