Embracing the Wilderness [and why we don’t]

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Taking the Hard(er) Way

Why do we prefer slavery in Egypt over following God in the wilderness?  

In more practical terms, why do we tend to gravitate back to former sins or unhealthy situations rather than draw near to God through the hard times of life?  

Why do we try to take control of life by digging our own cisterns (broken ones) instead of submitting to God and letting Him lead us through life?

Why do we resist God’s way of purifying us through pain and hardship and turmoil?  Instead, we choose to do our own thing which actually delays our maturity and STILL leaves us feeling empty, lonely and beaten down.  

Why we Avoid the Wilderness

I cannot speak for the Christians abroad but God has given me an insider’s  perspective of the American church.  I grew up as the son of a preacher and elder.  I preached my first sermon around the age of five.  I attended five years of Bible College and, later, another five in Seminary.  I’ve preached in several churches.  I’ve attended several more.  I’ve been blessed to counsel hundreds and thousands of Christian people.  And I am left to wonder, as I ponder the Church and ESPECIALLY my life, why don’t we just embrace the spiritual and emotional deserts that are part of the Christian journey?  

For many, the answer is simple.  The wilderness is barren and difficult and leaves us feeling emotionally and spiritually dry and thirsty.  The wilderness forces us to leave our comfort zones and, for most of us, we gravitate stubbornly towards retaining those places of respite.  Many of us hate the wilderness simply because it is tough, and we don’t like that.

For others, there are more complex answers to this question.  It may be that the wilderness forces us to be patient and to wait, which is excruciating for those who are geared to be active, the “Type As” in our population.  The idea of simply “waiting” on the Lord is a foreign concept in its application to life, if not in theory.  Many people speak of “waiting on the Lord” while never living out this mandate.  Truly, we seem to be more comfortable “doing” than “being”. 

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Perhaps the wilderness forces some to face issues that they have spent years avoiding- trauma of some kind or sources of insecurity in themselves.  Maybe we don’t like the wilderness because it often reveals the worst parts of who we are, the parts that we have spent years trying to hide from view.  The trials of the wilderness certainly uncovered the worst parts of the Israelites.  In the years we see them wandering we see the wilderness reveal their lack of faith, their tendencies towards idolatry, and how easily they could wander from the Lord, even as His presence guided them.  Maybe the wilderness reveals the same sinful core in most of us and we hate that.

God Shapes us in the Wilderness

I know most of these answers already.  In fact, I don’t just KNOW them, I have thought about them.  I have LIVED them.  The desert is no fun.  Let’s just be frank and admit this truth.  The deserts of life are difficult.  Wilderness times steal our laughter, break down our confidence, and expose our anxieties about making it through life.  The wilderness leaves us worrying about our bills, our future, and our families.  Most of all, it is in the wilderness that we often wonder the most about God…and maybe that is the main point.

Doesn’t God use the wilderness to test our limits?  Doesn’t He test us to find out if we’ll trust Him even when things look hopeless?  Moses outlined some of God’s reasons for “wilderness-walking” in Deuteronomy chapter 8, right before the Israelites entered the Promised Land:

“Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that He would know what you were made of, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  He put you through hard times.  He made you go hungry.  Then He fed you manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth.  Your clothes didn’t wear out and your feet didn’t blister those forty years.  You learned deep in your heart that God disciplines you in the same way a father disciplines his child.”

Wow. Why can’t we get it?  Why can’t I get it?  God’s purposes in the wilderness are, really, very clear if we will just open our eyes.  First of all, God wants to test us in the wilderness.  He desires to push us to our limits in order to reveal what we are made of, not for His knowledge (since He is omniscient) but exposing it for us to see and for the world to know.  He proclaims, through wilderness testing, our inner strength and true mettle and purifies us as through fire.  In the crucible of the wilderness, He hones our spiritual muscle in order to prepare us for the future adventures He has in store as we serve Him.  In the wilderness, He tests our resolve and enhances our strength.  

He also tests our faithfulness to Him in the wilderness.  How many times did the Israelites turn to false gods because of their discomfort in the desert?  He uses the wilderness to test whether, under pressure, we will continue to draw near to Him or succumb to our natural desire to “grab the bull by the horns” and go our own way.  

God also uses the wilderness as a tool to humble us.  Sometimes the desert is a form of God’s discipline, designed to humble us as we realize that we have strayed far from Him.  Hebrews affirms that God disciplines those He loves, just as an earthly father tenderly and firmly disciplines his own children.  It is in the wilderness that God can get our attention and teach us lessons about obedience, purity, and the consequences of sinful living.

hebrews126  Wilderness-times are also effective in instructing us about submission.  If there were no other reason for the wilderness, this would be enough.  It is submission that God desires.  It is through submission that we gain freedom from sin and the pressure that comes with living life our own way.  And yet, it is a life of submission that seems so difficult for many of us to attain.  Yet, without it, there is no freedom in Christ.  Without submission, God cannot fully use us as warriors in His kingdom.  Without submission there is no spiritual power.

Finally, God uses the wilderness as a chance to show us how much He wants to come through for us.  It’s true.  God loves to come through in the nick of time.  He relishes the idea of being the cavalry that emerges over the horizon, just as time is running out.  It is in the wilderness, when we exhaust all our own efforts, that God gets to save the day.  It is a role He loves and a part that He plays most powerfully in the heat of the desert.  It is in the wilderness when God’s power is most on display because it is in the wilderness where our power ebbs.  When we are on the precipice of disaster and all our efforts have gone for naught, THAT is when we can see His power with the most clarity.  It is in the wilderness that we are most able to see the Lord.

The Wilderness is about More than Enduring

And so, as I reflect on the wilderness, my spirit cries out, “I embrace it, God!  I WANT to grow in You, mature in You and be the man You want me to be” while my flesh screams, “God, why have you forsaken me???  Why are things here so hard?  Why can’t life be easier?  Why are finances so tight?  Why is marriage so difficult?  Why is parenting so painful?  Why can’t I just WORK my way out of this wilderness?”

And God answers, “Because you’re my son and I love you.  I love you too much to leave you to your own passions and ways.  I love you too much NOT to pursue you and hone you and humble you.  Because, my child, I don’t want you to settle for the pleasures in Egypt (sin and self-reliance) where slavery also abounds.  I want you to be READY for the Promised Land,  for what I have in store for you is infinitely better than you could imagine.  But you must wait, and endure, and learn to trust in Me.  Not in your own strength.”  

So, my goal is to EMBRACE the wilderness.  It is a goal that I fail in more often than I succeed.  And yet that is my goal.  See, I know that the pleasures and luxuries of this world offer nothing in the long run.  They are a dead-end street.  So what I really want is to see the Promised Land, whether that is here on earth or in the world to come or both.  I want to learn to trust, even when my bank account is overdrawn, when I fight with my wife, or when my kids push me to the point of insanity- even when life is hard.  I want to learn what it means to lay it all at God’s feet, not just in word but in action, so that I can see the ways in which God shows up.   I’m eager to let God’s hand mold and shape me into the person He designed me to be, so I am ready for whatever journey lies ahead.

Learn and Grow

That is my challenge to you as well.  Instead of fighting against the deserts that God puts us in, instead of complaining to Him about how hard everything is, instead of taking matters into your own hands before the Lord gives you the go-ahead, EMBRACE the wilderness.  Set your face like a flint and move forward, turning your eyes to God instead of your own ideas.  Embrace the lessons God wants you to learn:

  • Trust Him instead of you
  • Be humble instead of proud
  • Be alert to how HE shows up and provides

Most of all I implore you to be malleable to the blows of His hammer. Bend to the shape He wants to make of you.  Rest on the anvil of His work, trusting that He is preparing you for the joys that lie ahead.  I promise you His land of milk and honey is way better than the pleasures and slavery of Egypt.  It is a land of freedom and joy, a land of peace and prosperity, a land where God’s presence is always near…but a land that is rarely reached except through the wilderness.  


awblogAaron Welch has several years of experience
in counseling, teaching, and ministry.
He is currently the head of CCCB’s
Counseling Ministry department.