Live long enough as a Christian and you will experience the wilderness. The wilderness is a place or season of trial. God often uses wilderness experiences to shape our character as He humbles us and test us to know what is in our hearts [Deuteronomy 8:2]. Such experiences, though often painful, can be instructive and formative. The Bible is replete with stories of heroes of the faith, including Jesus, who spent time in the wilderness. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if we also encounter the wilderness in our walk with God. Are you in the wilderness now? Are you prepared for a potential season there?
If we’re honest, many of us will admit that we think highly of ourselves. We think we would be courageous and principled in adversity. Like Peter, we swear we would never deny Jesus. We often overstate our strengths and underestimate our weaknesses. This is usually caused by pride. Nevertheless, God knows us better than we know ourselves. He often uses the wilderness to help us discover who we truly are, so that we can draw closer to Him. Conversely, the devil also knows us and our weaknesses, and He’s working relentlessly to take us down [1 Peter 5:8]. As a songwriter puts it: “the devil learns from your mistakes, even if you don’t”. If God is to use us mightily, our character must stand up to scrutiny [see Daniel 6:3-5]. Character is moulded in the furnace of trials [Romans 5:3-5], and the wilderness is littered with trials.
As I write, I find myself in the wilderness and I feel insecure. However, I’m learning to be comfortable with being vulnerable. Though I may have denied it before my experience, I was inclined to self-determination and self-sufficiency. I probably had more faith in my safety nets than God. However, in the wilderness, I’m exposed without safety nets. My only recourse is to trust God and yield to His will. That process hurts. I’m also realising that I had idols in my life. They took most of my time and resources and gave me a sense of self-worth. Before the wilderness, I could tell myself that they weren’t idols. But now, I see that I often defined who I was by my idols. So, they have to go.
In the beginning, I was scared, frustrated and resentful of the wilderness. But, I’m learning that God knows what He’s doing. More than ever, I believe that He’s taking me through the experience because He loves me. Therefore, I’m choosing to praise Him in the wilderness irrespective of how I am feeling. I find praising God instead of grumbling cathartic. That said, it’s usually the days I wake up determined to praise God through my experience, that the unexpected happens just to remind me of my insecurities. It’s a constant battle. Today I’m still scared, but I’ve chosen to place my hope in God and trust that He will keep His promises.
Something else I’ve learnt is that I’m not a helpless victim. Instead, I may be the rate-limiting factor in my experience. Israel’s 40-year wilderness journey from Sinai to the Canaan could have taken less than two weeks. Paul reminds us that though those Israelites saw the awesome hand of God working on their behalf, God wasn’t pleased with most of them. As such, they perished in the wilderness [1 Corinthians 10:1-5]. We’re bound to repeat their experience if we don’t learn from their mistakes. The wilderness is a dangerous place for a Christian because many lose their faith there.
Consequently, Paul gives us four negative commands we would do well to remember [1 Corinthians 10:7-10]. The last two commands; “not to put God to the test…and not to grumble as the Israelites did…” are particularly worth heeding in the wilderness where the temptation is great to do both. When things are tough, the tendency is to demand that God does what we want or else…and the other tendency is to moan. Paul exhorts us to learn from our ancestors’ negative examples [1 Corinthians 10:11].
I also find that I struggle with the appeal to rejoice in my trials [James 1:2-4]. Rejoicing is the last thing I feel like doing in the wilderness. I know now that God doesn’t enjoy watching me squirm. But, He does care about my attitude as I face trials since it’s my attitude that determines whether my experience causes growth or crushes me. Moreover, it takes faith, hope and courage to praise and trust God when the future is uncertain. However, doing so pleases Him [Hebrews 11:6].
So, in practical terms, how does one survive the wilderness? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. Nevertheless, this is what I tell myself. First, remember who you belong to [John 15:16, 1 John 3:1-2]. Irrespective of my current situation, my identity is secure [1 Peter 2:9]. Therefore, God isn’t indifferent to my trials [1 Corinthians 10:13]. Second, God’s word contains everything I need to survive my experience and beyond. So, I must become a faithful student of His word [2 Timothy 2:15]. Lastly, God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and is a guarantee of my heavenly inheritance, dwells within me to guide me [Romans 8:11, Ephesians 1:13-14, John 16:13-14]. Therefore, I’m not on my own. Instead, I must remember that I’ve been equipped to experience growth and victory in the wilderness.
Frankly, some days I don’t feel like a conqueror [Romans 8:33-37]. But I also know I don’t stand condemned as a result [Romans 8:1]. Still, this is a process I can’t abdicate to another. Therefore, I must lean on God for grace for each step. That’s where I am today. By the way, I should add that you’ll probably encounter more than one wilderness in your life. We all will. So, buckle up [Ephesians 6:10-18].