I have found myself in the desert more times that I care to remember.
It is an uncomfortable place where everything about my life seems hard, and I always beg for God to take me out of it, to take me back to the civilized world where there is water on tap and food in nice prepackaged containers.
I have to fight too much when I find myself in the desert.
Over the years of desert experiences, I have learned one really important thing:
The desert is where God leads us because He loves us.
This is not an easy thing to embrace. As a parent, I love to do things that delight my children immediately. I love to see the smiles on their faces as I say, “Let’s have ice cream for dinner!” or, “How about we watch an extra episode of the Octonauts today?”
It’s definitely not as fun to say things like, “Let’s go to bed on time because when you’re rested, you enjoy your whole life more!” or, “I know you’re hungry but dinner is in an hour and you need to learn to wait.”
So as much as I’ve fought this lesson, I really believe it.
The desert is where God leads me because He loves me.
Now, there are a few different reasons we might find ourselves in the desert.
Sometimes He leads us out of slavery into the desert.
The Israelites are the prime example of this. They are set free from the bonds of Pharaoh, but on the other side of the Red Sea is the desert. It’s the nearest freedom for them, even though it seems insurmountable and hard. But God promises to be with them, so it is conquerable.
The Apostle Paul is another example. After he is set free from the slavery of pride and self-conceit that had him murdering Christians and persecuting Jesus, God leads him into the wilderness for 3 years.
Sometimes He leads us out of bondage and the best place for us to go is straight to the desert.
He leads us into the desert because He is pleased with us.
This is a little harder to wrap my mind around, because I was raised with such a punishment mentality about God. “Why would God be pleased with me?” I have asked (and still do). But I am convinced now that He indeed is pleased with me and has good plans for me because He loves me and I love Him, even when I screw up over and over again. (Psalm 91:14-16 is one place where I start when I am feeling crappy about myself.)
“Surely the desert is a punishment,” my heart has told me. “Weren’t the Israelites wandering in the desert because they disappointed God? He rescues them, they rebel, and He punishes them to wander for 40 years.”
But when I look more closely at the story of God rescuing His people from Egyptian slavery, that’s not the timeline. It’s more like this: God hears them crying out and is moved to deliver them. They get the heck out of Egypt and pass through the harrowing baptism of the Red Sea. They find themselves in the desert and they do grumble and complain, and they even make a golden calf to worship at the very same time God is giving His beautiful law to Moses for their sake. But they are still headed toward the land He has promised them because He loves them. They make it all the way through the desert, to the edge of the Promised Land, and the spies bring back their report, and it scares the crap out of them. What keeps them wandering in the desert for 40 years is rebellion against God that is driven by fear and hard-heartedness. But the desert was always a part of God’s plan to bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey.
Think about Jesus in Luke 3.
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (NIV).
Right after that—right after the Father declares how much He loves and how pleased He is with Jesus—the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1).
The desert is where God leads us because He loves us.
In our baptism, we die with Christ and are raised to walk with Him. I can guarantee you that at some point, walking with Jesus means walking through the desert.
But we can take heart for these 3 reasons: In our time walking through the desert, God has a purpose, an appointed time, and a promised land waiting for us.
We read the Scripture to learn the character of God, and we see that He is slow to anger and abounding with lovingkindness. We read as God speaks of His people in Hosea chapter 2,
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
Hear this: He leads us into the desert to speak tenderly to us.
“Tenderly” is the word the NIV translators use. “Comfortably” is the word the translators of the King James use. The Hebrew word is transliterated “leb” and you can check out the different meanings of it here at blueletterbible.org.
He leads us into the desert to speak tenderly to us because He loves us. In the desert, we learn to hear His voice more clearly. Distraction is forced to fall away because we are desperate to be met by Him or we will perish. His very words are our food and drink, and our hearts slowly become tuned to hear His still small voice.
An Appointed Time
The path from the Red Sea to the Promised Land was indeed through the desert, but it had a definite beginning and ending. It was not indefinite, even after the Israelites rebelled and were disciplined with 40 years of wandering. Jesus was lead into the wilderness for 40 days. For Paul it was 3 years in the desert.
The Lord sets boundaries on our time in the desert, so even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel (or the civilization at the edge of the wasteland), we can trust that He has not abandoned us to wander in this desert forever.
Consider it a pilgrimage, and there are many miles to cross before you reach the goal. But you are ever travelling, one foot in front of the other.
A Promised Land Waiting
When we find ourselves in the desert, we can trust that God has promises waiting for us on the other side. He promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. He promised Jesus a Bride worthy of Him, who would love, honor, and lay down her life for Him.
But there are still battles to be fought, and that is why it is so valuable to learn to hear the voice of the Lord in our desert time.
The Israelites approached the Promised Land after their short desert time, and the reports they heard of the land were twofold: It is indeed beautiful and flowing with milk and honey, but there are many people who will set themselves against us.
The people of Israel rejected the good report and exhortation of Joshua and Caleb (Yes, the land is full of enemies, but with the Lord’s help, we will prevail!) and they listened to the reports of the 10 other spies. They believed the lie that the desert was all for nothing. They failed to learn to hear the voice of God and to trust Him. So they missed out on His promises and their children inherited the land.
Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted and leaning on the word of His Father. I believe that those 40 days filled Him with the vision and direction for all 3 years of His public ministry, as well as the promise that He would encounter and overcome the Cross. There were still battles left to fight—indeed, the greatest battle of all time, at the Cross—but because Jesus knew the voice of His Father, He was ready.
God leads us into the desert because He loves us, because He is pleased with us, and because He wants to speak tenderly to us.
The desert isn’t a punishment; it’s a time of refining our hearing and learning to lean on our Beloved.
The desert prepares us for our God-given life’s mission, starting with the most important tool of all—teaching us to hear the voice of God, and to follow Him.
Maybe you find yourself in the middle of the desert and it feels unbearable. Friend, if you can still your heart for a few minutes, listen to the voice of Jesus speaking to you. He says that He knows what you have done and what you have left undone, but He loves you nonetheless. He says that He loves you, that He is proud of you, and that He loves spending time with you. He says that He has not forgotten you.
This promise from Psalm 84 is for you, personalized:
Blessed is the one whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As she passes through the Valley of Baca,
She makes it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.
She goes from strength to strength;
She will appear before God in Zion.
As you walk through the desert, you may meet another on her way. When you have learned to hear and respond to the voice of the Lord, you become a spring of life for this other pilgrim. The Lord will rain down on you, refreshing both of you. You will grow in strength and you will reach the Promised Land, to stand before God in Zion.
And the daughters of Jerusalem, when they see you approaching the edge of the desert will say,
“Who is this coming up from the wilderness
leaning on her beloved?”
Song of Solomon 8:5