During the season of Lent in 2018, I preached a series called “Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard.” This is the first of the series of five sermons. Over the next five days (or so) I will post them all here. I have no doubt that there are many who feel as though they have been and are in a wilderness of some kind. I pray these posts will be helpful and encouraging.
Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your ancestors had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.Deuteronomy 8:2—3
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”Matthew 4:1—4
Does this look like an inviting place to be? How much how time would you like to spend here? This is the Sinai wilderness where the Israelites wandered for 40 years as they learned to trust and know God and his ways. When we hear the word wilderness, we hear deserted, dry, barren, desolate. The word Yeshimon is the most common Hebrew name given to the wilderness of Judea. It can be translated as “the devastation.” Again, not very inviting. Since you and I will obviously never wander for any length of time in an actual desert, what does it mean for us?
In his book A Way Through the Wilderness, Rob Renfroe says this: “In the Scriptures, wilderness is used to describe a time in a person’s life when his or her soul is parched and dry; when today is hard and the future appears barren . . . You may even feel bereft of God’s presence.” We can see this in Psalm 63:1. There the psalmist begins his prayer: O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. We hear that and maybe we ask, “What’s the point of that? Why would God allow that to happen to anyone?”
British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian later in life, wrote: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”
Now, I don’t know if I completely agree with Muggeridge. Not everything I have learned has been from times of pain and suffering. I have also learned from the joys of life. But I do think we can learn from the difficulties of life. And many testify that it is often in these times that they actually grow closest to God. But the simple truth is this: We all find ourselves in the wilderness at some point. When circumstances befall us, for whatever reason, that seriously challenges our trust in God, our confidence in his goodness, our assurance of his presence, we are in the wilderness. The key question is this: Who will you be when this difficult time is over? When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you have become?
Deuteronomy is a sermon. Its words are Moses’ last words before the people of Israel enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. So, this comes at the end of their wilderness wanderings. Our passage from Deuteronomy 8 begins this way: And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness. So much hinges on perspective. How am I interpreting my circumstances? Because the perspective I have will determine how I deal with being in the wilderness and how I relate to God while I’m there. Notice that the Israelites were led by the Lord into and through the wilderness. And notice where Moses says: God humbled you and let you hunger. How does that strike you? Isn’t God our provider? Don’t we pray, Give us this day our daily bread? Doesn’t our faith in Christ promise abundant life?
Of course, God didn’t let the Israelites starve to death. Moses told them that he fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know. Sometimes when we’re low on groceries and have to wait a day or two to shop, we’re stuck eating food that’s not exactly our favourite. So maybe this isn’t the food, the provision, you’re accustomed to having, but you’re still getting fed.
That God allows us to enter a wilderness—and that he sometimes leads us into one—means that God’s agenda, his purpose for us, can be very different from our own. What I want for my life, what I want for me and for my family, may not always be what God wants.
But this also means that even if we find it difficult to understand, God is with us in the wilderness. God led the Israelites the whole way during their 40 years in the Sinai desert. While they abandoned him plenty of times, he never abandoned them. God doesn’t just lead us to the wilderness, he leads us through the wilderness.
Let me ask: Have you ever found yourself in a spiritual wilderness? What led to it? How would you describe your experience?How did you relate to God during this time? Did he seem near or far away?
But why? Why the wilderness? Moses says to the Israelites: the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. So, there’s the crux: testing you to know what was in your heart. Who are you? What’s going on in your heart?
Ever notice how adversity and difficult times have a way of testing you? They can reveal areas of our lives and hearts that are not as they should be. Rather than focus on what’s going on around me, God wants to deal with what’s going on inside of me. God isn’t so much a problem fixer as he is a people changer.
Often when we find ourselves in a wilderness, we want out. We want God to fix it. We want it to go away. But in those times God also wants us to pay attention to ourselves: our attitudes, our feelings, the way we process and deal with our circumstances. We can put it this way: God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. And often this is about showing us who we are. Most of us need to become more self-aware of what’s going on in our hearts.
Like it or not, God wants to stir up stuff. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that he wants to deal with. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that keeps us from loving and trusting him more. And God is not content to leave us this way. This means that the wilderness is the means God uses to deepen our trust in him. Like our passage says, the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness . . . testing you to know . . . whether you would keep his commandments or not.
Whenever the Israelites disobeyed, their disobedience revealed who they really were: people who didn’t really trust God, that he knew what was best for them and that he was good. Trust and obedience go hand in hand. God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. Let me ask: What keeps you from loving and trusting God more? How has your wilderness revealed more about you? Do you trust God enough to let him stir up stuff that makes you uncomfortable? Why or why not?
You see, here’s the thing: God’s goal is not our happiness but our Christlikeness. God is seeking to make us like his Son. In Romans 8:29 Paul tells us that God wants us to be conformed to the image of his Son. You might recall that Jesus also spent time in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1—4 it says: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
So, first, notice that it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness. And then look at the first temptation: And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And how did Jesus answer? “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
And do you know what Scripture Jesus is quoting? He is quoting our passage from Deuteronomy where it says God allowed his people to experience the wilderness so that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every wordthat comes from the mouth of the Lord. When faced with his own wilderness, Jesus trusted his Father, even in the wilderness, even when he found himself hungry and alone. God wants us to learn to trust him in the same way. God leads us into the wilderness to make us more like his Son Jesus.
Rob Renfroe says this: “God uses the wilderness to prepare his people. God uses the difficult, desperate times of our lives to teach us important lessons and develop our character, making us into the image of his Son, so that we will be ready for the future and equipped to be his instruments in a hurting and broken world.” Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3—4: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
You probably know how porcelain is made. A piece of clay pottery is put into a kiln at incredibly high temperatures. Once done, porcelain is much stronger and more resilient than clay. A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain. The wilderness is a spiritual furnace. God wants us to make us into porcelain. The key question is: When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you be?
And remember why God allows us to enter the wilderness. He’s making us, shaping us, remolding us, restoring us. Though we find ourselves in a wilderness, we can trust in his word. In Isaiah 43:19 it says:
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.