Pastor J.D. Greear tells this story: “I once told a group of interns at our church that if they ever had days when they couldn’t feel God’s closeness, experiencing regular waves of His pleasure and mercy wash over their souls, that was proof they weren’t really saved. You should have seen the looks on their faces. I realized they hadn’t gotten what I thought to be a rather obvious joke.” Greear goes on to say: “If you think that walking with Jesus means an endless series of miracles, burning bushes, still, small voices, warm fuzzies, and sensations of peace that pass all understanding, then you are going to be disappointed.”
In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist David prays: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? The fact that David prays this way means he has experienced God’s presence. He’s experienced God’s hand in his life. But here he is feeling as though he’s been abandoned by God. But take note: he’s still praying.How about you? Have you ever felt like David?
There’s an assumption in Scripture that God’s people will experience God’s presence. So what does it mean when we don’t? And why might this happen precisely when we feel the need for the assurance of his presence most? Is our Lord a fair-weather friend or is something else going on?And in many ways this is the fundamental question we face when we find ourselves in the wilderness: Where is God when we’re in the wilderness? How do we walk with God in the wilderness when the wilderness makes it seem like God has walked away?
The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events of modern history, and there are many stories of people who hid Jews to protect them. Once such story came out of France, where a Jewish family were hidden by some concerned French nationals in the basement of their house. The Jewish family waited and waited for their deliverance. At the end of the war these words were found scribbled on the wall of that basement:
“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when it is not given.
I believe in God even when he is silent.”
I believe in God even when he is silent. The experience of finding ourselves in the wilderness—in a time of struggling, suffering, doubt, or uncertainty—can create lots of feelings inside of us: anger, envy, self-pity, unforgiveness, fear. The very presence of those feelings may lead us to doubt God, to question his presence. We may even want to walk away from God, figuring he’s already walked away from us.
In Numbers 14 the Israelites had sent twelve spies into Canaan to check out the land. When they came back and gave their report, the Israelites were terrified. All they could see were the obstacles. All they could see was what they could see. In fact, they wanted to appoint other leaders to take them back to Egypt and they wanted to stone their leaders, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. Moses comes before God and the Lord says to him: How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?
While in the wilderness, the Israelites had real difficulty trusting in God, even after having seen and experienced his presence and his wonders. They didn’t believe that he would do what he’d promised to do: to be with them. Sometimes life gives precious little evidence of God’s faithfulness. That’s why the first thing we should say is this: Walking with God in the wilderness means walking in faith.
Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “We go by faith not feelings.” Our feelings can mislead us. Now, I may not have a choice about whether or not I experience anxiety; but I do have a choice about how to deal with my anxiety.
Just think of what God says to Moses: How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? If we only trust God when things are going well, then we’re not really trusting him but our circumstances.
All the Israelites could see was what they could see. They were terrified. And from the story it’s clear that they simply didn’t trust God, even after all of the wondrous things he had done for them.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:7: we walk by faith, not by sight. Appearances are deceiving. When walking in the wilderness appearances tell us God doesn’t care, that he can’t be trusted, that he’s not good after all. But don’t buy it. Don’t believe it. Because he does care, he is good, and he can be trusted. Walking with God in the wilderness means walking in faith that God is walking with you. As Renfroe writes, “We simply need to hold on to the truth that God is faithful even when life doesn’t make sense.”
Let’s ask: How do difficult times affect your prayers?When you experience feelings that make it hard to trust God, what do you do?Can you think of how God was faithful even during an especially tough season of your life? The question is: how can we learn to walk in faith while in the wilderness?
In Exodus 33 the Lord appears to be getting fed up with the Israelites. He tells Moses to continue leading the people but tells him I will not go up among you. In other words, “You’re on your own.” Moses goes into the Tent of meeting. We’re told that The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Moses sought God’s presence. Not only that, Moses intercedes with God. We see Moses wrestling with God in prayer. It’s an incredibly profound moment. And he says to God: If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.
Moses knew that without God’s presence, they were toast. They’d never make it through. And even if they physically survived the wilderness, they still would not have reached their destination. Because, you see, on one level God’s purpose was to bring his people through the wilderness into Canaan, into the Promised Land; on another level, his purpose was to teach his people to trust that he was enough. The same is true for us. We’re always called to seek God’s presence, to seek to be in his presence. Think of Psalm 27:4:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.
When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we have to be all the more intentional about seeking God’s presence. Because in the wilderness, it is going to be much more difficult to experience his presence. But we are encouraged to seek his presence. Walking in the wilderness with God means seeking his presence.
Now, I don’t know if all of you have daily devotions or not, but even if you do, while in the wilderness you might need to try different things to help you remember that God is with you. Because sometimes when we find ourselves in the wilderness, the things we normally do to meet with God may not work liked they used to.
Here are some possibilities: read Scripture out loud, memorize a helpful verse and repeat it during the week, write out your prayers, sing a hymn or worship song, go for a walk somewhere that reminds you of God’s peace, sit silently for a brief time, raise your hands, and give God your cares, trusting that he cares for you. But there might be more we have to consider. There’s always a good chance that God intends to use your wilderness to dig deeper into your heart, into your character.
Rob Renfroe says this about seeking God’s presence: “Sometimes seeking God’s presence requires more than setting aside a time and place to be alone with him; it requires us to work diligently to clear our hearts of all the attitudes and emotions that impede us from experiencing the presence of God—including anger, bitterness, envy, greed, self-pity, self-centeredness, and unforgiveness, to name just a few. Sadly, these attitudes that make it hard for us to experience the presence of God are the very ones that the wilderness so often creates within us.”
And remember the first key question we asked at the beginning of our series: Who will you be once you’re through the wilderness? Will your wilderness leave you angry, bitter, isolated, and feeling sorry for yourself? Or will you become a more humble, patient, loving, and obedient follower of our Lord Jesus? If we want it to be the latter, then we have to seek God’s presence intentionally.
So let’s ask: Do you seek to be in God’s presence? What do you do when difficult emotions come up? How might God use your wilderness to shape you and teach you?
At the start we asked: Where is God when we’re in the wilderness? How do we walk with God in the wilderness when the wilderness makes it seem like God has walked away? You’ve no doubt heard the “Footprints” poem:
“One night I dreamed a dream.
as I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
for each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
you’d walk with me all the way.
but I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most, you would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
never, ever, during your trials and testings.
when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
I really appreciate these words from famous 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon: “We cannot always trace God’s hand but we can always trust God’s heart.”And how do we know God’s heart? We know his heart because of Jesus. Not only does Jesus promise to be with us always, through thick and thin, but he also knows exactly what it’s like to be in the wilderness.
Hebrews 5:7—8: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. Hebrews 2:18: For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Jesus knows what the wilderness is like. Jesus promises to be with us when we’re in the wilderness. We will not always know or understand why God allows to end up in the wilderness, but we know this: it’s not because he doesn’t love us. It’s not because he doesn’t care.