Wilderness #5: Coming Out of the Wilderness

This series was based in part on Rob Renfroe’s book, A Way Through the Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard. I read this book as part of an online pastor’s group where the theme was learning to be resilient. In any case, that’s why the sermons in this series include so many quotes from Renfroe. I recommend the book if you appreciated these sermon notes.

This is not a place we want to be indefinitely. It’s not even where God wants us to be indefinitely. Isaiah 43:18—19 says:

Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
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.

The key question when we began this series was 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? As we finish this series, we’re going to look at three final lessons from the wilderness: the wilderness will reveal your heart, the wilderness will change you, and the wilderness will give you a gift to share.

How do you find out what’s in a sponge? You squeeze it, right? What’s in a sponge only comes out because of pressure. That’s like us. We’re like sponges. Pressure reveals who we are. Have any of you had to have a stress test? It’s for your heart, right? To see how strong and healthy it is—to see what’s really inside of it. Rob Renfroe says: “The wilderness is a spiritual stress test. It shows us the real condition of our spiritual hearts, our character, and our faith.” Let me ask: have you ever done anything out of character because of a very stressful situation, because of really difficult circumstances? I’m going to suggest something. I’m going to suggest that we never really do anything “out of character.”

Psalm 78:18 says this about the Israelites in the wilderness: They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. This is incredibly important: What was in their heart came out as an attitude toward their circumstances. They were being squeezed like lemons and out came complaining and demanding. The demanding and complaining were already there—their circumstances simply brought it to the surface.

There’s a profound connection between our hearts and our actions. Think about Psalm 119:11: I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Here the psalmist wants to make sure that he does not sin—and this is why he has stored up God’s word—where?—in his heart. Jesus himself says: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. Proverbs 4:23 says: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Other translations say, Guard your heart. All this to say: The wilderness will reveal your heart.

The wilderness is a time when we can learn about ourselves, a time of growing in self-awareness. This can help us understand who we are, why we are the way we are, why we respond to life the way we do, and how all of this impacts our relationship with God. Here’s the thing: when life is going well, we don’t tend to think about it. It’s much easier to avoid the messier, more difficult stuff inside of us.

This is the challenge: most of us don’t want to deal with what the wilderness may reveal about us. It will seem too painful or too difficult. It will likely bring up stuff from our past. It’s just too hard. So as difficult as it is, it’s God’s way of revealing our heart so we can grow and become more like Jesus.

Let me ask: How do you respond to stress? When life squeezes you like a sponge, what comes out? What weaknesses in you does the wilderness reveal? What strengths does it reveal? What about yourself would you rather avoid? How does avoiding it affect your walk with God and your relationships with others?

Sometimes people talk about having a Sunday School faith. And what they mean is that their understanding of faith and of God hasn’t really grown. A person can be an adult but have no more mature a grasp of God than a young child in Sunday School. On the one hand, yes, we’re invited to have the faith of a child; on the other hand, we’re also called to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15). 1 Corinthians 13:11 says: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Along with revealing your heart, the wilderness will change you. In other words, the wilderness doesn’t reveal our heart just so we know ourselves better. It’s so we can grow. And the wilderness will change you; but how it changes you depends on how you go through the wilderness. It’s possible to come out of the wilderness but for the wilderness to remain inside of us. It’s possible that the difficult circumstances pass and for us to come out bitter and hardened, trusting God even less than before.

The challenge is this: We need to come to terms with the fact that God is good, that he loves us, and that for this reason he allows us to enter the wilderness. Think of it as discipline. Proverbs 3:11 says: My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof. Hebrews 12:6 says: For the Lord disciplines the one he loves. Changing—and allowing God to change us—can be profoundly difficult and even painful as God seeks to address old habits, ways of thinking, and patterns of behaviour that keep us from trusting and loving him more fully.

So let’s ask: In what way might God be looking to change you (your habits, your thinking, your attitudes)? What’s ultimately more painful: staying as you are or accepting God’s discipline and letting him change you? Have your more difficult circumstances led you to trust God more? Why or why not?

Have you heard of the “one another” passages in the NT? Here are some of them: Romans 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection. 2 Corinthians 13:11: Comfort one another. Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens. Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. 1 Thessalonians 5:11: Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. James 5:16: Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.  1 Peter 1:22: Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.And while it’s always true, in the wilderness it’s especially true that we need comfort, we need kindness, we need someone to bear our burdens, we need someone to encourage us, we need someone one to hear our confession, we need someone to pray for us and with us, and we need someone to love us. And chances are, someone will also need these things from us.

The wilderness reveals our heart. The wilderness changes us. And, lastly, the wilderness gives us a gift to share. One of the most profound ways we can encourage others is to share how God has been with us, and what he has taught us, in our most difficult seasons of life, from our struggles and our failures.  

Renfroe says: “The wilderness prepares us to be that person for others. When we remember how we struggled, when we remember how long our nights were and how nothing eased our agony, when we remember how alone we felt, when we remember that doing all the right things and praying all the right prayers still left us empty and in pain—that’s when we can give other hurting souls the most important gift of being with them, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. And knowing they’re not alone can be enough to get them through the most difficult time of their life.”

The challenge is this: none of us likes being vulnerable. We have a culture of not talking about deeper issues, the ones that most deeply affect us. We sweep and hide difficult feelings and painful experiences away. We don’t know how to bring these things into community. We don’t know how to bring these things before God with honesty.

So: Based on the “one another” verses, what should relationships in the church be like? Is this your experience? Why or why not? Has knowing others understand what you’re going through been an encouragement? How can you encourage others? In what ways has God met you through the love of other people?

One last quote from Renfroe: “The wilderness is always devastating. It brings us to the end of ourselves so that we can have a new beginning with God.” The wilderness will reveal your heart. The wilderness will change you. The wilderness will give you a gift to share. It comes down to trusting God, to knowing how much he loves us, and to who he calls us to become. It’s not so much about what’s happening to us but what’s happening in us.

Churches can also enter a wilderness, a season of testing, when God calls us to trust him more deeply, to acknowledge our failures and our struggles, and to find grace and even transformation. But to come out of this wilderness, to become who God calls us to be, means being honest about who we are, where we’ve come from, and why we are here.

I think a lot of churches in our society are in a wilderness. Some of this is because of outside factors, things beyond our control. Our society has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Some of this, however, is also because of choices we’ve made or failed to make, decisions about our buildings, our mission, and about how we deal with one another. Some of this is because as churches—just like us as individuals—we convince ourselves into thinking that we can move on without these things having an affect on us now.

So, do we really trust God? Are we willing—not only as individuals but as churches—to let God move us forward? Because this means:Letting God reveal our heart as a church. Where have we come from? Who are we? Why are we here? What aren’t we dealing with that is holding us back?Letting God change us as a church. What might God want to change about us? What does he want to see happen here? Are we willing to go through whatever it takes for that to happen?

The wilderness is painful. No matter how we go through it. I remember someone once talking about churches that are struggling. He said that we have to “choose our pain.” There’s the pain of change, of the hard work of love, of honesty, of deeper relationships; and then there’s the pain of slow decline, of dying without trying.

Or to put it another way, there are two kinds of dying, two kinds of death. One kind of death comes our way because we don’t want to change. This sort of death comes our way because we’re trying to hold onto our life, onto our agendas, onto our comfort. It’s not a death that leads anywhere. But the other kind of death is death with a purpose. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves. He calls us to put to death our sin, our selfishness, our pride, our fear—all by coming to him, all by kneeling at the foot of his cross, all by marveling at the empty tomb. This is the death that leads to life, new life, resurrection. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus says: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Who do we really want to be? Who do we really want to become? And who is Christ calling us to be? The difference between these two kinds of pain, these two kinds of death is this: our choice. And this is the choice that we face in the wilderness.

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