Every life has them. Valleys. Dry spells. Seasons of doubt. Times when we don’t feel God’s presence. Times when it’s difficult to tell if our lives are bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Times when we wonder if God’s kingdom exists at all. Sometimes we find ourselves in these desert places because of our own sins. Remember Moses in the desert? Not the Moses leading the Hebrew children through the wilderness – we’ll get to that. No, before that Moses had another desert experience. After he’d killed the Egyptian, what did he do? Exodus 3 tells us that out of fear for his life, he went for a self-prescribed exile to the far side of the desert. Other times, it’s not our sins that bring us low, but life’s circumstances. Like Hannah, our barrenness knocks us to the ground so that even our cries for help are mistaken for drunkenness.
In both cases, such seasons of doubt can be debilitating. But while the pain is great, we usually understand the reason for our desert experience – whether it be our own sins or the result of living in a sinful, fallen world. There are still other desert experiences for which there are less clear cut reasons. For instance, the desert we are least prepared for, is the desert that comes as a result of faith. We assume that if we follow God in faith, our experiences with God will be fresh, intimate, and rewarding. And yet, throughout the scriptures, there they are – places where obedience leads individuals or even whole peoples out into the desert.
Which takes us back to Moses and the Hebrew children. We often think that their wilderness wonderings were the result of sin. And to a degree, we’re right. They did wonder in the desert for forty years because of their sin, but friends, it’s the length of the wondering that was affected by their sin – not the crossing of the desert in the first place. Even if they’d trusted God completely, the journey from the bondage of Egypt to the promise of the Holy Land required a desert crossing.
The more I read the scriptures, the more I study the lives of the saints, the more I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that obedience rarely takes us straight into the promise land for there almost always seems to be a desert between the Egypt of our bondage and the Israel of God’s promise. Think about it. Obedience is what landed Joseph in jail after he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Obedience and faith got Daniel in the Lion’s den before it got him out. As we’ll see this week, obedience led Philip down a desert road when common sense told him to go in the opposite direction. Obedience led the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, across the seas. But instead of a ministry of fruitfulness, he found a life of despair. First his wife died in child birth, and then only a few months later, the baby, Maria, died as well. Swamped with waves of spiritual despair, he lamented, “God is to me the great Unknown. I believe in him but I find him not.” In a similar fashion, Mother Teresa, late in her ministry confessed to her spiritual mentor, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing.” These great saints are in good company. For obedience likewise led Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, out into the wilderness to be tempted and then down the lonely road to a barren cross to be crucified. It was there he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
If Jesus experienced times in the desert, should we, his followers, expect anything less? Can we, because of the great testimony of the scriptures, learn to trust that far from being a sign of failure, the desert may just be evidence that we are obeying the call of Christ?
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water – Psalm 63:1