“Then, as the LORD our God commanded us, we set out… through all that vast and dreadful desert that you have seen…” (Deut. 1:19).
All believers in the Lord share a common experience. The Apostle Paul relates how all of our forefathers were under the cloud, and how they all passed through the sea (1 Cor. 10-1-3). Our forefathers had another experience in common. They all spent some time in the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah were there. Even Jesus was there. Their examples were meant to guide us as we also pass through the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:11). By “wilderness,” we are referring to the times of God’s tests and trials
in our lives.
The Judean Wilderness near Jerusalem
PURPOSE OF THE WILDERNESS
Why did God make wilderness places anyway? Certainly, without them it would be difficult for us to appreciate trees and green pastures. God also knew that the wilderness is an ideal place to test his people and to help them learn faith and endurance.
The geography in Israel is a constant demonstration of how close we always are to the wilderness. The nation of Israel literally sits on the brink of the wilderness. Jerusalem is situated atop a long mountain ridge that reaches to around 2700 ft. in elevation. During the winter months, the moisture-laded clouds from the nearby Mediterranean drop their rains and snows on the western slope. There is no moisture left, however, for the eastern slope. The result is the stark and barren wilderness of Judea, with very few trees, very little grass, and often scorching temperatures.
There is much wilderness both in and around Israel. There is hardly a way to travel from Egypt to the Promised Land without passing through the wilderness. We know from Deuteronomy 1:2, that it should have taken only eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea, which was on the border of the Promised Land. Yet, it took the children of Israel forty years to make the journey. They got stuck in the wilderness because of unbelief and because God had a few things to teach them.
In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar. It is surely interesting that the root of midbar has the meaning of “speak” or “word.” God speaks to us in the wilderness. God also humbles and proves us in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2). The wilderness period can last days, or years, depending on how quickly we learn its lessons.
RULES FOR WILDERNESS SURVIVAL
Since the wilderness is a common experience of our faith, we need to learn about it and especially we need to learn the rules of spiritual survival in this wilderness. We might ask the question, when are we most likely to experience the wilderness? Strangely, these experiences often come on the heels of great spiritual breakthroughs. The children of Israel were just miraculously delivered through the sea as they escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt. They had also just received the Torah (law) and had experienced the very presence of the Living God in smoke and fire. Very soon after their mountain-top experience they had to wander in the wilderness. Many centuries later, after Jesus was baptized and after he heard the voice of God speaking to him from heaven (Matt. 3:16-17), he was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil forty days and forty nights.
The temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11) gives us some real guidelines for surviving our own wilderness experience. Satan first tempted him in the area of provision. Jesus responded: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (v.4). In the wilderness there is no natural bread nor any way of producing it. We have to learn the hard way that God is the source of everything. We have to learn that his word is faithful and we can stake our lives upon it. The Israelites received miraculous bread from heaven throughout their wilderness experience. Jesus, after his testing, was visited by angels who came and ministered to his needs (Matt. 4:11). God may keep us in the wilderness until we understand that we should no longer concern ourselves with bread and provisions. We will learn not to worry, but to live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields (Matt. 6:25-34).
There was a second area of temptation that Jesus endured. It was the area of tempting or testing God. Jesus responded once more to the devil with the word of God that says, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matt. 4:7). The Israelites were guilty on many occasions of tempting God. They complained about their heavenly food and were fearful to enter the promised land. They tested God to the point that they were finally sentenced to wander forty years in the wilderness.
When times of testing come in our lives we must remember the dire warnings recorded in Hebrews 3:8 – 4:11, and remember also that for every difficult test, God has already made an acceptable way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). He will not allow us to be tested more than what we can bear. He is a faithful and loving God and we can depend upon him (1 Pet. 4:19). We can also remember that God chastens us because we are his sons and daughters (Heb. 12:6). There is a loving purpose in his tests. Therefore we are urged to count it pure joy and blessing when we come into such tests (Jas. 1:2, 12).
The last area of Jesus’ temptation concerned the worship of God and him only. Jesus replied again to Satan from the word of the Lord: “…Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:10). While in the wilderness, the children of Israel had some real trouble in the area of worship. Even while Moses was in the mountain receiving the law of the Lord, the people were busy making a golden calf to worship (Deut. 9:7-21). Often, God has to keep us in the wilderness until all our golden calves become detestable to us. I am speaking of all those calves we adore in everyday life – automobiles, jobs, houses, success, fame, fortune, etc. It is often because of such things that we often must face the wilderness.
STRENGTH FROM THE DESERT
What can the desert do for us? It can make us rugged, tough, and strong in faith. It can cause us to develop perseverance and to acquire maturity (Jas. 1:3-4). Joshua and Caleb were survivors of the forty-year wilderness journey. Joshua had the strength and maturity to lead Israel into the land and to gain victory over a numerous and well-armed populace. Caleb, at age 85, was able to take the mountain of Hebron and drive out the giants who had lived there for centuries.
There were many other examples in Israel’s history of wilderness men and women. David was such a man. He spent many years in caves and hide-outs in the wilderness. Much of the Book of Psalms was written as a result of his sufferings. Elijah was another such person, and so was John the Baptist. The latter was referred to as “…a voice of one calling in the desert…” (Matt. 3:3). Then there was Jesus, coming directly out of the wilderness to begin his ministry in the Galilee. When we look back over Israel’s history it seems that so many of her blessings came from the wilderness.
Not only does the wilderness breed character; it also breeds humility. When Moses lived in Egypt the was a man mighty in word and deed (Acts 7:22). However, when God finished with him with many years in the wilderness, Moses was unable to talk and had to have Aaron go along as his spokesman. God humbled him and he became the meekest man on earth (Num. 12:3). Therefore, God was able to do mighty things through him. God desires to break down our self-life in exactly this way.
The wilderness can be a lonely place. Many of us try to escape the wilderness and God’s plan of testing for our lives. We try to minister only in our natural strength as Moses once did (Ex. 2:11-15). Such ministry is useless. I think I would rather spend forty years in the wilderness and minister only one day in the Lord’s strength, than to spend one day in the wilderness and minister forty years in my own strength.
The wilderness with all its testing is precious (1 Pet 1:7). When we think back over all those trials, it often brings tears to our eyes. It softens our hearts. It is such a vital part of the salvation experience, and it deeply affects the way we relate to and minister
The wilderness experience with all its tests and trials is summed up so well in the words of the song written back in the 70s by Andre Crouch:
Through it all, through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God.
Through it all, through it all,
I’ve learned to depend upon his word.
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.