The Wilderness Experience

“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


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.


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.


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
to others.

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.


                                                                                                             -Jim Gerrish


This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.