Intimacy and EternityThe Wilderness
Part Two, Chapter Seven
Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
IN ONE FORM OR ANOTHER all of us will encounter the Ascent of Toil. Writers commonly refer to this as a wilderness experience. Such times nearly always take us by surprise, but the God who covered more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface with oceans, tundra, glaciers and deserts uses these spiritual wildernesses in a special way to aid our preparation for eternity.
The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, embraces not only the rugged terrain of literal deserts, but any land that could not easily be cultivated. If we can grasp the spiritual concept that lies behind the midbar it will help us to make some sense of our times in the wilderness, and help us to strengthen others who feel bewildered as a result of them.
Four Types of Wilderness
Spiritual wildernesses, like their geographical counterparts, come in different shapes and sizes. We will explore four main types. The most common is ‘The Wilderness of Sin’ which is largely the result of our own stupidity or neglect of God. There is also ‘The Wilderness of Satan’ when our enemy through some illness, attack or other hindrance, makes it hard for us to feel God’s presence, or to implement His will in a given situation.
This is rather different from ‘The Waterless Wilderness’ which usually accompanies a dull and dreary stage in our lives, when nothing much appears to be happening. The fourth type, ‘The Wilderness of Preparation’ is quite different, as we shall see.
As young Christians we were taught that if God feels distant, then it must be that we are the ones who have moved!
After all, we can usually trace most of our suffering to our own recklessness or negligence. The Lord sometimes has to ‘close’ our blessings down until we recognize how foolish we have been. Repentance (literally a turning around) is ever God’s exit point from these self-induced ‘Wildernesses of Sin.’1
As our walk with the Lord matures, however, it no longer suffices to suppose sin to be the sole, or even the chief, reason for our wilderness experiences. As Tozer put it, ‘To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.’
Following the will of the Lord often leads us into the zone of maximum conflict. On both occasions in the gospels when we see the disciples in a storm, it was as a direct result not of their disobedience but of their obedience. It must have felt like the last straw when they saw their master sleeping peacefully with his head on a pillow. ‘Look, Jesus, don’t you care that we’re going to drown? Even if you can’t do anything about it, at least you could wake up and worry with the rest of us!’
We love to see the Lord Jesus stilling the storm with a word but His subsequent rebuke to the disciples for their lack of faith is a timely reminder to us when we allow unbelief a foothold in our hearts.2 The moment Jesus sees how convinced we are of our need for Him, He reaches out His hand to steady us.
Perhaps satanic powers had whipped this storm up because they saw the Lord Jesus heading to deliver the demoniac on the other side of the lake? They certainly make strenuous, and often highly damaging, assaults on the minds and bodies of those who are on the front line for the Lord. Many illnesses, accidents and other intrusive pressures sometimes conspire to make us feel distant from God – to say nothing of causing us trouble both in the world and in the Church. The warfare can be intense.
We need to use our God-given faith and authority to resist the devil, and to handle these satanically-induced wildernesses. When the battle is too much for us to bear on our own, we must enlist the support of praying friends. (It is usually pride, in one form or another, that stops us from asking for help!)
By contrast, the Waterless Wilderness requires courage and endurance. By definition it is monotonous. This brings its own inherent dangers, for boredom is a condition that satanic forces are particularly skilled at nurturing. The dreariness of so many churches, as well as so many marriages, testify to the handiwork of unseen forces that rob us one small step at a time of our enthusiasm for the people, causes and institutions to which we were once so willing to give our all.
Short periods of intense pressure may actually serve to stimulate our faith. We cry out best and loudest when crises drive us to our knees. Coping with prolonged seasons of monotony, or with some unwelcome change to our situation or status, however, can often be a greater test. If there is something in us that inclines us to believe that Jesus is against us, then it will be the Waterless Wilderness which exposes our heart of unbelief.
The less that we are prospering outwardly, the more our inner uncertainties are exposed. A longing for something fresh and exciting leads not only the young and impressionable astray, but may even push apparently mature people into the most outlandish escapades.3
The deeper we plunge into the Waterless Wilderness, the more acutely aware we become of our helplessness. Is it not when we recognize our utter helplessness that we lean more fully on the Lord and learn to esteem others more highly than ourselves? Is not this what it means to live in the fear of the Lord?
Difficulties may threaten to overwhelm us, but we should not back out of our God-given plans, any more than Paul was prepared to yield to the pleas of his friends and turn aside from going up to Jerusalem just because they were prophesying great hardships ahead for him.4
It is better to ‘harness’ our feelings of inadequacy and cry out to the God who has unlimited power to help us.5 After all, many of the Kingdom’s greatest projects begin in the most unpromising manner – mighty trees from the smallest seeds. The Lord already sees the full-grown tree in the seed, as if with double vision. It is harder for us to do the same.
The first Protestant missionary to China saw just one convert in the first decade of his ministry, and only one more in the next ten years. Who could have guessed then that this small-scale work would one day expand to bring millions into the Kingdom in that formidably hostile country? Just think of all that would have been missed if these early missionaries had given up! Again and again we must set out ‘by night’, not knowing where our efforts will lead. God has great things in store for His children, and He loves to turn the night to day.6
The Wilderness of Preparation
The final type of desert is quite different from the others in that it originates primarily in an initiative from God Himself. For this reason alone it is less well understood, yet Scripture provides us with precedents. For example, shortly after the Lord Jesus was baptized in the Holy Spirit, He was led (some texts say driven) by the same Spirit into a literal desert to endure forty days of the most gruelling testing. Luke declares that Jesus went into the wilderness full of the Spirit, but that He emerged from it in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1,14).
This distinction between fullness and power is a crucial one. Many would claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit but how many of us can honestly be said to be moving in the power of the Spirit?
Although at first sight the example of Jesus is of an altogether different ilk from our own experience, I believe that Scripture shows us that such wildernesses often serve as a bridge to this deeper anointing. Sometimes, after God has given us a clear word or vision, the very opposite of what we believe He has promised begins to happen. This can be very confusing.
Moses received a genuine call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but Pharaoh rebuffed him repeatedly. He even withdrew from the Israelites the means to make their daily quota of bricks, but not the demand that they must be made.
This example is an extreme one, but we may often experience the principle at work to a lesser extent in our own lives.
The fact is that great testing must precede great service.
Samuel discerned Israel’s future king in a young shepherd boy, but God intended to train David in a cave before allowing him to reign in a palace. Saul of Tarsus, by contrast, was already a mature man by the standards of the world before his conversion, but he nevertheless required a further fourteen years of training before the Lord finally deemed him ready for his mission.
Basilea Schlink felt led to prepare a course of Bible studies for the wives of prospective pastors. She even went so far as to set up a house and prepare beds for them. Because of the Nazis’ hostility towards all things Christian, however, the facilities remained unused from 1936 right through until 1944. During these eight years she often wondered what had happened to the promise the Lord had given her. Later, He developed a ministry through this remarkable woman on a scale she could never have dreamt of in those early days.
Spiritual matters are rarely as clear cut as we would like them to be of course. Several factors usually combine to make up a wilderness experience. Even Moses’ initial reason for spending forty years in the desert appears to owe less to God’s leading than to his running away after committing an act of murder! Likewise, the most immediate reason for Elijah’s time in the southern desert was his fear of Jezebel. Yet God used all these wildernesses for His own ends. He is the Lord of the midbar.
Nurturing Trust during Desert Times
The great heart cry of the contemplative saints through the ages has been that we should learn to live beyond the world of our immediate senses. In other words, we are to trust the Lord’s character even when we can no longer discern His leadings. As Tozer put it:
Repentance is a sincere apology to God for distrusting Him for so long, and faith is throwing oneself upon Christ in complete confidence.
God reminds us through these wilderness experiences of how little control we have over our lives. We can regulate neither the things that happen to us, nor the flow of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus wants to be both the Shepherd who strides ahead to prepare the way for us and the Staff on which we lean. If it takes the apparent withdrawal of His presence to make us depend on Him more fully, then so be it.
Ultimately, it does not matter that we feel bereft. It is our faith God requires, not our feelings. God is still ordering the things we experience, and providing us with all that we need, even during these times when familiar landmarks and reassuring points of security are being shaken and can no longer be relied on.
The first thing that happens in any wilderness situation is that we lose our sense of direction. Spiritually this can be as disconcerting as when we drive in thick fog and are no longer able to recognize even the most familiar landscapes.
In The Silver Chair, one of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan, who represents the Lord, gives Jill Pole a number of signs to look out for in her adventure. As they stand on a high cliff top they all seem easy to understand, but Aslan warns her that they will be much harder to remember and to recognize at ground level. And so it proved.
This story is a striking illustration of the way in which almost every vision God gives us passes through a disorientating wilderness phase during which the promised goal appears tantalizingly far out of reach.
It is not easy to cope with these unsettling times, when precious props are removed from our lives, and strong desires remain unfulfilled. But we can be encouraged. If the Lord leads us into a ‘Wilderness of Preparation’, it is actually a sign of spiritual promotion, rather than the demotion it feels like at the time.
Jesus will bring us safely through every wilderness, and He is trusting us to keep going. All His promises will be fulfilled, because His commissions contain His hidden provision. He who sent us out will also provide all that we need to make it to the end of our journey.
Many years ago I went for a walk one Pentecost Sunday morning to ask the Lord what He wanted me to do with my life. I had been through a prolonged wilderness, and was in great distress of spirit, convinced that my many failings meant the end of everything. As I sat beside a canal, I heard the Lord’s voice again: ‘I have empowered you as a speaker, but I have called you to be a writer.’
On the following day a man who knew nothing about what I had heard the day before brought me this word of prophecy: ‘I have a message, I have a pen, I need a writer. If you are willing, I will be with you.’ The Lord had given me both confirmation and commissioning, and it helped to bring me out of that particular wilderness.
All of us need encouragement to keep going through times of wilderness. When temptations assail us and the enemy comes in like a flood (as they are bound to do if we are making an impact for the Lord!) it is good to remind ourselves that the Lord is very careful in the things He allows to come our way. He has not suddenly gone off duty.
The situation that you are dreading, and finding so hard, may actually be the very means by which the Lord intends to mature and refine you. Even though you feel as though you are being laid on one side at the moment, take heart: He is still working out His purposes for you, and He has not forgotten your address!
The more cheerfully you embrace His will and set your heart to praise Him, the more easily you will endure this wilderness time, and emerge from it in the power of His Spirit.
Thank You, Father,
that You are Lord of the wilderness.
Whatever the reason for the difficult times I am going through now,
please use them to further Your own purposes.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. Psalm 32:3-5 .
2. Mark 4:35-41.
3. The Church has been slow to recognize, let alone to teach about the mid-life crisis, which can affect people as young as in their early thirties. This is the time when many married couples break faith with one another, perhaps because one or both partners are seeking an unattainable degree of romance and excitement. When reality fails to measure up to their inflated expectations, the relationship is abandoned, and the people concerned condemn themselves (and others) to further forlorn attempts to fulfil their impossible desires.
I suspect that certain parts of the charismatic movement may likewise have inadvertently fuelled people’s expectations to a frankly unrealistic pitch. This often leads to factions, splits and, in the long term, causes much unhappiness. We would do well to heed these words of John Henry Newman: To take up the cross of Christ is no great action done once for all; it consists in the continual practice of small duties which are distasteful to us.
4. Acts 21:4-14.
5. Hallesby makes this point about our helplessness splendidly in his book, Prayer (I.V.P.).
6. Psalm 139:12