There is a worship song that is popular right now that says, “Jesus, You change everything.” But let’s be honest. Sometimes He doesn’t. Things stay the same, week after week, and even year after year. If nothing changes in spite of your efforts, you are likely in a wilderness situation. God has put you there for a reason. If we expand our attention past the point of merely looking for a fix, we will learn something about the way God works.
In Psalm 95:9–10, we learn that, when God’s people were in the wilderness, “they tried Me, though they had seen My work . . . They are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways.” So, even though they had seen His works, they did not understand His ways. Think about it: Doesn’t it help us when we know what God is doing, when we understand His ways? If we’re going to have to walk through the wilderness anyway, would it not be better to understand what His intentions are?
God is Looking For . . .
Deuteronomy 8:2–3 gives us some insight into God’s wilderness design: “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness . . . , that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart . . . . He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, . . . that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” God is telling us that the wilderness has several purposes. Among them are: humility, testing, and teaching :
One of God’s primary aims is to humble us. If we know this up front, we will be more willing to work with Him and humble ourselves before Him. There is still nothing wrong with asking for a fix, but if we ask humbly, we stand a much better chance of walking through our wilderness experience successfully, and perhaps more quickly. It is a hard truth, but knowing this helps us understand what God is up to—one of His main purposes is to humble us.
This is not welcome news either, but another one of God’s aims in the wilderness is to test us, and one of the primary ways He tests us is through deprivation. The church in the west is alarmingly weak today, largely because we haven’t suffered very much. God says in the passage above that He let His people experience hunger. So it was no accident. This was intentional. It helps us to know that God is testing us in the wilderness, revealing what is in our hearts (compare 2 Chronicles 32:31). Sometimes we pass the test, and sometimes we fail. But even when we fail, if we recognize what is in our hearts, this leads to brokenness, and we end up being better people.
Interestingly, after God’s people experienced hunger, He met their need in a miraculous, remarkable way. Food literally fell from the sky. Why? Because God had a deeper purpose in mind: To teach them. God wanted them to know that their sustenance ultimately derived from Him. However—and this is key—they had to be hungry to learn that. There are lessons we simply cannot learn in our normal experience. God has to lead us into the “W-Zone.” Only when we are there do we begin to understand.
A Divine Warning
With all this discussion about what God is doing, there is one thing we must be careful not to do while we are in the wilderness. As strange as sounds, the one thing we must guard against is testing God. This is an unfamiliar concept to us, so let's examine what it means, focusing first on what it is not. Testing God is the opposite of believing Him. It is birthed in a spirit of skepticism, of doubting God’s intentions. To test God is to judge Him and His ways by human standards and understanding. Unbelievably, after God had delivered His people from Egypt and rained down food from the sky, they got thirsty and “tested the LORD saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ ” (Exodus 17:7) Seriously? After all He just did? Testing God means that we ignore His works and drill down on our present need in an attitude of self-absorbed doubt.
Our Task: To Focus on . . .
So, if we understand what God is doing in the wilderness, and if we know what not to do, are there any guidelines concerning what we are to do?
We get some direction from Psalm 106:7. This verse ties Israel’s wilderness rebellion directly to the fact that “they did not remember His wonders.” Reframing this truth in a positive way, when we are in the middle of a wilderness experience and we deliberately focus on the times when He stepped into a previous crisis, this fills our heart with courage, and it gains favor with God. But we must consciously choose to do this, or we will default to our rebellious thought patterns. So, when you are in a wilderness situation, try this: Make a list of all the times you have seen God show up. It will build your faith, and it will please God.
One of my favorite Old Testament verses is Psalm 94:19, which says, “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations delight my soul.” At some point in our wilderness experience, you can count on the fact that anxiety will arise. We all have anxious thoughts, and we all have consolations. When we deliberately shift our thoughts from one to the other, it is amazing how quickly our anxieties shrink down to size. And again, we place ourselves in a position to receive God’s favor.
As hard as it may be to believe while we are plodding through the wilderness, we have reason for hope. In particular, we can have hope because we can look forward to a . . .
Abraham was a nomad for much of his life, which was a direct result of his obedience to God. He left his “normal” world, in search of a place that God would show him then, in what the Bible calls a test (Genesis 22:1), he proved that he was willing to even sacrifice his son, prompting God to say afterwards, “Now I know that you fear God.” Abraham’s heart was revealed through his obedience. He passed the test. But we rarely notice his reward for such a radical faith. Two chapters later, we read that God had blessed him “in every way.” (Genesis 24:1) Don’t miss that. There is a reward on the other side of the wilderness, on the other side of the test. But God promises still more. If we remain faithful in our wilderness experience, we can also have confidence that we can look forward to a . . .
In Psalm 95:11, we learn that, because of Israel’s choice to test God and not believe in Him, He made it clear that they would not enter into His rest. But again, if we flip that statement around, we discover a very encouraging truth: God’s intention was to lead His people through the wilderness in order to give them a place of rest.
In line with this, Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us be diligent to enter that rest.” This calls for intentionality on our part. If we really believe that there is a reward and a rest for us, our hope will engender courage in our hearts and will advance our faith, which will renew our resolve to continue our trek through the wilderness to the end. And there is an end. Don’t let your mind trick you into thinking that the wilderness is permanent. It is not. Every wilderness has a beginning, and every wilderness has an end. Believe it—“There remains a rest for the people of God!” (Hebrews 4:9)
God's Wilderness Design
So, when you can’t fix your situation, and God doesn’t appear to be fixing it either, be aware: You are probably in a wilderness. God is looking for specific things to happen there. He has a purpose in mind. If nothing else, you will be more useful for His Kingdom on the other side. Just like a company head has more chance of success with humble, teachable, faithful employees, God can advance His Kingdom much more effectively with those who have been through the discipline of the wilderness. And, lest we forget, being more useful to Him aligns us well to hear Him say at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord!” Reward indeed! And then rest, true rest!
Knowing that God has a design even when His hand is unseen, will help you make it through your wilderness experience successfully. Let the humility of deprivation do its work in you, sharpen your spiritual senses in order to hear what God is teaching you, remember His mighty deeds, focus on His consolations, and take courage! In spite of all appearances, the wilderness is only temporary, and there is reward and true rest ahead!
So, when you can’t fix your situation, and God doesn’t appear to be fixing it