Walking Through the Wilderness

There is a big story going on around us. A cosmic war is being fought: God is at work in the world to find the lost, release the prisoners, and bring them out of the kingdom of darkness and death into his kingdom of light and life. If you decide that you want to be part of this big story, then you are signing up for a life that will battle against the evil, the injustice, and the darkness in your own life and in the lives of others. God wants to use you to minister to the needs and wounds of men and women, wounds that threaten to keep them from experiencing his grace. I hope that’s the life you choose. It’s impossible to be a faithful follower of Jesus and choose any other life. But in choosing this life, you will have spiritual battles to fight that will require courage and faith and suffering and perseverance.

Not long ago I read a cartoon in which a little figure who appeared to be overwhelmed and depressed said, “In my next life I want to come back as something easier than a human being.” The truth is that we get only one life, and it’s not easy for any of us.

Several years ago, I had moved to a new community and was serving a church there. I loved the people, but I was frustrated that we weren’t growing or moving forward as quickly as I had hoped we would. Looking back on that time in my life, I realize now that my biggest struggle wasn’t with the church but with myself — my expectations, self-worth, insecurity, and tendency to equate numerical success with God’s blessing.

My friend had called to see how he could pray for me. Because I trusted him and knew that he loved me, I was honest when he asked how life was going. I told him, “I’m frustrated, discontent, discouraged. My energy level is down. People have failed me. My problems seem bigger than I am. And nothing I do seems to make any difference. Other than that, life is great.”

“You’re going through a wilderness,” he responded. “Of course I’m going through a wilderness,” I said. “That’s what I just told you. Life is crummy right now.”

“No, not wilderness as in ‘life is crummy right now’ but wilderness as in the Bible,” he replied. “A spiritual wilderness. You’re the preacher, dude. Figure it out.”

The term wilderness is used nearly 300 times in the Scriptures. We find it in some of the Bible’s most critical moments. Abraham decides to follow God’s calling upon his life, and he is led into the wilderness. Moses encounters God and receives his calling to deliver the Israelites from bondage in the wilderness. When the Israelites leave Egypt and head to the Promised Land, first they must pass through the wilderness. David learns to trust God in the wilderness, and there he is prepared to fight Goliath and lead Israel. Immediately after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days to be tested and tempted by the evil one. Only after this wilderness experience is Jesus ready to begin his ministry and change the world.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.18.39 AMIn the Scriptures, wilderness is used to describe a time in a person’s life when his or her soul is parched and dry; when today is hard and the future appears barren; when as far as you can see there is nothing but devastation, and you wonder if you’ll find a way out. Very often during that wilderness period, you feel all alone. You may even feel bereft of God’s presence, as well.

In spite of its pain — actually, because of its pain — the wilderness is a place of great opportunity. It’s where God can teach us life’s most important lessons. As one of my friends told me after he went through the wilderness experience of losing his job, being unemployed for months, and battling cancer at the same time, “I wouldn’t go through that again for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t take all the money in the world for what I learned about walking with God.”

More Like Jesus

Sometimes we American Christians seem to be more American than we are Christian. Often we think that following Jesus will make our lives easier and more successful — in terms of physical health and material prosperity. Some of our country’s most popular preachers proclaim that living in faith will ensure that God will bless you with special treatment and favor.

Being a faithful follower of Jesus will not make life easier. In fact, in many ways, it makes life more difficult. Before giving our lives to Christ, we could accept the values of our culture and “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2); in other words, we could live like everyone else. Before accepting Christ, we could pursue happiness as our highest priority and look to “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) to find it. But now that we belong to Christ, we find ourselves fighting constantly against our sinful nature and a fallen world that would seduce us away from our Lord and Savior. This makes life hard — in some ways harder than when we felt we were free to do whatever we desired.

All of this is to say that when life is hard, you are not being singled out. Life is difficult for everyone. And the more serious you are about following Jesus, the more you will have to deny yourself and fight against the world and its temptations. Expect life to be hard. Expect that you will go through a wilderness — probably several before your life is over. It’s part of the Christian life. In fact, it’s a necessity if we are going to become more like Jesus.

Sufficient Grace

When Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, they marched through the wilderness and came to the Promised Land. God told them to go into the land and take it. But they refused. They were afraid of the tribes who lived there, and they acted in fear rather than faith.

God sent them back into the wilderness where they wandered for the next forty years. When they were ready, God brought them back to the Promised Land. He told them, “This is the land I promised to your ancestors. It’s a land of abundance.” He went into great detail, telling them that they would be blessed with much grain and wine and oil. Their herds would prosper. They would come to possess gold and silver and iron. But he also reminded them about the wilderness that preceded this time of blessing:

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.18.16 AM whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3 NRSV).

The wilderness period was meant to humble the Israelites and create within them the character that could bear the blessing God had for them. In the wilderness, we will walk either by faith or by feelings. If we base our lives on how we feel — singled out, hopeless, confused, angry — we not only will fail to learn the lessons of the wilderness but also will eventually lose the strength and focus we need to move forward. But if, in spite of our feelings and circumstances, we live by faith in God and his promises — promises such as “I know the plans I have for you … plans for good and not for disaster” (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT), “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28 NIV), and “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 NIV) — then we will find God faithful and his grace sufficient.

If you’re in the wilderness right now, trust God — not your feelings or what makes sense, but God alone. You will discover that he is there with you and will never give up on you. He will hold onto you even if you can’t hold onto him. Walk in faith, and he will have his way in your life; and ultimately that way will be good.

During my own personal walk through the wilderness, I needed to look for what God wanted to do within me instead of everything I thought was going wrong around me. Thinking about my wilderness in this new way did not make it go away. It didn’t instantly lift my spirits or change my situation. But it did give me hope. And it did something else just as important: it took my focus off of myself and put it on God.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.18.59 AMI came to see that God isn’t so much a “problem-fixer” as he is a “life-changer.” Rather than swooping in to take our problems away, more often he works to change who we are through the problems and the pain of our lives.

Don’t waste your wilderness. Don’t go through such pain only to gain nothing from it. You will come through your wilderness. The question is, Who will you be when this difficult time is over? This is important: it’s impossible to go through the wilderness without being changed. How you handle the most difficult times of your life will make you a different person. Make the wrong choices and you may step out of the wilderness broken and bitter and far away from God. But there’s a way through the wilderness that will make you stronger, leave you with a deeper faith, and draw you closer to God than you ever imagined.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He is the Pastor of Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. Adapted from the study A Way Through the Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life Is Hard (Includes book, leader guide, and DVD), Rob Renfroe, (c) 2015 Abingdon Press. Used by Permission.

Comments

  1. Ukpai Michael Kalu says

    Thank you sir for such an inspirational master piece. I pray for more revelation of God. Amen.

  2. Lobe Bernard says

    Dear Rob, I am very thankful to God for this message and for you. Indeed, it uplifted my soul and heart and reminded me of things I have counseled people all through ministry as a pastor and how I have to truly and fully depended on those things and truths I taught other to abide by. It was really time for me to practice them in full also. Your message was a blessing to me. Thanks and remain blessed as we all at one time or the other have to travel the wilderness road for God’s glory and for our benefit.

  3. Amen! I am currently going through a wilderness of my own making. My marriage is failing due to my selfish desires and now my 4 children will sent into their own wilderness & it breaks my heart. I find the shame and flesh more powerful than ever and daily I must fight to believe the truth. Thank you for your message! God bless your ministry.

  4. Isabell Caldway says

    I needed this. I must be naked and unashamed….I don’t know if I am coming or going. I feel like a failure. I have been called and have ministered but not doing so now. I am in a relationship with someone that I love very much but cannot get an understanding with each other when we try to communicate. My reason for not ministering has nothing to do with me, but with the ministry. Very long story. Now I don’t know which way to turn, especially since my work hrs have changed. I work 60 hrs a week and I am 57 yrs old. I am hurt and torn. I want to do God’s will but I know nowhere to turn. I am hurting deeply. Pls pray for me. I thoroughy enjoyed this message. It has given me ‘some’ peace. God Bless you.

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