Friday, April 4, 2014

The Wilderness

We are all familiar with the story of Moses and the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians for three hundred years. God heard His people’s cries for help, and by a series of divine interventions, set them free from slavery and led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, a desert.

However, the wilderness was not the Israelites destination, it was a place God was taking them through on the way to the land God had promised to give them, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey,’ Exodus 13:5.

The Bible frequently uses the Old Testament nation of Israel as a type or symbol of our own lives. We Christians were all slaves too – slaves to sin and death. God heard our cries for help, and through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, set us free from slavery and led us out. And just like God lead Israel through a wilderness on the way to their Promised Land, there are times that He leads us through wildernesses on our way to heaven.

Why did God take Israel through the wilderness instead of taking them straight to the Promised Land? He did so to help them grow and mature. ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ James 1:2-4.

To say it in another way, although God had taken Israel out of Egypt, He wanted to take Egypt out of Israel. Likewise, although God has taken us out of the world and sin, He wants to take the world and our old self-centred sinful nature out of us. God used my time in the wilderness experience of depression to purge so much of my sinful nature. He taught me to rely upon Him instead of on myself, to rest in His peace instead of trusting in my feelings, to trust that He was in control of my life, and that I have nothing to fear.

How long we tarry in the wilderness while on the way to our Promised Land depends largely on how we react to the wilderness experience. How did the Israelites respond to their journey through the wilderness?

Although they had just witnessed the awesome power of God in Egypt, what did they say when Pharaoh’s army trapped them against the shores of the Red Sea? “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Exodus 14:11-12.

And when they ran out of food? "If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." Exodus 16:3

And when there was no water to be found? But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" Exodus 17:3.

What about when faced with the powerful nations that occupied Canaan? All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" Numbers 14:2-3.

In all these cases, instead of turning to God and asking for His help, they complained and grumbled against God. Because of this, they ended up spending forty years in the wilderness instead of a few months.

Perhaps while in the wilderness we have had the same reaction - grumbling against God and wishing we were back in the world. “Life was better before I became a Christian, things were easier when I was in the world.” But we know that is not true. Firstly, unbelievers experience trials too, but without the comforting strength of Christ to sustain and help them. And secondly, even if life as an unbeliever had been easier, it was an illusion, a lie, as that life leads to hell. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14.

A wilderness experience may seem unbearable to those who are in it, but we can be confident that God will not lead us through something that we cannot overcome through His strength. For example, did you know that God could have lead the Israelites to Canaan via a shorter route, but that this dangerous route was too hard for them? Exodus 13:17-18 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, "If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.

So we can be confident that whatever we are going through today can be overcome if we rely upon Him.

Not all trials become a wilderness experience, although many have the potential of becoming one. The fact is that we can skip the wilderness aspect of suffering altogether by responding differently to the trial. See below a wilderness experience contrasted against suffering that skips the wilderness.

Suffering Leading to A Wilderness Experience
* We go through a trial
* We respond by complaining and grumbling against God
* We become bitter
* We enter an extended time in a spiritual wilderness
* Internal suffering becomes acute, almost unbearable
* We cry out to the Lord for help, and repent of our grumbling
* The Lord answers and leads us out of the wilderness
* The Lord continues to lead us along the road that leads to life

Suffering that Skips the Wilderness Experience
* We go through a trial
* We respond by thanking God for it
* We acknowledge that God is in control of every aspect of our life, even this one
* We rest in God’s peace, content to be in this place at this time
* The suffering does not become internal, but remains outside us as we take refuge in the Lord
* We reverently pour our heart out to the Lord, and wait patiently for His strength and provision
* The Lord continues to lead us along the road that leads to life

I have been through both of the above. Trials I experienced in late 1989 lead to one of the worst wilderness experiences possible, depression. While in this wilderness I went from pouring my heart out to God and reminding myself that He was faithful, to grumbling and complaining. I went from one extreme to the other, with the grumbling hindering my Christian walk and recovery.

If only the Israelites in the desert had praised God whenever they encountered difficulties, and waited patiently for Him to provide for their needs. Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him. They had seen His works, His miracles, they saw the cloud and the pillar of fire – they knew He was with them. Had they done this instead of grumbling and complaining, they would have left the wilderness much sooner.

When the Lord taught me to stop grumbling, fearing and fighting what I was going through, that I needed to wait patiently for Him to lead me to full recovery, the inner suffering become noticeably less. As I waited to recover I praised Him, accepted that this was where He had lead me, and acknowledged that He was in control of my life, regardless of how things seemed. This was when my trek out of that wilderness began in earnest. And lead me out of that wilderness He did, and I continued my journey along the road that leads to life.

When I was afflicted by hundreds of complex partial epileptic seizures from 1996 to 2002/3, and then by deafness accompanied by almost unbearable tinnitus from 2002-2003, by applying the lessons I had learnt while recovering from depression, I was able to skip the wilderness aspect of those trials. Eventually the Lord led me through those trials as well. The epilepsy is now controlled by medication, and an operation restored 70% hearing to my deaf ear, removing much of the tinnitus as well. I am still partially deaf, but that’s a huge improvement over being deaf.

Let us learn from Israel’s example of what to do and what not to do, and guard our hearts from grumbling against God and our circumstances. Let us praise Him, acknowledge His lordship, and learn to be content whatever our circumstances. Then we can cut short time spent in the wilderness, and in the process learn how to skip the wilderness experience aspect of future trials.

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    1. Wow, what an amazing post. None of us are immune to the wilderness of life. We all wander from time to time, and we all wander away. Like you, it was only when I learned to stop grumbling and start trusting that things began to get better.

      And I learned that every valley has both a beginning and an end.

    2. Hi, Peter!
      First, I praise God with you that He's healed you so much.

      Me, too. However, I have to admit that the wilderness is my least favorite place. When my husband moved us from Chicago to the Southwest, we bought a home with a well and when I would lose water, the "real me" came out. I have had lots of opportunities to mature. ahem...

      Enjoyed your post!

    3. Thanks for your feedback, Billy and Saleslady. Amazing how the Lord has used these experiences in our lives to draw us closer to Him.

      Loved your humour too, Saleslady! And I reluctantly have to agree that although I have this image of myself being of a certain maturity, along come these times of testing and the 'real me' comes out too...arrgh.

      Praise the Lord He's not finished with me yet.

    4. What an excellent lesson, Peter. I am always blessed when I come by here. Grumbling is so easy, but the results are certainly not. Thank you for the reminder.

    5. I thought your previous postings were great, Peter, but this one must surely top them all.

      It's easy for someone to write what you have written, and use all the right words and throw Bible verses around left, right and centre, but in a lot of cases they are writing from a judgmental perspective, telling other Christians what they should be doing. But I am convinced Peter, that God has given you a great ability to encourage people by what you have gone through yourself. There is no pretense here, there is no judgment, there is, however, encouragement and love which only comes from the Holy Spirit.

      Bless you, Peter.

    6. Everytime I comment, I tell you that this is your best one yet. How do you do that?

      Anyway, this jumped out at me today:
      "Not all trials become a wilderness experience, although many have the potential of becoming one. The fact is that we can skip the wilderness aspect of suffering altogether by responding differently to the trial. See below a wilderness experience contrasted against suffering that skips the wilderness."

      Wow, wow, WOW. Wowzer. This is so true.