With God in the Wilderness
by Dan Siemens
There is a region in South America that aches with extreme remoteness. Found in the Chilean wilderness, it is known as the Atacama, the absolute desert. In an absolute desert no biological life exists. No flora. No fauna. Only rocks and shadows.
Time spent in a wilderness season seems to be mandatory training for the followers of Jesus. Because this spiritual experience is often a place of dryness, pain, and struggle, we tend to either waste it by our resistance, or spurn it through mere fleshly endurance. Instead we must all learn how to be with God even in the midst of our wilderness times.
What is the wilderness? The Bible uses the metaphors of wilderness and desert interchangeably to describe a specific kind of spiritual environment where we find ourselves totally alone with God. This means that certain aspects of our relationship with Him can only be grown in this special place.
One of my favorite courses in college was Field Biology. Our class studied the different ecosystems in the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. We discovered that different kinds of plants and animals inhabited only certain altitude zones. For example, at the 3,000 foot elevation mark, one species of pine tree would be found. But at 7,000 feet another totally different kind of pine would take its place. The wilderness or desert is like that. It is a spiritual ecosystem, found no where else in our spiritual life, where God grows something unique in us.
How do you know if you are in a wilderness season? There is a tendency for believers to confuse a trial with a true wilderness, but they are not the same. Often God may use any number of difficult circumstances and trials to serve as entry points into the desert. These may include traumatic events, sickness, the loss of a job or career, the death of a loved one, relationship problems, or even mid-life crisis. But none of these things in themselves make up a wilderness.
The most universal sign that you may be in a wilderness is the profound sense of God’s absence. When you call, it appears that no one is there to answer. You are confronted with the unfamiliar response of the silence of God. The comforting ways by which you relationally connected with the Lord in the past are now stripped away. Accompanying this sense may also be a kind of restlessness, a loss of your sense of purpose and, of course, extreme spiritual dryness.
What makes the wilderness different than just getting through a difficult trial is the sustaining quality of the experience. You simply cannot fix it no matter how hard you try. You might fast, pray, rebuke, surrender, read books, and quote Scripture, but nothing seems to bring the comforting sense of God’s presence. It’s as if He is hiding. You relate to the Psalmist when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me; so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1-2). But the prophet Isaiah testified to this characteristic of the Lord when he declared, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel” (Isaiah 45:15).
What is God’s purpose for us in the wilderness?
First, the wilderness, or desert, is where God desires to impart new things to us. Isaiah 43:18-21 says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
The desert is where we learn to forget the former things. It is where we learn to not dwell on the past. God uses the desert experience to increase our receptivity to the new thing He wants to give us. Change is necessary for us to come into our spiritual inheritance. But some of the things we insist on hanging onto cannot go into the land of promise. The desert is where those things die off and we become hungry for the new.
God explained this desert rationale to the Israelites when he said, “I humbled you, causing you to hunger, then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Manna means, “what is it?” “Lord”, we may cry, “what is it that you are doing through my wilderness?” “Why, I’m about to give you something new!” is the Lord’s reply.
Secondly, the wilderness is a beautiful place where we develop a deepening sense of intimacy with God. Some have referred to it as a retreat into the very heartbeat of God. Intimacy is like an invitation: “in-to-me-see”, a two-way sharing between hearts. Listen to the intimate heart-language of Hosea 2:14, “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her out into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There, (in the desert), I will give her back her vineyards and will make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. There, (in the desert), she will respond in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” (Insertions mine).
In the wilderness intimacy with Jesus is enhanced by the removal of distractions from our soul. This includes anything that we have trusted in other than God himself. God’s love leads us into the desert where our idols are not willing to follow. This stripping away of other loves results in the restoration of our first love for Jesus.
Lastly, the wilderness is where God develops the spiritual eyes of our heart. In Isaiah 49:10-14, the curtain is drawn apart to let us gaze upon what is transpiring in the spirit realm and also, simultaneously, in the realm of the human soul.
In verses 10-12 we hear God prophetically speaking His mighty promises and excellent provisions for His church which is currently dwelling in a dry place. So gracious and wonderful is this proclamation that all heaven cannot restrain itself and must respond in verse 13, “Shout for joy O heavens, rejoice O earth, burst into song O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” Here is a joyful atmosphere full of hope and promise. But in the very next verse we see what Zion, the Church, was feeling in her collective soul at the very same moment while all this celebration was going on. “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; the Lord has forgotten me.” What is happening here?
Remember that the silence of God and the absence of His felt presence characterize the wilderness experience. In reality, God is still present, but He is present in a different way. God doesn’t want us to be limited by what we are sensing in our soul- whether or not we feel His presence or can apprehend what He is doing through the faculty of our intellect. He wants us to learn to live by faith in Him by our spirit. And the spiritual eyes of our heart can only be developed in what is the perceived absence of God to our senses. So, in the desert, God seems to be hidden from us as He does the internal work of subduing our souls. The desert environment is about the struggle for the supremacy of your spirit over your soul. That’s why it is often painful. But the result is that we begin to learn to live by an unshakable faith through the faculty of our spirit.
Now external experiences certainly have their place and purpose. One season is not better than the other- both are very necessary. In times of personal renewal, for example, God is restoring your soul. These times are wonderful blessings from God, but we need to be aware of the difference. I love what Graham Cooke coined so wonderfully when he said, “When God reveals himself to you, (like in times of renewal), He is blessing you. But when He seemingly hides from your soul, He is building you.” Recognizing the season in which God has placed us is so important. Otherwise, we will always be running somewhere to get a renewal-fix because it’s what our soul had gotten used to and feels it must possess to be content.
We end with the faithful promise of God found in Isaiah 49:15 & 16. He tells us that even when we seem to be despairing in our soul, even when our desert seems absolute, in that nothing appears to be growing there, God is ever present to us- accomplishing his work in our spirit through the indwelling Holy Spirit. And He gives us a solid anchor for all of our wildernesses and desert experiences. He promises, “I will never forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”