The Formative Power of the Wilderness in Discipleship

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Are you struggling with no end in sight?

There is a name for what you are going through. What you are facing is the Wilderness.

Here are some examples of wilderness wanderings we find ourselves in today

  • Ministry transition – going between types of churches (large/small, traditional/house, a shift in theological paradigms like liberal to conservative or the other way around), church in growth or decline, leaving one church and being hired by another (it can be a honeymoon or a wilderness).
  • Life transition – marriage/divorce, having kids, losing kids, major job shuffles/getting fired
  • Addiction – whether it is to food, substances, or even toxic relationships, addiction is a wilderness experience that God can use to bring us to our knees to finally get back on our feet.

For some reason the wilderness seems more apparent in your 40s than in your 20s.

There is good news and bad news about what the Bible has to say about the wilderness. The good news is that it doesn’t last forever. The bad news is that this is where the story takes a hard turn and you better have a good foundation if you are going to get to the other side. Some don’t make it into the Promised Land so pay attention.

In the Bible, the wilderness is a place where God’s people are formed. The way they are formed is the most difficult (but most impactful) way. Everything is stripped away until all someone is left with is God. Without God’s help and full reliance on God, there is no way out. Think, Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4. It is a time of unsettling. It is a classroom of desperation.

The Bible, prayer and fasting are the curriculum.

Here are some examples from the Bible where the story takes a turn in the wilderness:

  • It is in the wilderness that Joseph’s brothers throw him in a cistern. Everything changes from that point forward (Gen 37:22)
  • It is in the wilderness that Moses encounters God in the burning bush (Exo 3:10)
  • The wilderness is the place where Israel waited 40 years to enter the promised land, this time prepared. A whole generation fell there and a new generation rose up.
  • It was the wilderness that David fled to when being chased by Saul (1 Sam 26:3). There were psalms/prayers written in the wilderness (Psalm 63).
  • Elijah fled to Horeb, the wilderness mountain of God – Sinai where God also appeared to him (1 Kings 19). The transfiguration connects Moses and Elijah with Jesus – all of which are connected through the wilderness mountain experiences with God.
  • The Psalms also express the complications and formative processes of the wilderness (Psalm 78, 106, 136).
  • Jesus began his ministry by going through the water (like Israel through the Red Sea) and into the wilderness for 40 days (as Israel did 40 years). Jesus was tested there, just as Israel was tested there.
  • It was the wilderness experience that brought God’s provision of mana, quail and water.

If there was a way around the wilderness, people would take it and they would come out the shortcut half the person they would have been had they taken the wilderness route.

You must pass through the wilderness.

There is no helicopter to come whisk you away. The reality is, this time there is precious. It is like a newly married couple in their early 20s with barely a dime to their name living in the apartment. Looking back those were hard times but they were special times. The two of you were in it together come what may. In the spiritual wilderness, that is how things are between us and God. In in together…come what may. These experiences lead to spiritual maturation in Christ.

There is something about not being sure if you are going to make it, seeing God help you, and making it that forms you forever.

The wilderness shows us a few things we would never learn otherwise

  • It shows us our character – our good and bad sides are amplified by the stress of the wilderness and the exhausting nature of the journey. They say don’t do important things when HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. The wilderness will make you all four at once and still demand you do the hard stuff without any of that letting up.
  • We learn to let go of the peripheral. You have to be lean and light in the wilderness. That grand piano won’t make the journey, nor will that addiction that has been plaguing you for years.
  • We learn full reliance on God. When things seem under your control, there isn’t much need (we think) to rely on God. But when it all goes crazy and everything is stripped away, you can finally learn to rely on God in all things. Surrender control to watch God take control to build faith in His lead.

Keys To Surviving the Wilderness

  • You don’t go through it alone. You need God and traveling companions.
  • Small victories are victories. Some days just not taking three steps backwards is a victory. Some days just surviving is a victory. Cherish the small wins.
  • Prayer, fasting & Scripture – like Jesus in the wilderness we learn that man cannot live by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth. We must be in the word when we go through wilderness seasons. We must turn to God through fasting and prayer.
  • Humility – the proud won’t survive the wilderness. Here is why. The proud will overestimate their abilities and end up at a point of no return. They will outrun their supplies (of prayer, fasting and the word) and think they are self-sufficient. You won’t last long if you are foolish (and prideful) enough to think you don’t need any help.

The Bible paints a beautiful picture of life on the other side of the wilderness. It is the promised land of Joshua. It is the new time of Israel dwelling with God like Isaiah pictures in the later part of his book. You have a new appreciation for God, gratitude to him and faith in him at a depth that was never possible if you went straight from Egypt right into Canaan…straight from slavery into milk and honey.

The wilderness is not an enviable place to be but without it, our faith will continue to remain faith that lacks faithfulness.

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