God’s Gift of Wilderness
So many people have “wilderness experiences” after family and friends return home from the holidays. Just in case you are feeling alone today…
“The child (John the Baptist) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” Luke 1:80
Throughout the stories in scripture, God provides “wilderness experiences” for those God loves. Wilderness time usually occurs because God wants the person’s attention for some reason. In the scripture above, John the Baptist is given wilderness time so he could become strong in spirit before taking on the task of preparing the way for Jesus.
But John the Baptist’s family was not new to wilderness “time outs.” Years earlier, his dad, Zechariah, had doubted an angel’s message that his way-too-old wife was pregnant with John. So God provided Zechariah with a “time out” by taking away his ability to speak. Nine months later, after John the Baptist’s birth, God not only restored Zechariah’s ability to speak, but he gave him a new gift: prophetic words to speak to the people of God. God used this silent time in Zechariah’s life to both let him consider the consequences of his doubt (does the world really need a doubting priest?), but also to prepare him to prophesy a very important message to the world. God uses this “time out” to reshape Zechariah’s faith and to enlarge Zechariah’s ministry. In Zechariah’s case, it was because he had doubted and God wanted to change that behavior, but many times it has nothing to do with a failure of some sort. It has to do with God wanting to provide a space for growth.
I thought it would be interesting to think about other ways that God has used wilderness time in scripture…
- Wilderness Maturing: An idealistic, but immature Moses felt compelled to protect his fellow Hebrews from the Egyptians, but ended up running for his life into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian who was hurting one of his fellow Hebrews (Acts 7:29-30). God kept Moses in the wilderness for forty years while he matured. This was time well spent, because Moses would spend another forty years guiding the spiritually immature Hebrews through the desert. If you are going through a time of wilderness maturing, look for lessons to absorb!
- Wilderness Injustice: Joseph spent a lifetime in slavery and at least two years in prison having done nothing to deserve it (Genesis 39:20-23). He could have developed a terrible faithless attitude toward God, but instead he did a quality job every time a job was required of him – mostly forced on him. If you are going through a time of wilderness injustice, pay attention to your attitude and look for creative ways that God might use you. Joseph eventually became a ruler of Egypt.
- Wilderness Nourishment: King Saul forced David into the wilderness to protect his throne for himself and his son, Prince Jonathan (1 Samuel 23:13-17). Even though Prince Jonathan was the rightful heir to the throne, Jonathan protected David from King Saul and showed him mercy, love, and kindness. Lessons David put to use as King. If you are receiving wilderness nourishment from another person, accept it! And pay attention to how you might mimic their behavior on down the line.
- Wilderness Rejection: Jephthah was rejected by the really awful people in his life (Judges 11:3-6). And was eventually forced to live as an outcast in the wilderness. He experienced wilderness rejection! If you feel unwanted and unloved in the wilderness, it may be that God is using this time to teach you the kind of self-confidence that seeks only God’s acceptance. Learn to get your affirmations from God and God alone. Eventually, God not only sent other outcasts to join Jephthah, but Jephthah learned to lead these outcasts. If you feel unwanted and unloved in the wilderness, it may be that God is using this time to teach you compassion for other outcasts. Eventually Jephthah became the commander of the Hebrew army.
- Wilderness Temptation: The Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2) where he would be tested. Jesus needed the experience of overcoming temptations. If you are going through a time of wilderness temptation, call on God to guide you so that you can overcome temptation!
- Wilderness Isolation: Before Paul committed his life to following Jesus, he murdered Christians (Galatians 1:15-18). Then one day Jesus met up with him. Afterwards, instead of sending Paul into the world immediately to bare witness to his new faith, God sent Paul into the wilderness of Arabia for three years. There is no record of anyone with Paul in the wilderness. During this time the Holy Spirit must have taught him the theology that comprises most of the New Testament, because Paul says that God taught him directly. God isolated Paul so he could be in a tight relationship with God learning new things and unlearning old things. Before we can effectively minister to others, we must be ministered to by God. If you are experiencing wilderness isolation, allow God to minister to you.
Most of us have a hard time going through the wilderness. We are often consumed with finding our way back to “civilization”, but the lessons we learn during our wilderness time can be essential for serving God in the future. Embrace this time expectantly!
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.