Very few people really love to be in the desert – after all, it’s hot, dry, and exhausting. But did you ever consider that the desert is necessary?
Scripture is full of stories of people who went – or were sent – into the desert. The desert was either the making or the breaking of God’s people. Let’s look at some of the people who thrived from their desert experiences.
Old Testament prophet Elijah, after single-handedly defeating four hundred fifty prophets of Baal, ran a full day’s journey into the desert wilderness to escape the wicked queen Jezebel of Israel. This mighty prophet was ready to give up and “prayed that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah’s “desert” was not merely physical – it was a symbol of his deep spiritual weariness: ‘“It is enough! Now take my life, Lord”’ (1 Kings 19:4). But the Lord strengthened him with food, and by the Lord’s sustaining power Elijah journeyed forty more days into the wilderness to Mount Horeb, where he heard the still, small voice of the Lord.
John the Baptist spent most of his life in the desert: “So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). It was in the desert – the wilderness – that the word of the Lord came to John. This was given John could go forth into Israel to call for a baptism of repentance in preparation for the soon-coming Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah about John’s life and destiny (Luke 3:2-6).
Another major figure who spent time in the desert was Jesus. He was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested for forty days. Three times Satan came to tempt Jesus to sin, and all three times Jesus rebuked him with Scripture. When Jesus’ time in the desert was complete, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of him went through all the surrounding region” (Luke 4:14).
When we usually relate deserts to weariness, but the desert can become a place of strength. Either your desert will refine you, or it will define you. For Jesus and John, the desert was a place of refinement. (That is, after all, what heat does when properly applied!) Elijah nearly let his desert define him; his weariness was so great that he longed for death. God, however, had other plans for his faithful prophet and renewed his strength, giving him a message of hope for the remnant who had remained true to the Lord. When Elijah chose to walk in God’s strength, he allowed his desert to refine him.
Scripture also gives us a sobering example of a people who let their desert define them: the Israelites. They refused to see the good in anything that God was doing; they felt the heat and saw themselves as deceived victims. After all, God had promised them abundance and blessing, a land flowing with milk and honey, so why should they waste time in the desert? However, the fact that they fell so quickly into complaining, self-pity, and faithlessness displayed that they weren’t ready for the good things God had prepared for them. That was why they were in the desert: they simply weren’t ready, so God sent them into the desert to prepare them. Unfortunately, because of their hardness of heart and unwillingness to let God refine them, the old generation had to perish in the desert and a new generation raised up to inherit all God’s promises. The problem with the old generation of Israelites was that they forgot that the desert is never the destination.
Here are a few key points we can learn from the desert days of God’s people. God never leaves His people in the desert places, but sometimes He places us there – or we place ourselves there by our choices – so that He can refine us. Notice with the examples of Elijah, John, and Jesus that each one came away from his desert experience. The desert was only for a season.
They also each received words from the Lord and empowerment from the Holy Spirit. John’s ministry was born out of his time in the desert. Jesus’ ministry also came after His forty days of testing in the desert. When you are in a desert, there is only emptiness, so you are much more able to hear the Lord’s still, small voice. Listening is a skill that usually must be learned in the desert, and listening is necessary for relationship. We often surround ourselves with so many other things and so many other voices that we don’t take the time to listen for the one Voice that really matters. If you let your desert days refine you instead of letting them define you, you will walk away with a deeper connection to the working of the Holy Spirit and the ability to carry the silence of the desert so that you are always listening to the God-whispers.
It is so easy to let your desert define you. As humans, we have emotions that are not always within our control. Sometimes our emotions make us apathetic to what God wants to do in us. We don’t feel God’s love, and we don’t feel like we are in love with Him. We faithfully continue our journeys, and we don’t feel His presence, His closeness. We don’t feel happy – and shouldn’t we feel happy? Isn’t that what God wants for us – to be happy all the time? The truth is that God gives us a joy rooted in Him that can never be shaken if we choose to accept it, but we aren’t always going to feel those nice things. We won’t always have warm, fuzzy feelings that make our life a bed of roses with a side of peaches and cream. And that’s perfectly fine. But the truth is that God is always with us, always speaking, and always good, so we should be always seeking to draw closer to Him, no matter what our feelings are telling us. We don’t like the desert places, but recognizing that we go through them is a major step toward allowing God to refine us in those times.
In the desert you can flourish like a desert rose. Or you can live like a tumbleweed, dead and dry as you roll heedlessly over the hot sand, being shifted by every scorching wind. What will your desert days do for you?