So many Christians I meet today, whether in person, on social networks, or through emails, tell me that they are living in a spiritual wilderness. They feel alone, spiritually isolated, and they don’t have too many Christian friends that they are experiencing a rich and full fellowship in Christ with.
Some of them attend a church on Sunday morning, yet still, they are living in the desert and they know it.
Some have given up on the traditional form of church altogether. And they are in serious pursuit of an expression of church that provides authentic community centered on Jesus Christ. But they cannot find such an expression in their city.
All of these people love the Lord and they love the Body of Christ, but they feel quite alone. And spiritually, they are dry and empty.
In short, they are experiencing the wilderness.
Looking back at the Old Testament pictures, Canaan was God’s goal for His people. Jerusalem was there, and that’s where God’s house was to be built.
However, God’s people had to pass through the wilderness to travel from Egypt to Canaan. They also had to traverse the wilderness to travel from Babylon to Canaan. The wilderness, then, is a divine requirement. But it’s a detour; it’s not home. How long you spend there is mostly your decision.
Let me unravel that a bit.
After the children of Israel exited the treasured city of Egypt, they quickly traveled to Mount Horeb. They then wandered in the desert for forty long years. Why? Because of their unbelief (Heb. 3:15-19; 4:1-11).
The trip should have only lasted eleven days (Deut. 1:2).
The wilderness is temporary, unless you choose to build a home there. God will eventually make a way out of the wilderness. But when that day comes, your faith will be tried. Leaving the wilderness may come at an obscenely high price. It is for this reason that many do not leave it.
I strongly believe that God’s living quarters cannot be built in the wilderness. All that happens in the wilderness is temporary. God’s goal is the Land of Promise. (I am speaking spiritually … Egypt, Babylon, the Wilderness, and Canaan are all shadows that point to spiritual realities for the Christian.)
Granted, the tabernacle of Moses was built in the wilderness. But it was a movable tent. It was highly temporal, and it was headed toward Canaan to find permanent rest.
I would now like to make several observations about the wilderness. If you happen to be living there right now, I hope this article will be of help to you.
First, God will always take care of His people in the wilderness.
He will supply them with Christ, even though it’s not their natural habitat. However, the Christ that is given to you in the wilderness is not adequate to meet all your spiritual needs. Let me explain.
When God’s people dwelt in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, God gave them water from a rock and bread from heaven. The bread was called “manna.” It was a picture of Jesus Christ, our spiritual food (John 6:31-35, 49-51; 1 Cor. 10:1-4).
However, it didn’t take Israel long to grow weary of the manna. In the same way, you and I will eventually grow tired of the Lord that is given to us in the wilderness. And like Israel, we will be tempted to murmur against him.
There is only one kind of food given in the wilderness. And it’s not sufficient for the long haul. The manna is designed to get you and me through the wilderness experience. But we cannot live off of it beyond that point.
By contrast, in Canaan, the fullness and the superabundance of the land are fully available to us. When we are living on the building site, the produce of the rich and good land becomes ours to enjoy. And that produce is inexhaustible.
Second, if you remain in the wilderness, you will eventually die.
Leaving the counterfeit habitats of Egypt and Babylon is not enough. If you don’t exit the wilderness, your bones will bleach in the desert.
God always brings His people out so that He might bring them in.
You can chisel that in stone.
He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers. (Deut. 6:23 nasb)
Third, the wilderness has but one goal: to sift us, to reduce us, and to strip us down to Christ alone.
Those of us who have left Egypt and Babylon need to be emptied of a great deal of religious baggage. The wilderness experience is designed to do just that. It’s the place of religious detox.
Consider John the Baptist. He preached in the wilderness. Those who wished to hear his message had to go out into the desert to hear him. During John’s day, God was through with Judaism. He was finished with the old wineskin. The Lord raised up John the Baptist to call the people out of Judaism, the organized religion of the day.
Those who followed John in the wilderness were being stripped of everything that the old Judaism had to offer. They were dropping the religiosity of that system and coming up to ground zero. From where did Jesus Christ get His disciples? Most of them were followers of John the Baptist.
Therefore, they had a wilderness experience that brought them to ground zero. That experience brought them to a “nothing situation.” Compared to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, they were clean slates for the Lord Jesus to write upon. They were empty wineskins for the Lord to pour His new wine into. John the Baptist stripped them of the old, and Jesus gave them the new.
Please burn this into your mind: We cannot receive the new until we first let go of the old. Old wineskins don’t patch well. For this reason, God has never been in the business of pouring new wine into old wineskins (Matt. 9:16-17).
In addition to the Twelve, Paul of Tarsus also had a wilderness experience that brought him all the way up to zero. In fact, Paul had to climb a long way up just to get to the bottom.
Shortly after Paul’s conversion from being a racist, sectarian, self-righteous, bigoted, highly religious Pharisee to a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, God led him to an Arabian desert for three years (Gal. 1:17-18). What was he doing there? Detoxing.
Undoubtedly, he was allowing years of human religiosity to drain out of his veins. Everything that Paul knew as a zealous Pharisee bled out of him in the desert. Paul was beyond being reformed. He had to have a spiritual lobotomy. And that’s what the wilderness is for.
In that wilderness experience, God came to Paul in a way that he had never before known. He came to him in “the face of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12; 2 Cor. 4:6). Although Paul was given his gospel by divine revelation in the wilderness, that revelation was limited. It took five years of living in the right habitat, in an ekklesia in Antioch, Syria, for him to learn the fullness of Christ.
So Paul got unplugged in the wilderness. He was sovereignly stripped to ground zero. This experience was necessary for Paul’s apostolic ministry. Because in order for him to be a dispenser of the new wine, he had to be drained of the old.
Fourth, the wilderness is a symbol of new beginnings.
After their forty-year stay in the wilderness, Joshua led the people of God across the Jordan into the Promised Land. In Hosea’s day, God led Israel through the wilderness to woo the nation back to Himself (Hos. 2:14). After Israel had been in exile in Babylon, the prophets spoke of preparing a pathway in the wilderness so that God’s people could return home.
John the Baptist marked a new beginning for Israel by introducing God’s people to their long-awaited Messiah in the wilderness. And Paul of Tarsus began his apostolic ministry only after he spent time in an Arabian wilderness.
Leaving the wilderness always involves a cost.
We have a biological drive for God’s house. We have a spiritual taste for it. We have a longing, a biological instinct, if you will, driving us to our destiny. And we will never be satisfied until we make the decision, no matter what the cost, to be part of God’s building work.
That cost may involve the loss of friends. It may mean harassment or shunning from religious leaders. It may mean vicious and ugly rumors, slander, and gossip. It may mean walking in the steps of Abraham, who left all and headed for a city that he could not see.
It may involve selling our comfortable home and leaving our present job to relocate to another city where there are living stones who are being assembled to form God’s house. (I’ve moved in the past for this. And many of my friends have as well.)
It may involve gross misunderstanding, criticism, and perhaps thornier problems like persecution.
Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Heb. 13:13-14)
What is the high calling of God for you and for me? It’s to give ourselves to God’s ageless purpose, to let Him build us together with others in the way that He has always wanted. For what reason? So that He might have His house upon this earth. The words of Ezra are apt: Let the house be built! (Ezra 6:3).
I sincerely hope that this will be true in your own life.
If you are living in the wilderness right now, God will provide a way out. But it will involve a price. The question before the house is, are you willing to pay it?
This blog post is an excerpt from the book, From Eternity to Here. The book contains an entire section that discusses the four habitats of the Christian: Egypt, Babylon, the wilderness, and Jerusalem. To connect with others who are also on the deeper journey, check out The Deeper Christian Life Network.