With the news that mid-April will see the peak of impact from the virus, it feels like everything is starting to hit a bit harder. People are losing work, and the goalposts continually shift. We don’t know if the news is trending good or bad or somewhere in-between because no one really knows anything. It’s a terrible place to be, and yet it’s paradoxically also the place where the best things begin. How can this be? – It’s because everything is going down right now – employment, income, milk and gas prices, moods and hopes – and when things go down, people usually start to look up.
That’s why so often in the Bible we see God bring His people into the wilderness. In fact, that’s really where the story of fallen humanity begins, as they are driven from a garden and into the wilderness. It’s also a place where many of the stories of the Bible take place. Why? – Ask yourself: when do you feel closest to God? Is it when all your ducks are in a row and life is churning along as you desire? Probably not. God feels closest in hospital-rooms, when we’re oppressed, scared, lonely, and desperate.
That’s why the wilderness is so prevalent in the Bible. It’s where God wrestled with Jacob and Israel was born. It’s where He met Moses to raise up the leader to bring Israel from slavery. It’s where the nation of Israel was brought immediately after slavery and before entering the Promised Land. It’s where David was forced to flee from Saul and then Absalom, penning beloved Psalms. It’s also the place where Jesus was first called when his ministry began, and where he was tempted by the devil.
God operates in the wilderness, because it’s the one place in this world where we get downright desperate. It’s where the words of the Psalmist become our words: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). And, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
The wilderness is the place where the black and white words of Scripture begin to ooze with color, coming to life as we don’t simply feed the mind but the soul. It’s the place where we can’t distract ourselves with the things of this world nor take them for granted. It’s the place where God takes us so that He can get our attention, because it’s the one place we can’t survive without Him. Desperate times produce desperate prayers.
Thus, the wilderness is the place where God is calling us not to suffer for suffering’s sake, but to suffer a distaste for what this world offers in order to drink deeply from the living water that is Christ. After all, Exodus 8:1 tells us that the reason God brought Israel to the wilderness was so that they could go and worship God.
Now, chances are you know that, and truthfully, it’s not very comforting. Humans are resilient creatures, and the phrase we’ve all probably heard more than anything else during this is, “These are unusual times, but we will get through it”. Of course we will, because we don’t have another option.
The problem is not weathering the storm, because we don’t really have a choice: we’re going through this whether we like it or not, and simply having an intellectual knowledge that God’s sovereign hand brought us here does little more than cause us to switch nouns from, “We will get through this” to “God will bring us through this”.
Christian or not, we will get through this, so what in the world is the point? – It’s not to make us stronger people, as though God needed something from us. Rather, it’s to offer us something we desperately need: God.
To see that, let’s visit some of our Biblical heroes as they sit in the heat of the wilderness, and notice the familiar themes. First, being in the wilderness is a sign that we’re not in control. Second, notice the stunning lack of self-congratulatory and positive talk. At no point does any saint in Scripture give himself/herself a Facebook-esque motivational speech that says, “The world has knocked me down, but I’m going to get up and prove how strong I am!”. Finally, take note of the phrase God repeats in desert times.
To keep things short, let’s simply look at three prominent men.
Moses – In Exodus 3, Moses has been hiding in the wilderness after killing a man. He’s suddenly confronted with a bush on fire that will not burn, and the voice of the Lord booms, telling him to return to Egypt to free God’s people. It’s an impossible task, and Moses tries to push it off as he protests his ability. The Lord, however, commands that he go, saying, “But I will be with you” (v.12). The protest turned triumph as through Moses, Israel was brought from slavery through the Red Sea and to the Promised Land. Yet this wouldn’t have happened if God didn’t bring him first into the wilderness.
David – Most of David’s life was a wilderness despite his great victories. However, after his battle with Goliath we read, “And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him” (1 Samuel 16:14). Then, when the Lord makes the unbelievable promise of an everlasting throne for David, He makes abundantly clear that it wasn’t David who accomplished this. Rather, God says, “I have been with you wherever you went” (2 Samuel 7:9).
Jesus – In Matthew 4, when Jesus begins his public ministry, the first thing he does after his baptism is to enter the wilderness. However, we read that it was the Holy Spirit who brought him there (Matthew 4:1), meaning that, as with the others, God was with him. Then, throughout his life, he was clear that the Father was with him always (i.e. John 14).
But Jesus is not like Moses and David. He didn’t need to learn anything in the wilderness. Rather, Jesus is God. He’s prophesied to be the Immanuel - God with us – in Isaiah 7:14. Likewise, look at John 1. We read that the Lord made his dwelling with us (John 1:14). What we see with Jesus is that God has come to dwell with His people, meeting them in the midst of the wilderness, having gone there Himself. We could spend a lifetime looking at that, but instead right now we see something fascinating.
As you know, his whole life leads him to the cross, the darkest time in all history. There, in this critical moment, we expect the breathtaking comforts of God again, that He is with Jesus. Yet we’d be mistaken. Rather, this is the first and only time in all of Scripture where God’s beloved is not met with the comfort that He will be with Him. Instead, Jesus cries out the opposite: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
It’s heart-wrenching, as the Lord has proven throughout all history that He is with His beloved. Think of it again: standing on the edge of war, Joshua was comforted when the Almighty declared, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). For Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, God meets them in the flames (Daniel 3). For Jeremiah the prophet, when the Lord calls him, He says, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you…” (Jeremiah 1:8).
Again, the Lord’s comforting promise is not deliverance from troubles, but deliverance in them. Yet on the cross, the perfect Son of God cried out and was met with silence. For the first time ever, the Almighty Lord of Love did not meet His chosen in the wilderness. Why not?
The reason is because Jesus hung on the cross in order to fulfill that great exchange: our evil for his righteousness; our death for his life. He suffered, bled, and died in order to take the punishment due for us. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
You see, the Lord shouldn’t be with sinners like us, but stretching from before time existed to after eternity’s begun, the Lord is with all those forgiven by the blood of Jesus. He was abandoned so that we never would be. He was hated so we would be loved.
It’s because of Jesus that the promises of Scripture ring true for us, that, “…it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
It is a promise that is intertwined into the very heart of Scripture. Listen to these verses:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3 – notice that it’s when we go through these times, not if).
Even in the beloved Psalm 23, David does not say, “Because of you, I will avoid the valley of the shadow of death”. Rather, he knows full well that the Lord operates in the wilderness, and so he writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Our beloved Savior even promised, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
And how does Scripture close? – Its final verse proclaims, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).
In times like these, the Lord is calling us into the wilderness to remind us that He never leaves or forsakes. Being a Christian doesn’t mean we escape difficulties, nor does it mean that we suffer less. That’s why relying in the hope that this too shall pass misses the entire point. Of course we’ll get through this; it must end at some point. But our hope does not rest in God bringing us out of the wilderness; it’s found in the fact that He meets us right in the center of it. There, He promises that He never leaves, never forsakes, never abandons, and never hates, and as He brings us out and into lush valleys, we emerge more faithful, more joyful, more content, and more peaceful.
So, if you’re frightened, remember that Jesus heard the Father’s silence so that you will only ever know His voice. He’s calling you away from trust in this world to rest in Him. In the words of Job’s friend, “He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food” (Job 36:16).
That choice food, that comfort, that spacious place is not found in this world; it is all found in Jesus. Take comfort not in knowing that the wilderness will pass, but that God will meet you in it. The pain is real, but the outcome is invaluable. He says, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
If you have been wounded, it’s because God is preparing to heal you. So trust in Jesus and take heart; you are not alone. He is with you.
My name is Bryan Lanting. I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, and I am presently serving Mt View CRC as their pastor. I am married to a wonderful wife named Sydney, and both of us are loving life, loving Lynden, and loving the Lord!