In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we read as follows: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert..." [Mt 4:1]. During this time, while the Lord fasted for forty days and forty nights, the evil one came to Him in order to tempt him time and time again, but Christ remained victorious. At the end of the forty days, Satan departed in defeat, and Christ emerged the winner. Having been tried in the crucible of the desert, the Lord was now ready to begin His public ministry, and it was then that He began to preach.
Whenever I read this particular story in St. Matthew’s Gospel, two things stand out in my mind. First, it was not Satan who led our Lord into the desert; it was the Spirit of God. Second, the Lord did not begin His public ministry until His time in the wilderness had been completed.
What goes for Christ goes for us as well. Whether we want to accept this truth or not, all of us have been appointed by God to spend certain seasons of our lives in that same blistering, lonely wilderness that we might be cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose. To the extent that we respond properly to those seasons in the desert is to the extent the Spirit’s purpose in leading us there will be achieved.
One of my favorite movies is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. In our family, we’ve watched the movie so many times that we practically have the entire script memorized. We all have our favorite parts in this movie - scenes which mean more to us than all the others. My daughter Elizabeth loves the pageantry of Egypt in its former glory. She loves to watch the beautiful Egyptian women, especially when Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses in a drifting basket.
We all love the part when God appears to Moses in the flame of a burning bush and speaks to him in a voice that sounds like thunder. But the part that always brings me to tears is when Moses is driven from the glory of Egypt into the desert. While Moses (Charlton Heston) staggers about the desert in weakness and frailty, desperately trying to survive the harshness of that wilderness, the unmistakable voice of Cecil B. DeMille narrates, while moving music plays in the background. His narration, which never fails to produce chills up and down my spine, is as follows:
"Into the blistering wilderness, the man who walked with kings now walks alone. Torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and earthly wealth, a forsaken man without a country and without a hope, his soul in turmoil. Like the hot winds and raging sands that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip, he is driven forward, always forward, by a God unknown for a land unseen into the molten wilderness, where granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way. Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness. In the mocking whisper of the wind, he hears the echoing voices of the dark. His tortured mind wonders if they call the memory of past triumphs or wail forebodings of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, or shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation. He can neither bless nor curse the Power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose. Until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker’s Hand."
I have watched this movie over and over again all throughout the years, and my response to these words is always the same. Whenever I hear them, I feel the Spirit burn in my heart, I bow my head, and weep before God. It happens every single time.
These words are moving because all of us know what it is to experience the harshness of the wilderness at different seasons in our lives, do we not? Who save stone cannot relate to the above narration?
Any of us who have been walking with Christ for any length of time have found ourselves in this wilderness. While many of us have never found ourselves physically cast into the desert, the Spirit has led us there spiritually at many different times in our lives. Those who have not yet visited this wilderness will certainly find themselves there one day, and those of us who already have been there will certainly find ourselves there again.
Seasons in the desert. Dry times in the life of a believer. Empty times. Lonely times when a friend cannot be found or an encouraging word heard for miles around. Times when nobody seems to understand you and nobody seems to care. Times when homilies do nothing to stir your weary heart and times when you rise from your knees in prayer even more frustrated than when you first dropped to them.
Why does the Almighty cast His children into the wilderness from time to time? What good can possibly come from being beaten into the dust of the desert floor? What is accomplished when we come to the end of our human strength and collapse before Christ in the desert? Much, dearly beloved...much.
The desert is an arid, barren land that is desolate and sparsely occupied. It is land in which very little, if anything, can be cultivated at all. And yet, to the Almighty, a desert is a breeding ground for unbelievable growth in the lives of His children! A breeding ground is a place or set of circumstances suitable for growth and development.
Somehow, when the word ‘desert’ comes to mind, the last thing we think of is growth, development, or a breeding ground. Only God, in His infinite wisdom, is able to take the words ‘desert’ and ‘breeding ground’ - words which are so opposed to one another - and cause them to harmonize so beautifully and supernaturally in the life of a believer.
In the desert, when we have come to the end of our own human strength, God teaches us how to lean on the presence of Christ. He teaches us how to live and serve in that presence. In the desert, we are purged and cleansed of ungodly characteristics and habits which prevent us from becoming more like Christ. It is also in the burning crucible of the desert that we learn how to walk in the power of Christ’s resurrection.
The first time I found myself cast into the wilderness was when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know how to handle it because I’d never been there before. What was going on? How could this be? I was in my early twenties when I really drew close to the Lord and decided to serve Him with all of my heart. When I was a teenager, like most teens today, my mind was focused on other things: clothes, parties, boys, etc. I went to Mass, but my heart was still with the world. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that the Holy Spirit really began to move me to embrace a closer walk with Christ. I began to spend time with God in prayer. For the first time, I began to study His Word on my own.
During those first few years, I enjoyed a ‘honeymoon experience’ in my walk with Christ. I was ‘on fire’ for God and His Kingdom, and woe to any demon who stood in my way! Everything was going great. In those days, nothing could bring me down, and the sky was the limit. There wasn’t anything I didn’t think I could handle for God. I talked to everyone who was willing to listen about Christ. I felt His presence everywhere, and His joy was with me constantly. Life was warm and fuzzy.
And then, several years later, the Spirit led me into the ‘desert.’ I felt confused and disoriented. My mind seemed to be in a fog, and a gray, gloomy cloud seemed to envelope me night and day. Where was God’s presence? Why could I no longer sense His nearness? What did I do? Did He leave me?
Studying the Bible no longer brought me the same joy that it used to bring. In fact, reading it seemed to do nothing for me at all. Prayer was just as excruciating. For the first time, I felt like I was conversing with my ceiling instead of with my God. Where was all of my joy and enthusiasm? Where was my zeal for Christ? Day after day I struggled with the ‘blahs,’ and for the first time, I felt like I was simply going through the religious motions of Christianity. Needless to say, I was quite miserable.
To make matters worse, it seemed like this was the same exact time that everyone appeared to pull out from me. Just when I most needed a phone call, a visit, or an encouraging note in the mail, nothing came my way. What was the matter with everyone? Didn’t anybody care? Couldn’t they see that I had ‘desert experience’ stamped all over my face?
What I didn’t realize at that time was that God was drawing me into the ‘wilderness’ and was purposely keeping these ‘wells’ away from me in order to teach me how to draw from Him, the One, True Well.
You see, the desert is a time between us and God. Through the Spirit of God, Christ Jesus our Lord lures us out into this wilderness that we might draw closer to Him, become more intimate with Him, be instructed by Him, and most of all, be changed by Him.
Friends and fellow believers in Christ cannot enter the desert with us. It is a time between us and our Lord. It is a time for our relationship. It is a time for our love. No one else is invited. What we often perceive as loneliness in the wilderness is the ardent jealousy of a holy God Who desires us all to Himself in that wilderness. He wants us to fall in love with Him all over again. Therefore, He wisely removes our normal support system from us in the wilderness to teach us how to turn to Him, cling to Him, listen to Him, lean on Him, and fall in love with Him, so great is His desire for us.
The Lord Himself spoke affectionately of the wilderness through the prophet Jeremiah, when He uttered the following words to Israel: "I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown." [Jer 2:2].
When speaking to Israel through the prophet Hosea, we see the Lord’s purpose in bringing Israel out into the wilderness once more: "I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [Israel]; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards...There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt." [Hos 2:14-15]. In these verses of Scripture we see that it was the Lord who would lead Israel into the barren wilderness. Once He brought her there, He would speak tenderly to her. It was also in this desert that she would be blessed and spiritually revived.
The wilderness is a time for love - our love and His. It is an intimate time between the Husband and His Bride. It is a time for spiritual revival, if we endure the wilderness His way, and not our own way. When our Husband leads us into that wilderness, we, who have become His Bride, must be willing to follow.
Unfortunately, many of us are so busy and distracted in our daily lives that we find it difficult to focus on the Lord. And because we struggle to focus on the Lord, we aren’t always open to His counsel and specific will for our lives. And so, in utter faithfulness, He brings us out into the desert, where all is quiet and still, that we might turn our full attention on Him, learn from Him, be changed by Him, and listen to Him with an undivided heart. It is this undivided heart that is cultivated in the desert.
In the book of Genesis, we learn that Sarai had an Egyptian handmaiden, whose name was Hagar. Because Sarai was unable to have children, it was agreed that Hagar would lie with Abram so that she could conceive and Abram could have children through her. As soon as she learned that she was pregnant, Hagar began to cop a superior attitude with Sarai, treating Sarai as if she were the servant, and Hagar the mistress. As a result, Sarai began to mistreat Hagar. Like two cats in a sack, these two women hissed, scratched, and clawed at one another night and day.
No longer able to endure the situation, Hagar fled to the wilderness even though she was pregnant at that time. Although she did not realize it at that time, Hagar did not escape to the wilderness on her own initiative; she was led there by God, as we soon shall see. The Lord purposely drew her into the desert in order to show Himself to her and to give her specific instructions regarding her life and the life of the child she would soon bear.
In short, Hagar had an encounter with God that she would not have had if she had remained comfortable, busy, and distracted in the tents of Abram. Perhaps Hagar would not have been open to the word and instruction of the Lord while battling the strife and tension that existed between her and Sarai. Perhaps her present circumstances were distracting her from hearing what God wanted to say regarding the future of her unborn child.
And so, into the desert she went, straight into the arms of God, where she became still and quiet in order to receive counsel and instruction from Him. In the desert, the Angel of the Lord came to her and gave her a message of hope concerning the child that she would soon bear. She was told what to name him. She was told that God would make a great nation out of him one day.
In the desert, Hagar learned to see God in the midst of her circumstances. She learned to see God actively at work in her life. She saw a God Who not only was concerned for her, but Who also had a purpose for her life as well. She saw a God Who was actually willing to take the time to intervene in the affairs which concerned her! She couldn’t see any of these things while dwelling in the tents of Abram; it was in the burning desert where she received this holy education for the very first time in her life.
Before the Lord left her, she said, "You are the God Who sees me. I have now seen the One Who sees me." [Ge 16:13]. Desert experiences will do this for us. They teach us to see the One Who sees us. In the ‘busyness’ of life, we find it difficult to see the Lord. But when He brings us out into the wilderness, where there aren’t any distractions for miles and miles around, we learn for the first time how to see Him.
If you find yourself going through the ‘spiritual blahs’ these days, don’t be discouraged. In all likelihood, the Lord has drawn you into the wilderness, for it is there that He desires to show you His love.
As we conclude the first part of this series, we have learned two things. First, we have learned that it is God Who leads us into the desert. Second, we have learned that He brings us there in order to draw us closer to Him, that we might learn from Him, be changed by Him, and understand His specific will for our lives. In short, He leads us there for the purpose of His tender love.
End Part I
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