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There are times in our lives as Christians when we find ourselves in a spiritually barren desert place. We don’t feel that our lives are bearing much fruit, and everything feels dry.
This may be the result of a temporary or long-term deficiency in our lives. Perhaps we’re unemployed, feeling our lives lack any purpose, we’ve been single for a long period of time, we lack any close friendships, an inability to have children, illness, unanswered prayers to name but a few.
Or it may be a wilderness of our own making through our own sin and withdrawal from God.
Whatever the case, during these times we may feel that God is no longer near. We may question whether he hears our prayers and may even find ourselves no longer thirsting after God.
How do we survive these periods where our lives feel desolate?
The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy provide us with some practical tips for when we go through a wilderness experience. These come from Moses and the Israelites’ own experience of wandering around in the desert for forty years.
They won’t necessarily bring you out of the wilderness any quicker. However, they can help you to maintain some degree of sanity while continuing to trust in God, his goodness and his promises as you’re waiting.
1. Don’t complain or grumble
It’s easy to not feel thankful about anything and to grumble about your circumstances when you can’t see a way out of it.
This is what the Israelites did while in the desert. Consequently, this may have had a detrimental effect on them, although it probably also revealed a lot about the state of their hearts. They ended up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. It should have only been a relatively short journey.
Complaining and constant grumbling about your situation is a sign of a lack of faith.
That said, there is a difference between complaining to God, which can be an act of worship, and complaining about God.
The former is offering to him your situation but still trusting in his goodness and ability to see what is best for you. You needn’t be afraid to bring your lamentations and disappointments to God in heartfelt prayer. He is big enough to handle these. Some of the Psalms are lamentations.
The latter, however, is complaining that God may not want what is best for you.
Exodus 17:1-7 tells us that the Israelites complained to Moses and the plans that God had given him for them. They questioned whether God had brought them out of Egypt to die of thirst.
Verse 7 tells us that Moses named the place Massah and Meribah (meaning testing and quarrelling respectively) because the Israelites quarreled and put God to the test, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
When we complain about God, we are questioning his goodness. This not only demonstrates a lack of faith, but can actually erode your faith via your words.
You can end up speaking out negative words and pronouncements over yourself or about God.
Proverbs 18:21 tells us that
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
When you begin to say phrases like “I hate my life” or “I’ll never be out of this desert”, that colours your own perspective on everything. Soon your words become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You begin to hate every aspect of your life and find that in every aspect you are failing.
Similarly, complaining about God and making pronouncements about him such as “You never bless me – you always bless someone else” can erode our own relationship with God and our sense of trust in him.
Complaining also rewires your brain so that you actually end up feeling worse as you internalise these words. It can become a habit which fills your minds with toxic thoughts.
We begin to no longer see or trust in God’s goodness but can start to see him as a cosmic killjoy. This is precisely what the enemy wants. This also prevents us from receiving his grace and working in our lives.
2. Be thankful and worship God
This is the opposite of the above. When we speak out or make positive affirmations about God, even if we don’t fully believe them at the time we are saying them, we can begin to revitalise our faith in him.
In Exodus 15, Moses and Israelites sing a song of thanksgiving after having been delivered from the Egyptians known as the Song of Moses. This is followed by song by Miriam, Aaron’s sister. The song takes place before the Israelites are about to enter the wilderness.
Later on in Deuteronomy 31:19-21, God tells Moses to write down a song, which is also known as the Song of Moses. This is towards the end of their wilderness experience. It would be easy for the Israelites to forget what God had done for them and to go back to their former ways. Therefore, this is a song of praise and thanksgiving chronicling God’s mighty deeds in leading the Israelites out of captivity and through the desert. It tells of his faithfulness and provision through all the hardship and times of testing.
“Now write down this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them. When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do,even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.
In Deuteronomy 32: 46-47, Moses adds:
“Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
It is significant that there are songs book-ending the whole desert experience. This highlights the importance of worshipping God.
When we are in the desert, we also need to sing of God’s deeds. We need to give thanksgiving and praise. These are not just idle words – they are our life. Speaking or singing these words out loud has a powerful effect on us and our situation.
Darlene Zschech says in her book Worship Changes Everything:
“David tells us that God’s Word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. Nowhere and at no time is that more important than the rocky, rugged, tangled terrain of the wilderness. We need illumination to keep us from tumbling down a ravine; we need a bright light to ward off wild animals that would attack us in the dark; we need a map to keep us from wandering in circles like the Israelites after leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. By speaking God’s words in the wilderness we find deliverance.”
“In the wilderness, it is a discipline to keep from continuously talking about the problem. But if we do, we keep wandering in circles long after we should have stepped into victory. Even if the feelings aren’t there, we can still acknowledge God’s presence with praise and thanksgiving. By God’s grace, we are still to worship!”
Worshipping in the wilderness might be the last thing we feel like doing. However, when we worship, we are speaking out words in faith. These are called speech acts. These are words or utterances which have an action or consequence. They go beyond simply communicating an exchange of information. When we speak these words, we are actually doing something with them. This changes a situation. I’ve written more about this here.
Habakkuk 3:17-18 says:
“Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”
Worshipping God is related to thanksgiving and aligning our thoughts and words with his. Romans 10:17 tell us that “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” When we speak out words of faith and simultaneously hear ourselves speaking out these words, they reinforce our trust both in God and in his goodness.
3. Keep your eyes fixed on God
When the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, Exodus 13:21-22 tells us that:
“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
Exodus 14:19-20 also says:
” Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.”
The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night acted as a testimony to other nations – specifically Egypt here. It was a demonstration that God was protecting his people and was continually involved in their deliverance.
The pillar of cloud and fire was identified as the angel of the Lord. This can sometimes refer to God’s holy angels who act as his servants to carry out his will on earth. However, in the Old Testament this often referred to God himself. For example, if you compare this with Exodus 3:2-6, it tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses as the burning bush. Then in verse 6, God calls out to Moses from the midst of the bush:
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
When the phrase “the angel of the Lord” is used in association with the pillar of cloud and fire, this refers to the pre-incarnate Christ appearing alongside the Israelites. He is Immanuel – God with us.
Corrie Ten Boom said:
“If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.”
When we take our eyes off God – our pillar of cloud by day and fire by night – we end up being unable to see where we are going. We wander about in the darkness and get lost. We forget that God is nearby and ahead of us, leading us through the desert. This is what the Israelites did at numerous points throughout their journey.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus helps us to trust in him through difficult times.
4. Don’t make the thing you lack into an idol
When our prayers go unanswered and God doesn’t seem to grant the very thing we want, it’s easy to become completely focused on this thing to the point of obsession.
Our desire or need might be perfectly legitimate, like having a job, a relationship or children.
In his book Counterfeit gods, Tim Keller defines an idol as:
“… something we cannot live without… It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
In Exodus 17 or Numbers 11:4-6, the Israelites began to hunger after other kinds of food to the point they were obsessed with it. They were even willing to sacrifice their freedom in order to return to Egypt to eat anything but the manna which God provided for them every day. They allowed their desire for something other than God himself to cloud their judgment and to become all consuming that they couldn’t live without it. In effect, they had made this into an idol.
This culminated in the Israelites asking Aaron in Exodus 32 to fashion them a physical idol. This took the form of a golden calf which they began to worship themselves and to declare that this had brought them out of Egypt.
God is the only one who can meet our deepest need. Don’t allow your identity to be based on the thing you lack.
Tim Keller adds:
“If we look to some created thing to give us the meaning, hope, and happiness that only God himself can give, it will eventually fail to deliver and break our hearts.”
It’s very easy for something that is perfectly legitimate to become the thing that gives our lives meaning or makes us who we are.
We may feel that our work or our relationships define us. However, it is Christ in whom we find our identity.
I’ve written more about avoiding idols in our lives here.
5. Keep drinking of the living water
In the same way that you would need to keep drinking in a physical desert, it’s important to keep yourself spiritually hydrated when you’re going through a wilderness period.
Exodus 17:1-7 describes the incident where the Israelites were in the desert and became thirsty. They began to grumble against Moses, questioning why he brought them out into the desert to die of thirst.
Verses 5-6 recount God’s response:
The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”
1 Corinthians 10:3-4 provides context for us and tells us that this rock was actually Jesus.
“They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”
When we are in the desert, we need to drink. However, it’s important to drink from the right well. This translates to drinking from the living water that Jesus himself provides. There is a very real temptation in times of wilderness to search for and drink from a different well in order to try to quench our thirst. We can seek after many other things with which to fill ourselves.
For example, if we are barren in the area of our relationships, we can try to fill that need for intimacy with other things in the hope that it will satisfy our loneliness or longing. We can also make these other things into idols as seen above.
In John 4:1-41, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to give him a drink. This surprises her, because Jews usually have no interactions with Samaritans. Jesus proceeds to talk about the water of eternal life. When the Samaritan woman asks for this water, Jesus tells her to go and call her husband. She responds that she has no husband. Jesus agrees and says that in fact she has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband.
We can fool ourselves into thinking that these other wells are the ones we are actually thirsty for. That they will quench our thirst if only we could drink from them. But we remain thirsty even after we’ve had a drink, and it does not satisfy. It is the wrong well.
Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4:13-14:
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14
6. Realise you can’t go backwards but can only go forwards
Once the Israelites left Egypt, they began to encounter difficulties in the desert. After a prolonged period of living in a constant wilderness with only manna for food, eventually they began to desire their previous state of slavery.
In Numbers 11:4-6, we read that:
“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.”
This is one of the many places where the Israelites believed they had it better in Egypt where they were before. They began to idealise the standard of living that they had there compared to their present circumstances in the desert. As time passed, they began to have selective memories. Suddenly all they could remember was the fish and all the food they believed they had.
However, this food was not free under Pharoah’s rule. The Israelites had been slaves, and were forced to make bricks without straw. Returning to Egypt was not an option. If they had gone back, they would surely have been slaughtered. Their only choice was to continue to press forward towards the Promised Land and be content with the manna which God had provided for them.
7. Surround yourself with other Christians for support.
It’s very easy during this time for the enemy to use your lack of community to make you feel like you’re the only one going through this and that no-one else understands. You can feel like an outcast and not a useful part of society. This makes you want to shy away from others until such time when you feel you are acceptable or presentable again.
The problem is that this perpetuates a vicious cycle. We can get caught in a downward spiral by remaining isolated which simply accentuates our problem further.
When we isolate ourselves, this is exactly what the devil wants. We are weaker on our own and can fall prey to the enemy’s schemes.
In Exodus 17, the Israelites encountered opposition in the desert in the form of the Amalekites. Joshua led the Israelites into battle while Moses sat on a stone on a nearby hill watching. Whenever Moses held his arms up, the Israelites were winning, whereas when he lowered them, they began losing. Moses employed the assistance of Aaron and Hur. They supported his arms by holding them up so that the Israelites were able to prevail and completely defeat their enemies.
Moses could not do this all alone but needed the help of others around him. Joshua, who was out in the field, and Aaron and Hur who were bearing him up when he couldn’t go on himself.
Ecclesiastes 4:12 says
“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
When we have others to help us, we are not as easily broken or overpowered.
It’s also important to find other mature Christians who will understand you. They may have even endured similar wilderness periods of their own. Being around the right kinds of people is essential. You don’t want those who have no appreciation of being in a wilderness to make light of your situation or simply say “well, we all have times of difficulty in our lives.”
It is true that everyone does experience hardship at one point or another. However, people who have endured a long-term wilderness of several years or decades will have a different understanding to someone who someone who has only experienced it for a few weeks or months.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
Other Christians who have experienced a similar wilderness period can provide you with the same comfort they received when they went through that experience. They can also help to bear our burdens and have faith for you when you don’t have the faith to go on yourself. Additionally, they can help to provide you with support when you grow weary. They can lift your arms as Aaron and Hur did with Moses.
8. Have hope that God is using the wilderness experience for your good
Although the Israelites may have wandered in the desert for longer than they hoped because of their complaining, the fact is that God led them into the wilderness in the first place. It was somewhere where he intended for them to be.
Exodus 13:17-18 says:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle. (NIV)
God chose not to lead his people directly into the Promised Land after escaping Egypt, even though he could have easily done so. At the time, it was occupied, and the Israelites would not have survived an onslaught from their enemies. They would also have still wanted to return to Egypt if they faced war. They would have lacked a true identity, unsure of whether they were truly God’s people or still slaves of Egypt.
Their identity was still based on many other things rather than finding their identity in God. We’ve seen above how easy it is to turn these things into idols, hoping they will give us the affirmation, assurance or security we seek.
God used the wilderness to forge their identity through hardship and trial and prepare them for when they did finally enter the Promised Land. He may be doing the same thing with you as you go through your own spiritual desert.
In Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Moses also provides us with another reason for going through the wilderness:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
They would not have been fully allied with God. The Israelites needed to be able to check their own hearts and see how fickle they were during these times.
It was not the complaining or grumbling alone that led to the Israelites being in the desert for a longer period of time. Rather, their complaining was the outward sign of the inward state of their hearts. It revealed that they were not yet fully acquainted or allied with God. They were still looking behind to where they had been before. Until their hearts were right, God would continue to use the wilderness experience to refine them and make them into the people he desired them to be.
The Israelites needed to realise that they would follow God wherever he led them and would keep his commands. They also needed to see God’s provision and to trust in him completely. It was God who brought them out of slavery and not anything they did on their own merits.
Finally, they needed to live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from God. This is a truth that Jesus recognised when he was in the wilderness himself and tempted by the devil.
Your own wilderness experience may not be pleasant, and these survival tips may not necessarily make the journey any quicker for you. However, know that God has not forgotten you and is working in your life. He is using the experience for your good and to work out his purposes in you.He wants you to find your identity in him alone and to make you the person you were meant to be.
What survival tips do you have for getting through a wilderness period? Leave your comments in the section below. Also, please share if you found this article useful.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.