“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom 12:2)
Often when believers discuss being “in the wilderness,” their emphasis is on the unpleasantness of the experience. This can overshadow the purpose of the experience: to transform them and make them productive members of the kingdom.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
Several times in my life as a believer I have experienced a kind of déjà vu when I found myself facing circumstances a second time that previously frustrated, disappointed or discouraged me. Only later, after “a wilderness experience,” I could take them in stride and serenely keep moving forward without undue care. The wilderness produced something in me.
The exodus from Egypt was a unique historical and formative event in the annals of the people of God. But, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “these things occurred as examples to keep us [i.e., the church] from setting our hearts on evil things as they [i.e., the Israelites] did” (1 Cor 10:6).
So, what do we need to know about the wilderness?
The Spirit leads each one of us into it. It is not optional.
The wilderness is not the result of “missing God” or drifting away from the faith despite its frequently remembered negative features. Jesus said, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (Jn 16:13). That guidance begins with deliverance from slavery (Egypt) and culminates in taking and living in the kingdom (Canaan), which is our inheritance. In between, and needing to be crossed, is the wilderness.
There is some difference of opinion, reflected in different translations, about the phrase sent into the wilderness (Mk 1:12; drove KJV, ESV; forced AMP; impelled NASB) describing what happened to Jesus immediately following his baptism by John and recorded in part as a pattern for us. With respect, I think this is a distinction without a real difference.
The notion of sending or guiding someone, both done by the Holy Spirit, by definition implies a superior and inferior party. Whether you are being guided through a museum, up a mountain or listening to your GPS, your guide knows more about where you’re going and why than you do. The guide guides, you follow.
(Of course, in an absolute sense, no one has to be guided by anyone or anything else, and there are plenty of examples of ignored guidance in biblical and church history. But if you want to be guided “into all truth” you will need a guide.)
The wilderness may immediately follow some “mountaintop” experience with God.
After his baptism, the Spirit “at once” drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mk 1:12). This ought to encourage rather than discourage us, as the Father’s blessing of the Son immediately precedes this.
As God calls individuals and sets them apart for specific work, or they begin to experience something new and significant in their lives (a major move, a new job or church, marriage, starting a family) the peace and joy they experience is exhilarating and exciting. They feel on top of the world.
When this wears off and opposition, letdowns, the broken promises of others or events we didn’t anticipate become our lot, this does not signal a change in God’s will, promises or blessing. “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
Of course, this verse will be aspirational before it becomes reality in our lives. But that’s just the point. Continuing to believe and obey is what God is after:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you . . . to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands . . . to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:2-3).
When Joseph received two dreams predicting prominence among his brothers, like many 17-year-olds would, he couldn’t help but tell others. Of course, he was naive to think his brothers would rejoice at the news and oblivious to the fact that telling them was pouring gas on the flames of their jealousy and hatred.
Right after this exhilarating revelation from God, his brothers took matters into their own hands and sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph’s “humbling” lasted for many years, and no doubt there were many times when the memory of those dreams seemed to him a cruel, tantalizing deception. Or he may have simply tried to forget those moments as too painful because of the contrast with events since then.
But in the end his dreams proved to be true. And in the years between his dreams and their realization, Joseph had been transformed by the renewing of his mind. “You intended to harm me,” Joseph told his amazed and apprehensive brothers, “but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).
He became the greatest, but his definition of greatness was changed in the wilderness: “Whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all” (Mk 10:44).
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