A GPS for the spiritual wilderness

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to 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 fathers 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” (Deut 8:2-3).

In the wilderness the Lord humbles you. Some of us—and I include myself as having imagined this—have a perverse way of turning the goodness of God inside out and upside down so that we think this means applying a blunt instrument to our pride, self-image and confidence. As if we need to be torn down before we could be built up again. But there is a difference between humbled and humiliated.

Humility/pride really have more to do with dependence upon God/independence from God. In the wilderness we sometimes find the way isn’t easy, but it’s intended to foster in us the sober realization that apart from Him we can do nothing.

Until we understand this, we will never be able to grasp the counterintuitive qualities of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed (e.g., “Blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek”). The kingdom of heaven belongs to “the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3-5). God is opposed to the proud.

The Lord always goes before you. If you remain in step with the Lord, you will be led along paths that do not overwhelm you or try you beyond your strength.

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’” (Ex 13:17).

The testing you experience in the wilderness is not the “new normal”; testing is the means to an end, not the end itself. Many years ago, when I lived in another state, I built and installed cabinets, bookshelves, entertainment centers, etc. At the time, so-called “European hardware” was being adopted by American manufacturers and craftsmen. (The kitchen cabinet “cup hinge” is one example.)

Because this was a new product to me, I flipped through a color brochure that a salesman gave me. There was a photo of a series of robotic arms each clamped to the edge of mounted cabinet doors. Their purpose was to open and shut the door over and over and over, obviously many more times in a day than any homeowner.

The reason for this? It tested the durability and performance of the design. No matter how much foresight went into the materials and construction, the only way to know if there were flaws that would cause it to fail was to open and shut doors endlessly. Better, and much less costly, to find the flaws in the design before they hit the market.

In spiritual terms, testing is to train and equip us for the kingdom life that is our inheritance. Better that we should learn our weaknesses and limitations in the wilderness rather than in real-time ministry.

And remember, it is not to disqualify us. The Lord is our Redeemer, and his intention is to redeem us from where we fall short. But only testing can reveal that.

While we cross the wilderness, we need the pillars of cloud and fire. But when we enter the Promised Land, they disappear. The difficulty we have with the will of God is not finding out what it is, but whether we are willing to do it (“test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands”).

The pillars were clear, obvious guides for the people of God. How did they know where to go or what they would find there? Egypt was all they knew. But when you are traversing strange, unfamiliar territory—essentially what the wilderness is—you need clear, unmistakable guidance and repeated assurance you are going the right way.

There is nothing “mystical” about this at all, despite the caricatures that people believe about being led by the Spirit. In a sense, it is no different from learning anything new, say, new software at work, or a new skill you acquire to enhance your productivity.

Someone instructs you, you ask a few questions, then start doing it. Initially, you’re a bit tentative and you find yourself looking to your instructor or mentor for affirmation you are “getting it.” After you’ve managed it a few times with someone looking over your shoulder, you can start doing it alone. Once you’ve reached that stage, your proficiency depends on repeated practice. After awhile, it’s so routine you hardly have to think about it, you just do it.

In a nutshell, the pillar of cloud/fire was the external guidance the people of God needed until they internalized their understanding of the ways of God. Or, to put it another way, it became second nature to them (i.e., “transformed by the renewing of their minds,” in Paul’s words).

The Lord will confound our understanding in order to get us to the next level in faith. It’s likely it didn’t take long for the people of God to wonder how they would survive in this inhospitable wilderness. What would they drink? What could they eat?

What’s interesting about the manna they ate was not just its mysterious composition or the precise way in which it was gathered, but the name they gave it. Manna means “What is it?” (As Moses wrote, it was something “neither you nor your fathers had known.”)

There are simply times when the questions of what or how the Lord will do something must be subordinated to remembering Who we follow. When the Lord punctuates something he announces with, “I am the Lord your God,” he is reminding us that his identity is our sufficiency.

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