And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness… (Exodus 16:2)
The people of God have been wandering through the wilderness since the moment of original sin. Since Adam and Eve were cast out of man’s intended home (Eden), we’ve been looking and longing to make our way back home to God.
In 21st century America, our wilderness is likely to be more spiritual than physical (though if you find yourself in a physical wilderness today, take heart—the Bible has plenty of examples to carry you through this particular trial). And after the year we’ve had, there’s no doubt many of us find ourselves in this kind of spiritual space: disoriented, uncomfortable, crying out to God for relief, homesick for familiar comforts and faces. Perhaps you, like Israel in the wilderness, are grumbling against God for the sustenance you once enjoyed freely, even if it had been in the context of oppression.
In God’s faithfulness, he’s given us ample examples of how to make it through the wilderness while remaining faithful to the gospel, and hope for what lies on the other side. We’ll be spending the next four days analyzing this season, asking God to meet us in the thick of it, and strengthening our hope muscles to remember what the Faithful One has promised.
Read First: Psalm 78
Our spiritual longing for home can take on any number of forms, but two are notable: spiritual exile and the wilderness. Both exile and wilderness impose suffering upon individual Christians and Christians as a whole. This is true of the saints of old and it is true for us today. The two are intertwined, and thus easily confused for one another. But in light of the New Covenant, there are some important distinctions that may change the way we understand this current season of wandering. Let’s begin by defining some terms.
Exile is the condition of being cast out from one’s own country. It is marked by punishment, wandering, alienation and homesickness, and is quite often intensified by political oppression and danger. The history of God’s people is marked by multiple seasons of exile, the most tragic being the Babylonian exile of Israel in 586 B.C. (Jeremiah 52).
The political exile of the Old Testament is horrific in itself, but it goes deeper. Israel’s times of wandering are also physical representations of a far more dire exile: spiritual exile from God because of sin. This is the ultimate exile: the souls of man separated from their true and eternal home, God’s own presence, left to wander in the desert, longing for rest.
But God, in his great mercy, made a way out of spiritual exile through his Son, Jesus Christ (more on him tomorrow). And while physical exile can still be experienced today (through relational, communal, religions and/or political means [e.g., refugees]), those of us who are “in Christ” will never experience spiritual exile. That is, we will never be cast out from God’s presence, which is, by grace, our home. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, our souls have found their home in God once and for all—we are no longer exiles, but sons.
But there remains a deep, throbbing sense of vulnerability, homesickness, suffering, and longing in our souls. So what do we call this, if not exile? It is the second condition of God’s people, and we call it the wilderness.
As it’s portrayed in the Scriptures, the wilderness is a space void of temporal luxury, pleasure, comfort, and ease, with the express purpose of drawing full attention and affection to God.
In many ways, the wilderness is similar to the experience of exile: there’s an unwillingness to be there and subsequent yearning for something to change. There may be profound suffering involved, even danger and fear. But there is one unmistakeable difference between spiritual exile and wilderness: God’s presence. In the wilderness, God’s presence remains—he may be quiet (giving the illusion of being far off), but he has promised to never leave nor forsake his people. Thus, God is ever present with his people as they wander in the wilderness.
Perhaps you’ve accused God of forsaking you in this season, shaken your fist or crumbled in grief believing he’s cast you out. By grace, you are wrong. You may very well be in the wilderness, but you are not an exile from God’s Kingdom. God abandoned Christ on the cross that we’d always be able to find him, even here, even today.
Tomorrow, we’ll study the wilderness through Christ’s own time there. But today, let’s reflect on the season in which we find ourselves. Consider the following questions (based on Psalm 63) in prayer:
What is your view of God in this season?
How would you define your current experience of his character?
Based on the Scriptures, what is true about God’s character despite your current circumstance?
Lay out your longings before God. In what ways is your soul thirsting for God? How is your flesh handling this season? What are the effects of your longing?
Read First: Matthew 3:13-4:25
The sharpest example we have of the complex, harrowing, winding beauty of spiritual wilderness is Christ himself. In Matthew 3-4, we learn that directly after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness. The 40-day season that follows is not marked by weakness or complaint, but by deep spiritual strength and renewal.
Let’s begin by considering how Jesus ended up in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1, we learn that the Spirit—that is, the Holy Spirit, that is, God himself—led Jesus into the wilderness. Remember, the Spirit of God leads God’s people where God wants them. For Jesus, this meant heading into the wilderness directly after his baptism. During this baptism, God audibly claims Jesus as his Son and speaks a blessing over his forthcoming ministry. This blessing is to be Christ’s only sustenance for the next 40 days. From this brief introduction we learn that the wilderness is not a place for those with whom God is displeased.
Once Christ enters the wilderness we learn God’s purpose for bringing Jesus there: to allow Jesus to be tempted. Some translations use the word “tested.” What’s being tested here is Christ’s faithfulness to God’s will and word. And what we see is Jesus’ perfect, redemptive obedience that 1) stretches back to Israel’s disobedience in the wilderness (and even further back to the disobedience in Eden), and 2) stretches forward to cover the disobedience of my wilderness and yours.
Temptation to sin (that is, the temptation to believe the devil’s lies regarding God’s character, provision, and power) is a distinguishing mark of the wilderness: if you’re being tempted to sin, don’t be alarmed—Jesus has been here before and is compassionate to walk with us through our own testing. Let’s consider the three primary temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.
In Matthew 4:3, the Devil says “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Note the first line of doubt sowed by the enemy of God: Christ’s identity (“If you are the Son of God...”). Remember what God spoke over Jesus at his baptism: “This IS my Son.” It’s much easier to disobey God when we forget who he called us to be: his children.
The test that follows this sneaky evil is a fleshly one: trusting God’s provision. You’ll recall that Jesus is quite literally starving after fasting (that is, not eating) for 40 days. The devil wrongly thinks that fasting’s primary outcome is physical hunger rather than spiritual strength and invites Jesus to turn stones into bread to fill his grumbling belly. Jesus righteously resists, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 to say “God’s Word is more nourishing to me than food could ever be. It is there that I’ve put my trust.”
Next, the devil uses the same introductory identity-blow to present a test of Jesus’ trust in God’s protection. Note the devil’s change of strategy: he now uses Scripture to support his argument. But Christ, the incarnate Word, knows better. “I will not test God’s protection,” he says, “it’s been promised and that’s enough.”
Third, the devil dangles the carrot of glory before Jesus if he bows down and worships him instead of God. This is the final straw. The devil has shot straight to the heart of the way of God’s people: exclusive worship of the one true God. Bowing to worship anyone but God, much less his enemy, is direct disobedience of God’s first and second commandments. Jesus has had enough and banishes the devil, who does, in fact, flee. And immediately, we see God’s angels ministering to Jesus, affirming his sonship and God’s promises and provision. God’s hand cannot be forced, but it will come as it has been promised. Is that enough for us?
From the wilderness, Jesus returns prepared for ministry, armed with spiritual strength to endure even the fiercest earthly temptations. But even more, his faith in God has been strengthened to the point that even when God does turn his back on his beloved Son, the full exile of Calvary, Jesus will remain steadfast. Not just for himself, but for you and for me.
As we close for today, consider the following questions:
In Christ, your identity is as secure as his: Child of God with whom he is well pleased. How is your trust in this identity being threatened in your season of wilderness?
Based on your answer above, what specific temptations can you determine are being laid before you?
What Scripture do you know (or can you look up) that combat those temptations?
How has God been ministering to you in this season?
First Read: Psalm 63
This psalm was written by King David as he wandered through the desert of Judah. One commentator wrote, “As the sweetest of Paul's epistles were those that bore date out of a prison, so some of the sweetest of David's psalms were those that were penned, as this was, in a wilderness.” There seems to be a spiritual quality of the wilderness, void of life’s clanging distractions and pleasures. In its silence and solitude, the people of God are drawn to behold God for who he is, not who we want him to be or what we want him to do, but God in his beauty and holiness. And it is beholding God purely that often draws God’s people into holy creativity. Psalm 63 was penned in this way.
David begins by submitting to the authority of God, acknowledging who God is (“O, God”) before laying claim to him (“are my God”). David’s search for God in the wilderness is “earnest,” but that doesn’t mean he sugarcoats his complaint. He is longing for deliverance, begging for hope of spirit and body. But this intense longing quickens King David toward God in worshipful prayer, not away in contempt. I wonder if we can say the same thing about our own intimacy with God in times of distress. Take a moment to consider your history. When the going gets rough, how do you respond to God?
When we experience seasons of wilderness, we’ll likely be tempted to soothe ourselves with lesser loves: more work, self-indulgence, food, alcohol, escapism in any number of forms. But notice David’s response to pangs of longing: So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. In beholding God’s character and power, King David’s tone changes from spilling out complaint to one of resolute faith in God’s promises and character:
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
Our joy is restored when we behold God for who he is, when we remember what he’s done and what he’s promised. Our hope is not safe in circumstances bending to our will. Our hope is safe only in God himself. And that is very good news!
So how do we “behold” God? That is different for each of us. Consider the things that stir your affections for God. Then make time to immerse yourself in that today, opening yourself to joyful worship and audacious hope. From there, use Psalm 63:4-8 as a template, asking God to rouse your soul back into faith in the God who loves you.
How might you “behold” God today? Make a plan and execute it. Note any changes.
Read: Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) over the next 14 days
You are not alone in neglecting to worship when you’re in a season of wilderness. But being in good company doesn’t make a thing right. One of the great dangers of our culture of spiritual individualism is that we believe our worship is only true when we feel like engaging in it. And when we see others acting the same way, we’re led further from the heart of worship. The truth is that God is worthy of worship no matter our mood or circumstance. So, when we’re in the wilderness, we must continue to worship. We must continue to sing. And we must sing with others.
No matter how sweet our circumstance may seem today, we are not home. All of Christian life is this type of pilgrimage to where we belong: the full-faced presence of God along with all the saints. We are only out of the wilderness when we are in the promised land of God’s Kingdom. And that, brothers and sisters, is coming (soon, we pray!). But today, we are sojourners.
We do not sojourn alone. Our culture of radical individualism would have us believe ourselves rogue spiritual cowboys. But that couldn’t be further from God’s design. He’s given us his Church, with all her blemishes and glories, as our vehicle. It is within Her framework that we find the community and camaraderie essential to this type of journey. We cannot do this on our own. We are fools to even try.
God has graciously given us a framework for how to sing into the darkness with our spiritual family as we journey heavenward. Psalms 120-134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent. This group of songs were sung by Israel during their annual pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem (their holy city) from wherever they’d been exiled at the time. Remember that at the time these were written, the presence of God was limited to the temple. These were the songs that God’s people sang on their way home to God’s presence. The songs range in theme from confidence and thanksgiving to corporate lament. They reach into all of life-with-God.
For the next 14 days, I encourage you to spend time studying these sacred songs by reading one Psalm of Ascent per day, praying its words as our own sojourn song. The goal of this practice is to get comfortable on the journey home and to strengthen ourselves with God’s word and the tradition of his people (our spiritual family) for the road ahead.
Image credit: Emilee Carpenter