Friday, November 12, 2010

What God Teaches in Wilderness, Part 1

“Wilderness: What & Why?”

Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would really obey his commands. [Deuteronomy 8:2 NLT]

He led you through the vast and dreadful desert,
that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you.
[Deuteronomy 8:15-16 NIV]

Note: Graham Cooke has said that what happens in spiritual “ebb” or seasons of “hiddenness” is just as important as what God does in the “flow” of His manifest Presence, evident blessings, answered prayer, etc. This posting begins a series on “What God Teaches in the Wilderness.”

A "wilderness" is defined as a wild and desolate place, such as a desert or a forest - uncultivated by man, and inhabited only by untamed creatures. As such, we often think of the wilderness as a lonely, frightening or dangerous place; yet, if we picture some of the protected wilderness areas of North America, for example, we may also associate the word "wilderness" with a place of great beauty.

The Bible has a lot to say about wilderness experiences, so in the next few postings we’ll look at how spiritual wilderness, although it may seem terribly lonely or frightening at times, is designed to be a place of transformation and encounter with the beauty of God. If you find yourself in a "wilderness experience," take heart, you're in good company: Moses and the children of Israel, David, the apostle Paul, and Jesus Himself (to name only a few) - all spent time in desert places on their way to fulfilling God's promises for their lives.

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And when Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven saying, "You are my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with you." Immediately the Holy Spirit compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness. He was there for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him. [Mark 1:9-13 NLT]

Some wilderness treks are self-initiated; others are led by God. Jesus was God's sinless and beloved Son, yet He was “compelled” (different translations say "led," "taken," "sent," "driven," or "made to go") by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The children of Israel prolonged their desert journey through unbelief, rebellion and disobedience; but even sin doesn’t have to keep us wandering aimlessly forever - Psalm 139 tells us that God is with us everywhere. We may feel lost or "bewildered," but all we need to do is turn to Him ("repent") and He is there. [Isaiah 55:7]

As we look to God, spiritual wilderness – that place between promise and fulfillment, lacking familiar comforts or man-made props to lean on – can be a place of great purpose and preparation for our God-given destiny. It is usually a time of testing and transformation that leads us into the next phase of what God is calling us to do.

Essential Lessons Learned in the Wilderness
Moses’ instructions to the children of Israel as they prepared to enter their Promised Land [e.g., verses from Deuteronomy 8 above] describe humility, obedience, and conscious dependence on God (not on worldly strength or our own self-effort) as crucial to fulfilling their destiny as God’s people – essential lessons learned in the wilderness. To glorify God, we must first be convinced of our own inability to succeed apart from Him, and come into a place of “abiding” in His Presence (see John 15). True success is achieved as we fulfill what He created us to do (not just the status, safety, security, or achievements valued by the world). As we yield to God’s Spirit, His Love and power are displayed through our lives, revealing who He really is to the people around us.

It is not that we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God. [2 Corinthians 3:5 NLT]

Another benefit of the wilderness is testing, which brings both purity and strength – like precious metals tested by fire.

Do you see what I've done? I've refined you, but not without fire. I've tested you like silver in the furnace of affliction. [Isaiah 48:10 MSG]

Progressive exposure to danger, wild beasts or military foes, develops our skills for lasting victory. God didn’t take the children of Israel into the Promised Land by the shortest route [Exodus 13:17-18], or drive out their enemies all at once. Each step of obedience in the face of conflict strengthens and prepares us for the next battle, establishing our ability to possess our promises long-term.

I [God] will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.
[Exodus 23:28-33 NIV]
Transformation of identity also takes place in the wilderness. Jesus’ identity was established first by the Father’s voice (“You are My beloved Son”), then through confrontation and challenges by the enemy (“If you are the Son of God…”). David learned confidence in God as a boy defending his father’s sheep, which became the courage to bring down Goliath and eventually defeat Israel’s enemies on the battlefield. In the wilderness, David became a man, then a warrior, and a king.

He trains my hands for war until my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
[Psalm 18:34 CJB]
Blessed be the Lord my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle—
[Psalm 144:1]

Transformation of identity also requires the death of old patterns of thinking or behavior. Moses, raised as a prince in Egypt, spent 40 years tending sheep on the backside of the desert; after this season of humbling, he encountered the Lord and rose up to deliver Israel through God’s supernatural power. In the book of Exodus, we see a generation of Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt dying off to make room for a new generation of warriors who would take possession of the Promised Land. Caleb and Joshua, who obeyed the Lord fully, transitioned through the wilderness from captivity to freedom.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. [Romans 12:2 NKJ]

God builds things into us in the wilderness that help us to transition from the past into our future. Inner transformation brings us to the place where we are ready to make a difference on this earth - truly dependent on God, not on the world or even ourselves - ready to act and fulfill our calling.

As we encounter and follow the Lord through our wilderness experiences, we don't have to feel "lost," afraid or alone. In closing, I’ve quoted the full text of Isaiah 35 (below) – some beautiful promises regarding the wilderness! Next week we'll look at the beauty of the wilderness as a place of supernatural provision, a place of divine guidance, and a place of loving intimacy with the Lord.

Even the wilderness will rejoice in those days. The desert will blossom with flowers. 2 Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel's pastures and the plain of Sharon. There the LORD will display his glory, the splendor of our God. 3 With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. 4 Say to those who are afraid, "Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you." 5 And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. 6 The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the desert. 7 The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. 8 And a main road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-hearted people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God's ways; fools will never walk there. 9 Lions will not lurk along its course, and there will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will follow it. 10 Those who have been ransomed by the LORD will return to Jerusalem, singing songs of everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be overcome with joy and gladness. [Isaiah 35:1-10]

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