The Purpose of the Wilderness in the Lives of God’s People

If you are at a wilderness place in your life, you may find it to be more puzzle than purpose. You might be overwhelmed and confused. You might find yourself questioning God’s wisdom—or maybe even your own.

I want you to think for a moment about being in the center of God’s will. What does that mean?  What would it look like?  Would it be a time of happiness and fulfillment? Is there ever a time that the center of God’s will might be a place of discouragement and difficulty? What about the children of Israel? God called Moses to bring them out of Egypt and into the center of His will.  The center of His will for them would eventually be Canaan, but for a time, the center of God’s will was a great and terrible wilderness.

Has God’s will for you included a period of time in the wilderness? Time in the wilderness means facing wilderness struggles, and wilderness hardships, and wilderness questions.  It can be a place of problems, and at the same time, a place of purpose.  The wilderness is a puzzle from our perspective, but from God’s perspective, it is His perfect plan for our lives.  

If you are at a wilderness place in your life, you may find it to be more puzzle than purpose.  You might be overwhelmed and confused.   You might find yourself questioning God’s wisdom—or maybe even your own.  Did you get to that place by God’s guidance, or did you get there by misreading of God’s guidance?   

We have said enough about wilderness questions. What can we know for sure about the purpose of the wilderness in the lives of God’s people?

The Wilderness is a Place of Separation

God carried them into the wilderness so that they could be apart from the influences of Egypt.  The uncertainties of the wilderness create a need for God and a dependence upon God.  God lets you do without, so you can come to know Him as your provider. God lets you be lonely, so that you can come to know Him as your friend.  God lets you be frightened and worried, so that you can come to know Him as your peace. God lets you be weak, so that you can know His strength.

In the wilderness, God reveals Himself.  In the darkness of the wilderness, He is your light.  In the confusing maze of the wilderness, you learn to let Him be your guide. In the wilderness, He separates you from the influences of the world, as well as the things and people that you have learned to depend on, so that you will learn to depend on Him. God will be faithful to you in whatever wilderness you are facing, just as He was to the people He led out of Egypt. 

The Wilderness is a Place of Preparation.

Looking back on those years in the wilderness, this is what God said to His people as they came to the Promised Land.  5“I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot. 6“You have not eaten bread, nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, in order that you might know that I am the LORD your God.  Deuteronomy 29:5-6

What has been your God appointed wilderness?  Are you there right now?  What do you suppose God is trying to teach you? Are you learning the lessons that God wants you to learn?

When God takes you to the wilderness, He withholds that which you have come to depend on other than Him.  Maybe you came to depend on your job to provide.  God removes the job for a time, so that you will learn to depend on Him.  Maybe you came to depend on your own strength or stamina.  Then God brings weakness into your life, so that you will learn that your strength is in Him.  You see it as deprivation.  God sees it as preparation.  

“You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3“He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. 4“Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. 5“Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. 6“Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him.  Deuteronomy 8:2-6

The Wilderness is a Place of Revelation.

In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and howI bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. ‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  Exodus 19:2-6

When the center of God’s will is the wilderness, what is God’s purpose? Did you see why God brought them to the wilderness? He brought them into the wilderness to bring them to Himself.Why do you suppose that God brings you to Himself?

I read again today about Jesus calling the disciples.  He called unto Him the twelve.  And why did He call them?  Did He call them to Him to give them an assignment? Yes?  But the preparation for that assignment came out of being with Him.  He called the twelve to Himself, that they might be with Him and that He might send them forth to preach. Mark 3:14

Part of the preparation for what God wants you to do will grow out of the revelation of Himself that He gives you.  For most of us, the only place we can be readied to receive that revelation is in some wilderness, where God separates us from what we have learned to lean on, in order that He can show us that we need to lean on Him alone.

Where are you right now? Do you find yourself in the midst of some God-Appointed wilderness struggling to know God’s will and God’s way?  Do you feel alone there?  Do you feel abandoned there?  I know how you feel.  I have been to the wilderness.  I have lived in the wilderness.  I felt alone. I felt discouraged.  But I came to understand that the wilderness was the place of God’s presence.

If you are in the wilderness, you might be angry at God.  You may have considered abandoning God.  In your discouragement, the wilderness can even become a place of sin.  Where is God then?  How will God respond to you when you have proved to yourself that you are not worthy of His love.

Sometimes God takes us to the wilderness not only to show us Himself—but to show us ourselves.  The truth about who we are and how we trust God surfaces in the wilderness.  There, we are proved to be worse sinners than we knew ourselves to be.  How does God respond then?

Consider this passage from Nehemiah. “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good.  You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.  In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. “But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,  even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies. “Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.  You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst.  For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen. Nehemiah 9:13-21

Why do you suppose God takes you into the wilderness to show you yourself so that you can see what a sinner you are? God takes you to the wilderness and shows you what a sinner you are so that He can show you what a Savior He is! In spite of the rebellion of His people, He remained faithful.  He still gave them water for their thirst.  He still gave them their daily bread.  He still guided them on their journey.  He never left them.  

God will be faithful to you in whatever wilderness you are facing, just as He was to the people He led out of Egypt. “In the wilderness … you saw how the LORD God carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way which you have walked until you came to this place. Deuteronomy 1:31 

Do you suppose God might also be carrying you? I am sure you have asked God some of the same questions that I ask from time to time.  “God, am I a castaway?  Can you still use me?”  “Do you still want me?  Do you still love me?”

The very words I write were born in one of those moments in my life. I will never forget the day I was in my office working on this message. I was preparing it for me, because I keenly felt everything I have shared with you. I had allowed a deadline to pass that seemed to me to be critical to my future. I let it pass because I had no word from God. God was silent. As a result of His silence, I saw my future slip away. My despair grew deeper by the day. It reached a zenith on a Wednesday in December of 2006. I was preparing this message for my church, but I was really describing what was going on in my own life.

God must have been watching as I paced around in my office that day. I was a desperately discouraged man. As I typed away at this message on my computer, the phone rang. Within an hour of that phone call, all my questions were answered. My future seemed to be restored. I had been called by God to the assignment I thought I had missed.

When that day started, I was convinced I missed God completely.  I was lost in the wilderness.  I felt abandoned and forgotten, and I felt I deserved to be.  But that day, I met God in the wilderness, and it altered the direction of my life.  Six months later, I shared the same message with my church on a Sunday night. The next day, I would be stepping through the door God had opened. This is what I said in closing: “Tomorrow I set foot on the road that God called me to travel. It may not lead out of the wilderness—but I am convinced that it will lead me to Him.” That is, after all, the purpose of the wilderness in the lives of God’s people. He brings us into some great and terrible wilderness, so that He might bring us to Himself.

Photo by POOYAN ESHTIAGHI