Life is hard. There are terrible things that all people, even Christians, experience simply because we live in a fallen and sinful world. Some of the hard things people experience are because of their own poor choices, others are because of someone else’s poor choices, and still others are simply things that cannot be controlled. Financial stress comes to those who are unwise with their money, car accidents happen when people are paying attention to their phone instead of the road, sickness such as cancer can occur in the healthiest and best people. Life is hard.
This Psalm (88) is written by Heman the Ezrahite, and unlike most other laments in Psalms, it doesn’t end on a positive, hopeful, note. Instead, it concludes with darkness. This psalmist equates his life’s troubles to nearing Sheol (v.3). He feels weak, overwhelmed, desperate, rejected, and lonely. Heman writes that his eyes are worn out from crying out all day long (v.9).
If you’re like me, you may be wondering why in the world this Psalm is included in Scripture… it offers no hope and seemingly no connection to an amazing God. Why would this be allowed in the Bible?? Doesn’t it turn others off our faith to have someone just writing about how hard life is, even after worshiping God? How does this chapter bring me anything for my faith walk if it’s just about sadness?
Well, despite being credited as one of the saddest psalms, after some prayerful consideration I also see how important this psalm can be. Throughout the psalm Heman writes about coming to God, crying out to Him, raising his hands to the Lord, and continually praying (vv.1, 9, 13). It seems that even with his world crashing down around him and when he feels like he is drowning, his first reaction is to reach out to God. What an example of faithful living!
The life of a Christian is never stated to be easy. In fact, there are times in everyone’s life that I would expect them to be in a similar place as Heman was when writing this psalm. Overwhelmed, exhausted, alone, in the dark. If God ‘allowed’ this psalm to be part of his God-breathed Scriptures, then we have to believe it holds value for our lives. There must be value in the pain and hardship that Heman describes, and the pain we still go through in the modern day. The lesson we can take away from Heman’s writing is that in all the pain, we can always come to God. Whether it’s through prayer or simply crying out, God is there to hear us no matter where we are in our life.
Heman wrote this psalm long before Christ came around. While he had hope of a coming Savior, our hope resides in a Savior who came, and is coming again. How does this change our laments or prayers to God?
Balancing hopeful positivity and the real difficulty of life is truly an art. How does what we know about God impact this balance in your life?
What did God reveal to you about his character in this passage?
Lord, we live in a broken, sinful world. This life is hard. Today we pray for you to comfort those who are struggling, to give strength and hope to those who need it. But we also pray that no matter what life circumstances they are in, they ultimately know that they can go to you in any form. God, thank you for the hope we have in Christ Jesus. We are excited for your Kingdom to be brought to earth where there will be no more suffering. We longingly look to that day. Amen.
I remember as a kid we had about a 30 minute drive to Church every Sunday. Now, you put 2 adults and 3 kids in a car for a half hour and there’s bound to be some excitement, maybe even some conflict. Somebody is going to say or do something to annoy someone else and that kind of stuff is contagious so that by the time we get to Church everyone’s cross with each other and in a bad mood. But it always amazed me that when we got out of the car and walked into church people smile and we smiled back, how are you? I’m fine, how are you. It was like someone flipped a switch and we instantly turned off all of the bad feelings. Was it really that easy? Of course not. We just stuffed the bad feelings back inside and pretended it was okay.
Human beings learn to do that a lot. We hide our pain and gloss it over with fake smiles and civility. Now, there’s a certain amount of this that is necessary. If you work at Chick Fil A and you had a fight with your boyfriend before your shift started, the Jones family doesn’t want to buy your drama along with their chicken sandwich so you learn to tough it out, smile and at the end of the order respond, “My pleasure.” But you can’t hide those bad feelings forever. Everyone needs someone that they can go to and share their hurt and sadness and tears. Ideally, church should be a place where we can do that, where we can find grace even on our worst days. I realize that not all churches feel like safe spaces to share our painful emotions so some keep on pretending.
The Bible reminds us over and over again that we don’t have to pretend with God. The Psalms are an example of how open God is to receiving all of our feelings. There are Psalms of joy and thanksgiving, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”! There are also songs of complaint, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” The Bible says that we should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. God wouldn’t ask us to do something that He is not willing to do. God is willing to share both our joyful moments and painful experiences. God wants us to feel freedom to bring everything to him. When you pray God wants you to bring your whole self to him, the parts that love and celebrate, and the parts that hurt and complain. In fact, there is one type of prayer that is specifically about bringing our pain to God. It’s called a prayer or a psalm of lament.
Psalm 77 is a psalm of lament. Take a minute to read Psalm 77 if you haven’t already. There’s no warm up here- there’s no “Dear Lord, you are holy, great and glorious. Dear Lord, on this day we thank thee for all they bountiful gifts and we ask thee to bless us…. Etc…” Instead he jumps right in with essentially “God my life sucks right now and I keep telling you about it and I’m not getting anywhere. Have you forgotten me God?” That’s a prayer of lament. There’s no pretense here. God, things are terrible, I feel awful and it doesn’t feel like you even care.”
As you read Psalm 77 you might notice that the whole first half of the Psalm is just full of complaining. It’s like the prayer brings all of these painful feels to God and gives a big emotion dump. And then between vs. 9 and 10 I feel there’s kind of a pause… we got all of the pain and anger out on the table.
Just as an aside, did you know that the practice of writing down a painful or traumatic memory can aid in the process of healing that trauma? Something about the practice of writing actually moves the trauma from a part of your brain that has trouble letting go, to another part that is more able to deal with it. Could it be that the very process of writing down his prayer of lament to God helped his brain begin the process of healing?
In the second half of the Psalm he is able to think and remember differently. He is able to recall all of the ways in the past that God has done miracles and healing and turned sadness into joy and darkness into light and death into life. It’s a totally different feeling from the first half of the prayer. The complaints have given way to praises. The despair has given way to hope. The painful and traumatic memories have fallen away and revealed a powerful and compassionate God who can and will make all things right if we continue to trust and pour out our hearts to him.
So next time you’re carrying a lot of pain and hurt, you might have to suck it up and sell someone their chicken sandwich and smile about it, but then when you have the space and the time, bring that pain to God in prayer and allow him to heal and transform your heart.
When you are hurting and need to tell someone how you are really feeling, who is your go-to person?
When was the last time you brought a painful feeling to God in a prayer of lament?
If you’ve never felt safe or comfortable bringing pain or complaint to God, bring that fear to God and ask God to help you explore what might be keeping you from feeling free to be open and honest with all of your feelings.
Finances, relationships, life decisions like which college or what job will fit you best, what people think of you or your family, pandemics, what your test result will be (covid test, spelling test, pregnancy test, SAT test, etc…), who will play with you at recess, the health of your parent, your child, your grandparent, your pet or yourself, how you will pay your bills, if your clothes are fashionable, global warming, flights and travel plans (or the lack thereof), government instability, natural disasters, and the list goes on. And on. And on.
There is a lot we can worry about. And the last two years hasn’t helped our worry levels. Anxiety is on the rise across all ages, but hitting young people especially hard. How can we help protect ourselves and our kids from the damage done by worry?
Worry does not change what will happen or what has already happened. (Though so often we waste much time worrying about what never happens at all.)
Worry does not change how well or how poorly we will respond to what does happen.
Worry does steal our thankfulness.
Worry does make us feel bad – and has a proven strong link to depression.
Worry does strip our focus off of God and His goodness and love and righteousness.
Can we agree that worry isn’t helpful? That we will be better off spending as little time as possible stuck in a worry cycle? So what do we do when we catch ourselves (or one dear to us) catching a ride on the worry train?
Yesterday I read a suggestion to limit yourself to a specific 5-15 minutes a day to worry. If you catch yourself worrying any other time of the day tell yourself it is not the time to worry now, but you will do that at the prescribed worry time (say, 6:10-6:20 pm). Interesting idea I have not tried yet.
But, I can tell you what HAS worked for me, and my family and friends, over and over again. Three times in the last three days I have heard and experienced the overwhelming power of turning to God in His Scriptures to combat our worry and anxiety.
A dear friend was worried about a new job possibility that appeared to be a closing door. She wisely decided to put a hold on her worried thoughts and instead took the time to write out her Bible passage for the day which happened to be about new beginnings. And when she was done – the phone rang with some positive information about the job.
My husband was stuck in a hotel overseas concerned about not receiving a negative covid test result so he could begin work he had been sent to do. It appeared there was nothing to do but wait and worry. Until, he decided to use the time instead to do the last 2 days of Bible reading and devotions. When he was done – the email came with the negative results and he got to work.
I was struggling with a decision that was weighing heavily on me for the past two months. But Monday was my deadline. I needed to contact my boss to let them know if I was going to pursue a job opportunity with them or not. I was worried about making the best decision and what it would mean for me and my family and those I would (or wouldn’t) encounter at work. I was struggling to know what I wanted..and what God wanted. Early Monday morning I was preparing the devotion on John the Baptist from Matthew 3 but wanted to check on some background information so turned to Luke 1. And, there was my answer as clear as could be, repeated twice in Luke 1:41-44. The letter has been written and peace has been growing while the worry has been wiped away. God sent the answer to my worry when I was in His Word. I know I didn’t give a lot of details, but ask me later and I can fill in the rest of the story but the important part is that in God’s Word the worry disappeared.
It sounds almost like magic. But, it’s not. It’s God at work. And God at work beats me at worry any day! And it happens again and again. My son has a great story about finding peace in his college decision when he was faithful in his Bible reading. Two generations earlier my mom has a similar story of the same peace discovered in scripture regarding a previously worrisome huge move and new job for her young family.
Often the answer and peace doesn’t come the same day. When our youngest was in elementary school she struggled with worry – especially at night. She would lie in bed long past bedtime thinking of what might go wrong the next day or the next year. Together we created some posters of Philippians 4:4-9 and stuck them to the wall by her bed. Here’s verses 4-7, but you might want to look up 8-9 as well and you can make a beautiful poster for your bedside, too.
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but she read and re-read those words every night. She put those Scriptures deep into her memory and into her heart. She turned to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Under those circumstances worry had no chance to thrive. Over time her worry shrank and her peace grew and she slept soundly. She still does.
There is a lot we CAN worry about. And the worry can mess with our mind, diminish our health, steal our sleep, damage our relationships and take us deeper into depression and further away from God’s will for us. Or, we can SEEK HIM. Open the Bible He’s given to you where He reveals Himself and His answers for life and peace. Seek Him in prayer, just as Jesus taught. We can rest in peace knowing God is at work. He is feeding the birds. He is growing the lilies of the field. He is supplying answers. He is giving peace. That doesn’t mean that every day will be easy and no troubles will come. It just means that God is still there in those trials. He still has a plan. He still loves. He still guides. He still provides. He is still right. He still has a Kingdom like no other coming around the bend. Seek Him, His Kingdom, His righteousness. Rest easy knowing it’s gonna be alright. God is at work so I don’t have to worry.
Reflection and Discussion Questions
What did you used to worry about that you don’t worry about any more? What changed? Are you worried about something now? Do you think you will also be worried about it next year? 10 years from now? In the Kingdom? How could seeking God’s kingdom help take care of a worry problem?
Describe an environment in which worry grows. Describe an environment in which worry can not thrive. Which environment do you want to live in? What steps can you include today to start changing your daily schedule and environment to reduce worry?
Philippians 4:4-9 says prayer helps replace anxiety. In Matthew 6 the Lord’s Prayer, fasting, and teaching on our treasures all accompany Jesus’ teaching on worry. What can we learn about prayer from these passages? What pieces do you see in the Lord’s Prayer? Any aspects of Jesus’ prayer that you feel your prayer life could use more of? If so, practice adding those into your prayers today.
How can you use the lessons of prayer and not worrying to help someone else today? Who?
After church yesterday I had the opportunity to accompany my pastor father-in-law as we visited a beautiful godly woman in the emergency room who was experiencing painful complications of a 4 year battle with cancer. Then from there we went to a funeral visitation and hugged a brave new widow with three dear girls. Just a year ago she had stood in that same spot for the visitations of her all too young son. Tragedies, pain and suffering surround us daily. No doubt your prayer list, social media feed and newspaper headlines also speak of many in deep trials. And perhaps you are there in the midst of one yourself. Whether we are the family suffering – or just the ones feeling a small fraction of their pain – the book of Job offers some excellent examples of grief and from these we can glean some wise advice for those suffering trials and those who try to offer comfort.
Chapter 10 opens with our suffering servant of God, Job, having some words with his Maker. He begins:
“I loathe my very life;
therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. 2 I say to God: Do not declare me guilty,
but tell me what charges you have against me. 3 Does it please you to oppress me,
to spurn the work of your hands,
while you smile on the plans of the wicked?
Job 10:1-3 (NIV)
Hating his life, complaining, bitterness, questioning, it’s not a pretty picture. But it is a very real picture. Job is working his way through some of the stages of grief: denial, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction, acceptance and hope. He is not yet to the upward turn. I can easily think, get over it Job, that’s no fun to read, enough with your bitter pity party. But then I remember how I sometimes lose it over very minor losses or mere inconveniences. I have been known to get ornery when my cake flops or I hit a snag in my quilting project. I can feel a bad attitude brewing if the sink is overflowing with dirty dishes or I feel slighted by a loved one. And here’s a man who has lost 10 children, his wealth, his livelihood and his health, and his wife and friends are adding to his grief. It’s time I give him some grace. He needs a hug right now, not a sermon. It takes time and often some ugliness to get to the upward turn and the beauty of restoration and hope. (Spoiler alert: keep reading Job – he gets there – and he repents for his previous attitude and misunderstanding of God. If you just can’t help peaking ahead read Job 42.)
The danger lies in not continuing the process. I remember a sermon years ago from my pastor father-in-law. It’s important to listen to the sermons BEFORE the crisis hits since we sometimes aren’t ready to listen too well in the middle of the crisis. One simple phrase he said has stuck with me, “Better, not Bitter”. We get to choose what we take away from pain and suffering. We can use any experience, even the most painful, to grow in our relationship to God and others and to become a better version of ourselves. Or, we can feed the bitterness and distance ourselves further and further from God and those who are trying to help.
It is natural and normal to feel real bitterness in the midst of grief. It is a stage, but don’t let it become your life. If you ever find yourself feeling the bitterness of Job – do what he did. Keep talking to God about it. God can handle it and it will help you walk through that stage of grief. There is beauty and hope waiting on the other side.
If you are standing beside someone in pain (and God encourages us to put ourselves in that position), allow them time and space to grieve, even if it gets a little ugly.
Whatever you face today – cancer or the death of a loved one, or just an overflowing sink – how can you practice working towards “Better, not Bitter”?
When I am sad it is hard for me to function properly. I usually get anxious and worried and often I am emotionally compromised. It usually takes someone else to put me back on the right train of thought and to change my attitude.
Revelation 7:17 says this, “For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Often times when we are sad or upset, anxious, mad, or disgusted, Jesus has to Shepard us into a new train of thought. One with a better perspective and one that is better for our well-being. He gives us a new feeling, that which feels like a fresh drink of water and refreshes us. He allows our hearts to be calmed and gives us hope for the future.
This is my prayer this morning, that Jesus would give you hope and that you would find peace in him and his ways. Because he is the Shepherd who leads and guides us through the hills of life.
This week, we’ve been taking some time to rest and reflect on what it means to wander through the wilderness. Through the complex stories of the Israelites, Elijah, David, and Jesus, we see both the types of wildernesses that we may face in this life as well as the ways that we can ultimately overcome the wilderness and make it out of those difficult seasons.
As we’ve discussed this past week, these are the four Wilderness Wandering Lessons that we learned from these stories:
The faithful love of God is infinitely more secure than our fractured circumstances.
Remembering past victories can help to steady our heart in the midst of our current despair.
When the desires of our heart lead us away from God, true repentance leads us back.
God’s word sustains us when we are depleted by the trials of the wilderness.
If you find yourself in a time of wilderness wandering, don’t despair. Many have been there before you and have made it out and used that time as a witness for God’s deliverance. Remember, one of Satan’s ultimate goals, as I mentioned earlier this week, is to steal your joy. One of the primary fruits of the Spirit is joy, and that joy should be evident in your life. The Israelites and Judeans knew what it was like to lose their joy when they were exiled from Israel at the end of 2 Kings. But, as we read in Jeremiah 31:2-3, 11-13, God promised that Joy to the Israelites and Judeans and he promises that Joy to you too.
“This is what the Lord says: They found favor in the wilderness – the people who survived the sword. When Israel went to find rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued to extend faithful love to you… For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the power of one stronger than he. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will be radiant with joy because of the Lord’s goodness. I will turn their mourning into joy, give them consolation, and bring happiness out of grief.”
By living our life in Christ, our joy is made complete (John 15:11). When you find the hurt, isolation, or pain of life weighing down on you, pause and remember that we can overcome through Christ. Trade your grief for happiness, your mourning for joy. We can celebrate. We can overcome. Because the joy of our Lord is our strength.
~ Cayce Fletcher
***Click on the following link to listen to one of my favorite songs by Rend Collective called the “Joy of the Lord is my strength.” Learning this song can be a reminder to you to choose joy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2B6Yw0zy70
Wilderness Wandering Lesson #4: God’s word sustains us when we are depleted by the trials of the wilderness.
This week, as we’ve been thinking about our wilderness wanderings, we’ve primarily looked through the lessons from the Old Testament. Today though, we’re going to turn to the New Testament to see an example of a wilderness experience that can teach us a lot about how to make sure this experience makes us and doesn’t break us.
In Matthew 4, Jesus is tempted in the desert by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights before he begins his ministry. This is a familiar story that shows the humanity of Jesus and how he can relate to us, but today, I want to focus on where Jesus was tempted. It says in verse 1 that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.” In our time thinking about the wilderness, we’ve focused on the types of wilderness experiences we may have and how God’s faithful love can sustain us. As we look at Jesus’ experience, we can see how to survive and thrive in the wilderness.
The first lesson we can glean from this passage is that sometimes, as is the case with the Israelites and Elijah, we are led into the wilderness by God. Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit where he fasted 40 days and 40 nights. At this point, Jesus had not begun his ministry, so this time could have been for testing and strengthening Jesus’ faith and dependence on God so that we could learn from it. By asking ourselves during each wilderness experience “What can I learn from this? How can I grow?”, we can better face the times in wilderness with palms held open instead of allowing bitterness to grow in us.
The second lesson we can learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness is that God’s word is crucial for surviving in the wilderness. In the wilderness, Jesus had to face physical hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. He also was probably emotionally drained in this time as well. This may sound like a description of ourselves when we go through times in the wilderness. How often in these times where we are sad, lonely, depressed and drained – how often do we pause in these moments and stop the spiral of depression and wandering by saturating ourselves in God’s word? By looking at Jesus’ example, we can see how we can stop temptations in their tracks by responding with God’s word, more specifically by aligning our actions with God’s word.
The last lesson that I want us to focus on today is looking at when this wilderness experience took place. Though Jesus had not begun his ministry yet, in the previous chapter, he had just gotten baptized. All too often, we think that if we have committed our life to God that things will go well, that we’ll never have to experience trials or periods of suffering. But, we can look at Jesus’ life to see that this is simply not that case. Aside from Jesus’ experience on the cross, we can look at the beginning of his ministry as well to see that as these periods will happened to him, they will happen to us.
Jesus survived in the wilderness, and he thrived in the wilderness. I’m not sure what Jesus gained spiritually or emotionally in the wilderness, but I know what I can learn from his experience there. In the wilderness, Jesus was able to overcome temptation and suffering, including not only physical trials – but also spiritual trials – through God’s word. God’s word sustained Jesus and allowed this time to be a springboard into Jesus’ ministry instead of something that would have crippled his ministry. Now, we can look at this story and lessen the impact of what Jesus was able to do because Jesus was the son of God. But, Jesus was capable of growth and change, as seen in Luke 2:52. This is what makes him the perfect mediator for us. So, as we close this lesson today, I want to leave you with the words of Jesus as he readied his disciples for the trials they would face during the days leading up to the crucifixion: “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). With Jesus, we can conquer the world, including all our days of wilderness wanderings.
Wilderness Wandering Lesson #3: When the desires of our heart lead us away from God, true repentance leads us back.
At the heart of our lessons from the Israelites and Elijah is a focus on trust. We need to trust that God knows best for us and will lead us in the right direction as the Israelites learned. And, we need to trust that God will provide and protect us according to his will like Elijah learned. Elijah, in our previous lesson, was not lead into a wilderness season by any failing on his part. Instead, the wilderness for him was because of circumstances outside of his control. By looking to God and remembering those past successes with God, he was able to overcome trying circumstances.
The wilderness story that we will look at today also concerns a man that could remember past successes with God. In his story, he had stood against giants, mad kings, had been through the wilderness once and overcame it. David was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). We see in the book of 1 Samuel David’s victories. He was blessed by God, and because of this blessing, he was able to overcome his enemies. The book of 2 Samuel then describes what happened to David after he overcame these things and became King of Israel. During the first 10 chapters, David is set on the throne and receives the Davidic covenant, where he is told that Jesus will come from his lineage. If David could have just stayed in these moments where his focus was on God, he would have dwelt securely in the land and set up his children to do the same.
Instead, we see David drifting down a path that led him to devastation in 2 Sam. 11. In this chapter, we see the story where David, without questioning his actions for how they would reflect God, sleeps with Bathsheba and sends her husband to her death. After this, David is told that he would lose the baby Bathsheba just bore and that his house would be destroyed. David’s actions here lead toward the hurt that he faced with his son Absalom in 2 Sam. 14-15. The first sin that we see in these chapter 11, lusting after Bathsheba, began the sin cycle that led David into a wilderness period that was a time of intense pain that David never really got over.
So how did David get to this point? During this time, he had stayed back at his palace idle instead of going with his armies to fight in the wars he wanted them to engage in. At this moment, his desires began to be misaligned from the desires of God. And from here, his actions lead him away from God.
We see some of David’s reactions in 2 Samuel as he mourns his son and repents of his sin. But, at this time, we don’t see his feelings about this time in the wilderness. In Psalm 38, a psalm written by David, we see the danger that comes from drifting too far from God. We see the desperation in David’s voice as he says, “There is no health in my body because of Your indignation; there is no strength in my bones because of my sin. For my sins have flooded over my head; they are a burden too heavy for me to bear. My wounds are foul and festering because of my foolishness” (Ps. 38:3-5). Because of David’s sin, he had to experience terrible pain, a trying wilderness experience. We can look back at the lessons of the Israelites to realize this time in the wilderness was for purification, but still, if David had aligned the desires of his heart with the desires and character of God, he could have saved himself from this pain.
The wilderness is not always caused by our sin, as we’ve seen. But, at times, it is. And during these times, we can look to David’s example to see how to overcome those moments in the wilderness that were caused by our sin. Psalm 38 is an example of a penitential psalm, that shows both David’s true repentance and his desire for God in his life. Psalm 51 is another example of David writing in repentance. He says, “Be gracious to me God, according to your faithful love; according to Your abundant compassion, blot away my rebellion. Wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me. Against You – You alone – I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence. You are blameless when You judge” (Ps. 51:1-4). In this psalm and the other psalms, we see how David takes responsibility for his sin and also recognized what is required from him if he sins. He needs to be purified with a new heart that reflects the desires of God to be placed within him. This is key to accomplishing what David asks God in v. 12: “Restore the Joy of Your salvation to me and give me a willing spirit.” When we are in a wilderness of cause by our sin, we may be tempted to harden our hearts in anger against God. But, that is the path that leads us away from God and further into the wilderness. When we truly repent, we can receive back the true joy that comes from the salvation of God. After we have made it through the wilderness, we can use this time to bring others back to God (v. 13). If you are in this time today, choose the right path and come back to God. It may be painful to soften your heart and feel the weight of your sin, but that will lead you towards the true joy that comes from God.
Wilderness Wandering Lesson #2: Remembering past circumstances can help to steady our heart in the midst of our current despair.
It was at that moment though that the sky got a little cloudy and the wind started to pick up. We wanted to hike a little, so we to hike the trail towards the top of the mountain, with cattle lazily grazing along the rocky path. Quickly, the picturesque scene turned gray. We made it to the summit, but the mountain had clouded over, so much so that it was difficult to see straight in front of you. We quickly walked back down and waited out the fog in a small cafe, trying to warm up our hands with a coffee, before making our way to the tram.
That hike was beautiful and totally worth our short brush with the fog. But, what I’ve found is that our lives sometimes mirror that hike, but the fog can be much more dangerous. Sometimes, our lives are steady, and we exist in the happy medium of contentment and love. At other times though, our lives can be a stormy cycle of highs and lows, mountains and valleys. In our case, we were on a mountain, a mountain where we were elated. We had traveled far to get there and wanted to rest in the view and the glory. But, it was on this mountain that what we had traveled far to see and done a lot of work to do (including a 1 hour train ride and a flustered conversation in German) that we experienced a storm that clouded our experiences and made us doubt if it was really worth it.
Elijah the prophet experienced his own brush with the wilderness right after he experienced the high of his life. He was no stranger to the wilderness after relying on God’s provision in 1 Kings 17. In 1 Kings 18, he is able to testify to God’s glory and work as he goes through a showdown with the prophets of Baal. He actually gets to see the fire of Yahweh fall from heaven and rid the people of the prophets of Baal!
If we saw these things, we might be tempted to say that we would never doubt God. After seeing this, we might be elated, speechless, high on our mountaintop moment. But, for Elijah, the fog rolled in. In chapter 19, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that she was planning on killing him as soon as she could get her hands on him. Elijah panics and runs for his life into the wilderness. There, he lays down and prays for God to take his life (v. 4). Sometimes, our wilderness moments can lead us to places like this. Our vision can get cloudy if it’s focused on our circumstances that may stormy and volatile. And, in those moments, dark despair can set in, and we may think it would be better to just give up.
If you are in that moment, remember that God does not leave Elijah there, and he doesn’t want to leave you there either. Instead, he says, “Get up and eat (v. 5). After Elijah eats twice, he goes on a journey forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God. There, Elijah waits, first through a great wind, then through an earthquake, and lastly through a fire. In each of these places, he does not hear God’s voice. Finally, he hears it in the soft whisper, as God asks him “What are you doing here Elijah?” (v. 13) Elijah responds by saying, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they’re looking for me to take my life” (v. 14). Elijah feels this despair because he had forgotten what God just showed him. In the desert when he was hungry, God was there with provision. He had forgotten that in the showdown, God was there with provision. When we turn our eyes from God to focus on our fractured circumstances, it can lead us to doubt. But, one remedy for that doubt is not only to remember the character of God but also to remember how God has exhibited that character in previous actions of faithfulness. We can trust in him not only because of what we know from the Bible but also because of what we know from our own lives. So, if you are in a wilderness period in your life, pause and remember God’s past faithfulness instead of dwelling on your despair. These reminders can help us to remember that even in our darkest times, God will carry us through.
Over the next few days, we’re going to look at four wilderness stories in the bible to learn a lesson about what the wilderness is and what it can teach us. The first Wilderness Wandering Lesson is this:
Wilderness Wandering Lesson #1: The faithful love of God is infinitely more secure than our fractured circumstances.
The most recognizable story of wilderness is that of the Israelites. After 400 years of servitude to the Egyptians, the Israelites kept crying out to God for the deliverance prophecied by Joseph in Gen. 50:25. That help came in the form of Moses, who was commissioned by God to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan. So this so-called Promised land, part of the covenant promise that God made with Abraham in Gen. 12, was the Israelites’ destination. Even in the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, we can see two purposes in the wilderness. The wilderness in the first year was a time of purification and dependence. It is in the wilderness that the Israelites learned to trust God for direction (Fire and Cloud – Ex. 14) and sustenance (Manna and Water – Ex. 16). In Exodus 16, God even says, “I will test them to see whether or not they will follow my instructions” (v. 4). This testing was his goal for the first year the Israelites spent in the wilderness. Spent mostly at the base of Mt. Sinai, it was in this time that the Israelites received the ten commandments, built the tabernacle, and received the rest of the law (Ex. 15-Num. 10). Though there was difficulty in this time (think Golden Calf – Ex. 32), this time in the wilderness was also full of incredible closeness to God. It was during this time that the Israelites were able to witness the Shekinah glory of God descend on the tabernacle. And, during this time, the Israelites experienced the humbling dependence on God that came from relying on him.
We can think of this first year in the wilderness as the training wheels period where God was showing the Israelites that relying on him was best. That trusting in him was the way to choose life and joy. In Numbers 10, the Israelites break camp and move towards the border of the Promised land. In Numbers 11, the cracks begin to show again as the Israelites complain more and more about hardship, food, and in the case of Aaron and Miriam, the power and relationship with God that Moses had. Based on the tendencies that we see in these chapters, we shouldn’t be as surprised as we generally are that the Israelites get to the border of the promised land and choose to go against God and refuse to take the land because of their fear (Num. 14). The Israelites chose not to go into the promised land because their trust in God was lacking. They didn’t think that God would do what he said he would. Instead, they based their decisions on their circumstances, which seemed too difficult to overcome. It’s this that ultimately angers God and leads towards his judgment against the Israelites: They would wander the wilderness for 40 years (one year for each day they spent scouting the wilderness). In the remaining chapters of Numbers, we see more instances of rebellion and provision as the Israelites do exactly as God says and wander the wilderness for 40 years. It is not until the book of Joshua, that we see the next generation of Israelites rise up and take the land just as God promised his people that they would.
These two tales are frequently told together, but they tell two very different stories of the wilderness. In the first, the Israelites seemed to have done nothing to be put in the wilderness, while in the second, the wilderness was a place of punishment for the past sin of the people. But, the purpose of each wilderness experience is the same. The wilderness is meant for purification and refinement, to make the people of God ‘holy, because [he] is holy’ (Lev. 19:2). Too often, I think we view the wilderness as a punishment, and because of that, we go back to asking God, “Why? Why am I here?” We may even sound like some of my high school students when they get called out, “Why? I wasn’t even doing anything!” (No matter what they are doing.) We need to stop viewing the wilderness as a place of punishment. It can be that place, as we’ve seen with the Israelites. But, more importantly, this time in the wilderness is where God is beckoning us back to him. It’s in this time that all of the Israelites first heard God’s word. It’s in this time that they felt the characteristics of God that Moses spoke in Numb. 14:18. In your wilderness wanderings, instead of focusing on the doubt – the questions of why you are in that experience – focus on who God is:
“The Lord is slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving wrongdoing and rebellion. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Numb. 14:18)
Rest on God’s faithful love, and in your time in the wilderness, don’t forget to remember who he is. When we trust in him, our circumstances don’t seem so challenging anymore.