We know the call to “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), and the past couple of years have been out of season for many of us. Now we’re approaching the holidays, with calls to thankfulness, the anticipation of Advent, and the celebration of God’s gift to us in the birth of Christ. How do we celebrate and give thanks when our souls feel dry and parched, when it’s hard to raise our voices at all?
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I thank God for you! Pastor, pastor’s wife, church planter, ministry leader—we’re walking through a wilderness season right now. We’ve faced challenges none of us have ever seen before, and I pray may never see again. If you’re faithfully leading God’s people, proclaiming God’s Word, and living as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, then you have taken shots. The more people are consumed by this world’s kingdoms and concerns, the more offensive true Christianity becomes. You might barely be standing, but you are still standing!
If you feel like you’re in the desert right now, you’re not alone. We need to recalibrate our expectations for what it looks like to follow Jesus and serve his church. We often only look at the wilderness as God’s judgment or abandonment. These times in the desert—the dry times, the tough times, the times we feel uncertain, abandoned, unprovided for, and powerless—too easily lead us to forget that the wilderness is God’s protection for the sake of our preservation.
Here are three things to remember and be grateful for in the wilderness:
1. God meets us in the wilderness.
Think back to the storyline of Scripture. Moses and the burning bush, Elijah in the caves, and even Jesus as the Spirit filled him and led him into the wilderness. For too long, I read Jesus’s temptation (Luke 4) and made much of the idea that Satan was coming to him at such a vulnerable time. That idea misses that it was God’s Spirit that led him to the wilderness. Yes, Jesus was physically hungry, but he had spent 40 days communing with God in full dependence. He had never been stronger or more prepared to face Satan. As his Father was with him in the wilderness, so it is with us.
2. God protects and nourishes us in the wilderness.
Throughout Scripture, the wilderness is the place of God’s protection, provision, and nourishment for his people. The clearest example is God’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years. The book of Revelation extends this powerful help to us as God’s people, the church.
The wilderness is the place of God’s protection and nourishment (Rev. 12:14), where it’s safe for John to see the seductions of Babylon without falling victim to them (Rev. 17:3). For us, like John, the wilderness is a gift to protect us from the allure of this world so we can see it clearly for what it is. God brings us out to the wilderness to keep us from temptation. Keep that in mind as you pray, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”
3. God breathes life into us in the wilderness.
We need to fight to learn not to despise the dry, lonely times. Eventually, we can see that God is protecting us. In time, you may even choose some of the desert, like Jesus who craved time alone in prayer, who would slip away to be refreshed in God’s presence. We can learn to trust that God is the one to breathe life even when everything around us is a valley of dry bones.
Paul was brought into the wilderness of suffering as well, and in the depth of his weakness, was able to hear the voice of Jesus saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This is what led him to long for Jesus, “that I may know him in the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
So, take heart. If you feel like you’ve been walking through a wilderness, you’re not alone. Even if everyone around you looks like they have it all together (they don’t), we have the witness of Scripture across time to show us that the wilderness might be exactly where God wants you to be. It’s a place where you have the chance to meet with God and rest in his protection and nourishment, trusting that he will breathe life into your weary soul.
No matter how alone you feel, God has never turned his face from you. He will not abandon you. And for this, we can give thanks. If we recalibrate our perspective, we can reach a point of seeking out God’s presence in lonely places, like Jesus. This holiday season, let us thank God for his provision, but let’s not neglect the chance to thank God for the wilderness itself, for his provision and presence, and for leading us to and through the dry places and into abundant life in Jesus.
Written by: Bill Riedel