The spiritual wilderness is a most terribly lonely place.
I’ve been there. I know. One minute you are singing for joy with praise and thanksgiving, then life gets busy. Minor stresses pile up into larger stressors, distraction gives way to listlessness, bible reading and prayer fall by the way side – or they become motions you simply move through.
Then you find yourself in this place. You’re not sure what one thing brought you there. But in all truth there were many reasons – some in your control and some not – that finally brought you into this spiritual wilderness.
All you know is the joy you once had, that was so real, is now a fading memory.
Where there was once joy filled bible reading, prayer and fellowship, now there is emptiness. Where once the sweet presence of God and his pleasure was felt, now all is silent. The metaphors used by Christians in the past have often changed (eg. being lost at sea, in the desert place, isolated in a cold room…) but the experience is always the same: a profound sense of feeling distant from God.
From the greats of the Christian faith, to the everyday layman, the wilderness is no respecter of age, maturity, or strength of spiritual walk. And it is an awful experience for all.
Over the past year or so I’ve had conversations with those among us who have felt lost in this desert place. Having recently detoured through these areas my heart aches for those who find themselves presently there.
While most of us recognise that there will be hills and valleys in this journey of faith, sometimes the valleys end up much deeper than we ever expect.
Coupled with this is the expectation that we place upon ourselves to present outwardly that life is fine. We feel a fraud. A sham. That this joylessness is the product of our own failures, so we must pick ourselves back up again and re-join the land of the living. Yet for all our toil and struggle we find ourselves no closer to exiting the desert, no closer to any light in the dark, and no further up and out of the valley.
The wilderness not only presents us with a lonely time, it also presents us with temptations. And in my personal and pastoral experience I’ve noticed three particular temptations.
The first is to doubt and distrust the goodness of God. We yearn for what we once had, now lost, and our heart cry is, ‘Why has God forsaken me? Where is God in all of this? Why me?’ And when we don’t receive any answer, or a satisfactory one, we doubt that God has any intention of goodness towards us.
The second is to test God. We bargain with him – that perhaps if only I read my bible more and prayed more fervently then God should owe me the return of the pleasure of his presence. Or we reverse the requirement: if God would restore my joy then I will pick up my bible and pray again. We test God by asking him to prove his goodness.
The final temptation is perhaps the darkest of all: to give up, to walk away from it all. The desperate heart cry here is, ‘Life would be easier if I didn’t have to follow Jesus. A better and easier life is found away from God and away from the desert.’
To my friends who are feeling alone in this desert: know that you are not. One has gone before you, in a real wilderness, facing the same temptations.
The worst lie in the wilderness I recall was believing that God did not understand what I was going through. But by grace my eyes were lifted to Jesus where I realised how big a lie that was.
Jesus faced all three of the same temptations and overcame them by his steadfast trust in his Father (cf Matt 4:1-11). The first temptation to turn stones into bread was a temptation to distrust the goodness of God and rely on Him (and His Word) alone. The second temptation was to test God – to throw himself off the temple and let God catch him. If God was truly good then he would do as His Word elsewhere had promised: catch his Messiah and keep him safe. The final temptation was to give it all up – walk away from his mission, take the easy road, avoid the cross but still receive the crown – and gain it all by worshipping Satan.
In all three Jesus overcame these temptations by trusting what He knew best: Scripture. By trusting what he knew in Scripture he was ultimately trusting the Author.
He would go on to face more trials and temptations—all of which help make him one who can supremely ‘empathise with our weaknesses’ (cf Heb 4:15). So if you feel alone in the desert, know that you have One who stands with you and knows intimately all that you are experiencing. He may be quiet for a time, but he is never that far away – for he has promised to be with us always (cf Matt 28:20).
So what now?
Having spoken to some who are faced in the wilderness, knowing these things is not the problem. Knowing and understanding is no hurdle. The heart challenge is the hard challenge: to trust, even when everything in our experience is screaming at us a different sensation.
So to my friends who are wrestling with their faith I offer these comforts.
- Cry out to God
A close friend suggested to me that I read the Psalms. Having experienced the wilderness as well, this friend suggested that in reading the Psalms I would find comfort from fellow and seasoned travellers to this desert place.
And while the Psalms begin with fairly standard theological musings, from Psalm 13 onwards I heard the cries that resounded with my own:
‘How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm 13:1)
‘Preserve me, O God, for in your I take refuge.’ (Psalm 16:1)
‘The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.’ (Psalm 18:4-5)
‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.’ (Psalm 22:2)
‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ (Psalm 42:5)
And many more. The Psalmists (and the Prophets) teach us that to cry out to God with all our rawness and exhaustion and questions is something that God can handle. He invites it, for when we come to Him in our darkest moments He can offer himself as our guiding light. So my friend, cry out to Him in and with all of your pain.
This might seem counterintuitive, but sing. Singing helps release our stress and anxiety, and singing can be a helpful and prayerful way of speaking great truths to ourselves.
In this time of weariness the last thing we want to be singing are joyful and shallow choruses. They will not do. But praise be to God that he has given us song, and such a wide variety for times such as this. I have written before with suggested songs for a time of grief, and they are just as helpful for this wilderness season.
One other suggestion, to you my friend, is to listen to this wonderful album from Sovereign Grace.
- Reach out and find the hands of those who will pick you up and walk alongside you
If you feel alone, know that you have not travelled this road by yourself. There have been others who have travelled those well-worn paths. As members of Jesus’ body our joy and privilege is to be able to carry each other’s burdens (Gal 6:1)—and sometimes that may mean carrying you. Let your friends, your leaders, and your pastors know.
- Take one restful step at a time
The weary soul needs rest. Rest from service and activity. Rest in God’s Word, in prayer, and in loving and supportive fellowship. Some seasons are for serving, some for equipping – and this season of wilderness wandering is for rest.
It’s crucial that you do not turn away from your church and friends who care for you. So take your time. And one small step at a time we will walk out of this desert together.
For the day will arrive when we will rejoice with you that the desert is not our final home.