The Purpose of the Wilderness

Anyone who travels the “spiritual path” of sanctification (being conformed to the image of Christ) will ultimately discover something known as the “wilderness experience.” What exactly is it? And why does it happen to those who are faithful to God and who try to live their lives in harmony with His will?

The Bible frequently addresses this issue. Scripture often depicts the experience of God’s presence or blessing with the imagery of water (Ps 1:3; Jer 17:8). Conversely it describes times of distress, doubt, and alienation from God with the imagery of a desert or wilderness. The wilderness is where water is scarce… where a traveler walks alone in the heat and the cold without shade or protection, and where wild animals live.

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended to him.

Mark 1:12-13

In a spiritual wilderness God feels far away, distant, absent, and unresponsive. Faith feels doubtful or uncertain. We feel alone, vulnerable, lost, and unprotected. There is the fear of hopelessness and the unknown.

No believer can fully avoid the wilderness experience — it is the path we must all travel. It can take the form of depression, a crisis of faith, one or more traumatic life events, of which the list is endless. It is not a joyful time. It is a time when we feel alone, deserted, and dying of spiritual thirst in the midst of a debilitating spiritual draught. We start to question everything we knew to be true.

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 the wilderness.

Through my own experiences, I’ve learned a that the wilderness is a puzzle from my own human perspective, but from God’s perspective, it is His perfect plan for our lives. Spiritual dryness, or the wilderness experience, is God’s way of getting us to exercise our faith even when there is little to no feedback, affirmation or joy. In the wilderness we are not being punished — we are being tested, and our faith is being strengthened.

How do we survive these periods where our lives feel desolate? What can we know for sure about the purpose of the wilderness in the lives of God’s people?

  1. The Wilderness is a Place of Separation

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.

2. The Wilderness is a Place of Preparation

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?

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.  

3. The Wilderness is a Place of Revelation

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.

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10 

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.  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. How does God respond then?

God takes you to the wilderness 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.  

“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 

God will be faithful to you in whatever wilderness you are facing, just as He was to the people He led out of Egypt. 

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