I have been backpacking in several different wilderness areas and have learned much from the experience. But here I am speaking about a different kind of wilderness. I believe as we follow Jesus, He will at some point take us into the wilderness, not a physical one, so much as a circumstantial one. It could be a significant loss or a period of terrible uncertainty. It could be a time of spiritual dryness or one of seemingly unbearable suffering. Whatever the wilderness, it is His way of taking us out, away from the props and distractions we have used to manage life, and teaching us to rely on Him alone. The pattern of the wilderness can be found in so many of the great Biblical stories, from Abraham to Paul, from Moses to Jesus Himself.
The last three years have honestly been such a wilderness for me, but one into which I know I was called. So now I want to offer the three big lessons I’ve learned there.
1. Our true identity is often found in the wilderness. In a world where we are known by our work or by the image we project, it’s so easy to live out of a false identity. But only God knows who we are, and only He can give that to us. For me, my identity seemed incorrigibly bound to being a high school teacher and coach. I couldn’t imagine being someone else. But as I left that three years ago, I realized that it was a false front I had created. To leave it felt frightening and then devastating. And yet in the wilderness, God has repeatedly met me, speaking to me about who I am in His eyes as a beloved son and what I am supposed to do with my life.
2. Something else happens in the wilderness: we don’t realize that God is all we need until He is all we have. To enter the wilderness, we must leave behind all of our God-substitutes—the addictions and petty idols. Leaving behind a secure, paying job and entering the fray of starting a ministry has exposed my inordinate dependence on money. Really, money acted as a substitute father I went to for comfort and security, but the loss of a steady income has opened my heart to the One who is our true Father. With finances still unpredictable, I am learning how trust, for God will provide where He has called—and He has.
3. One other thing also seems to happen in the wilderness: we learn to let God write the story of our lives. With the fall of man, we compulsively attempt to author, direct, and play the lead role in our stories. Frankly, it's always a disaster. And yet the addiction to our self-consumed script writing dies hard. But it can die in the wilderness. Letting God write the story of my life has meant letting go of many dreams and plans. I have had to lay them down and wait for Him to open the doors of ministry. It has been infuriating at times, confusing at others, but ultimately freeing. To let God write the story means that I can now follow as His son without bearing that burden.
The wilderness usually feels like a place of cursing at first. It certainly did for me, as I have weathered both anxiety attacks and depression, but eventually it becomes one of incredible blessing. This has been the experience of the saints down through the ages, and it is the promise of God: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (I Peter 5:10).
You can count on it in your own wilderness.
I know I am.