If we did a search for the topic of ‘spiritual desert’ (or ‘wilderness’, as some books call it), we will discover many articles on the subject. Some authors have the thought that it is always a bad place to be; some have written that it is not a place that we should ever acknowledge; and some authors write about the growth that can come from this spiritual place. I am one author who firmly believes there is growth, as well as renewal, experienced during a spiritual desert.
In my article Seasons of Spiritual Life, I share that it is a difficult place. While in the desert, we may experience isolation and destitution. “Our mental and emotional pain can become unbearable. In the desert we may feel alone, afraid, lost, disoriented, hungry for the truth given to us through the bread of life, and thirsty to receive the living water.” Yet, as we come out of the desert, we are able to look back and see the hand of God in our experiences within the paragraph of each specific season; however, there may be other reactions which are not included.
The Symbol Of A Desert
We read in Luke 4 that Jesus was led into the desert by the [Holy] Spirit in order to be tempted. We learn that during this time, Satan made great efforts to tempt Jesus in his human flesh. The ways in which Satan tempted Jesus were through his:
- hunger (representing self-indulgence),
- human ego (representing a need to be praised, worshipped, or looked up to), and
- human desire for material possessions (representing a need to have material/physical wealth).
On an episode of Busted Halo Show, Fr. Dave Dwyer provides an easy-to-understand podcast on this topic. He shares a few thoughts on why God allowed Jesus to be tempted; ending with the fact that Jesus “was fully human. So, perhaps it was God’s will that he be tempted because all humans are tempted.” In considering the fact that Jesus was fully human, we are to look to him as our mentor for all things having to do with our spiritual life. Jesus provides to us his living example of turning away from temptation, and how to trust God at all times.
Free Will As A Precursor
Beginning in Genesis 2, we learn about the beautiful garden which God planted in Eden. We know that in the middle of the garden, God planted the tree of life, as well as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As we continue to read the chapter, we are introduced to Adam, and then to Eve. We discover that Adam and Eve had no worries or concerns. However, we turn to Genesis 3, and we discover that the ONE thing that God told them not to do, they did do. When God showed Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden, he told them they could eat of any tree in the garden, except one… the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And, we know what happens. Eve exercised her free will when Satan tempted her, and she ate from the tree of knowledge; and later, Adam did as well.
Now let’s jump ahead to the New Testament, where we read in Galatians 5:13, “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh….”. This speaks of free will, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “voluntary choice or decision”. We begin to see the connection of God desiring for us a rich and beautiful life; yet, also alluding to our freedom to make a choice of the flesh (aka using our free will).
In totally understanding our time in the desert, we must consider the fact that God gave to us a free will. Having a free will opens the door of temptation to sin. This free will is OUR making choices which will potentially have negative or undesirable consequences. A few varied examples are: choosing to treat someone harshly, committing a deadly sin (i.e. sloth, greed, gluttony), breaking a law, etc. In using our free will in such a way, the biggest consequence is our falling out of God’s good grace. God doesn’t force us to do anything. He invites us; and it is then up to us to decide how we will respond to him.
Season of Desert
Just as Jesus went into the desert, we also will go there during our lifetime. As we walk through this desert, we will be tempted by the enemy. When we are tempted, we generally do not feel God’s presence. In fact, we may feel that he has abandoned us. Each season in a desert will last for different periods of time. I personally have been in a season of desert for a very brief period of time (about one month), as well as an extreme period which lasted more than a year (which was a dark night of the soul – watch for a future article on this topic).
In studying several scripture passages where people found themselves in a desert season, I have accepted the fact that good will come from spending time in a spiritual desert. In the beginning of each desert, I tend to not recognize that I have entered the desert. However, after several experiences (over a 27 year period) in a desert season, I have been able to finally come to a place of accepting my time there. During my most recent desert experiences, I have grown to a point of knowing that I am to welcome these deserts.
Time Well Spent In A Desert
You may be asking, “why would someone welcome a desert season?” When we read Luke 4, we understand that Jesus went into the desert in order to prepare for his ministry, his purpose set before him by God. We, too, have a purpose set according to God’s will. When we are in the desert, at some point we come to the realization that in order to be saved from this desolate place, we must rely on God’s redemptive love.
God desires to redeem us, his children, from our sinful ways, the ways of our flesh. Once we finally understand that we are not leaving the desert until we surrender ourselves to God, we are able to experience spiritual growth. In doing so, we begin to know peace, forgiveness, and spiritual strength. In an article titled The Desert Experience, we learn that desert time “is often associated with time of solitude”, and it “gives us a deepening awareness of our thoughts.” These thoughts are a window into our own soul. If we are honest with ourselves as we look into this window, we are able to see ourselves as we are seen by God.
During this time, we are deepening our relationship to the Holy Trinity. We begin to work on our true self. We dig deep in order to discover what parts of ourselves must be cut away, released, and removed. Our self-doubt and insecurities are wiped away. The scales fall from our eyes, and we are able to see our purpose more clearly. In a season of desert, we are being built up (strengthened) from the inside outward. When we are open to hearing from the Holy Spirit, allowing God to give us his unconditional love, and studying the words of Jesus Christ, we are transformed into the person God called us to be.
Many of us have at least heard of the Footprints in the Sand poem. Although there seems to be confliction in regards to who authored it, this classic poem provides us with a wonderful image of Deuteronomy 1:30-31, “The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness [‘desert’], where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place.”
Therefore, as we are able to look back to see one set of footprints in the sand, we will be reminded that it is God who carries us through these most difficult times. Yes, the time we spend in a spiritual desert is a time well spent, when we are able to reap the rewards of our season there!
May God shine His light, love, mercy, grace, and peace upon you!