In 2008, I had an opportunity to visit Oxford, England. During that time, on a personal front, I was enduring an incredibly difficult period in my life, but one Sunday morning while in Oxford, I visited the St. Aldate’s Church and heard what was for me a powerful and much-needed sermon by Simon Ponsonby that encouraged me to press onward.
I noted this sermon in the post Oxford, England: Re-Visiting the City That Shaped Me, 10 Years Later which caused me to want to review it. The result of that is below, a distilled version of the major points, slightly retold in my prose. Direct or near direct quotes from the sermon are indicated in italics.
I offer this abbreviated version of it in hopes that whether you are currently experiencing hard times or have experienced them in the past, it might be helpful to you and provide insight.
The Wilderness Experience
There are times in our life when God seems to be so incredibly evident, that he is everywhere, present in our lives, and his love and forgiveness is overwhelming. But then there are other times, dark times, when we enter the desert, and it seems God is nowhere to be found and we feel like we are going through hell.
The River Experience
When Jesus was baptized, it was a moment of incredible recognition and affirmation. Can you imagine, the God of heaven and earth parting the clouds to proclaim the arrival of you? And that loud booming voice saying the words we all long to hear from our parents, “This is my child, in whom I am well-pleased.”
What a time of glory, of great joy, where all seems so wonderfully right. This is the river experience, where God’s love seems so real, so evident, and so affirming. It is the rose-colored glasses, the honeymoon phase, the time when all is whole and good.
Yet in the case of Jesus, he is lead almost immediately into the desert, the harsh wilderness, where he was tested and tried.
The river experience is tremendous. It is everything we want, and certainly we do not want to leave, but for the river experience to be meaningful, for you and others to benefit, we must be tempered and forged, broken to be whole again, because by its self the river is not sufficient to equip us for ministry.
The Nature of the Wilderness
There are all manner of things that bring us to the desert, such as failure, suffering, humiliation, bereavement, estrangement, doubt, and disregard. Some are brought on by our actions or the actions of other humans; others are brought on by the nature of the world, but either way, at some point in your life, and perhaps many times, you will be led to the wilderness.
And the reason is because there are certain things that can only be learned in the desert, or learned quickly. Under more comfortable circumstances, the ease of our modern lives, these same lessons might take years to learn, if they are learned at all.
In the desert, all is stripped away. It is a place of separation. Everything that insulates our lives from struggle is removed. It is a place of complete dependency and surrender to God, because you have been so reduced; there is no other alternative.
But sometimes it does not even seem God is there, and we feel completely cut off, not just from the familiar or the comfortable, but from everybody. We can be in a crowd and feel completely alone. We can even feel cut off from ourselves to the point that we don’t even recognize ourselves anymore. And in our most trying moments, in the dark night of the soul, we cry out, “My God, my God, what hast thou forsaken me?”
The desert can be empty, where we feel we are the only ones left. It is a lonely place, a place of survival. It is a letting go of everything that occupies us, and God lets us know that without him, we are dead.
Why Does God Take Us There?
The Wilderness is a place of revelation. We see God and we see ourselves. There is nothing else, nothing to see for miles. There are no cities, no civilization, and we are alone with the sun and the stars at night and it is here that God can reveal himself to us, and then show us what we are like, to humble us.
The desert reveals our frailty, humanity, and weakness, that we might see that the best of men are men at best.
The wilderness is a place where we face and wrestle with hard questions. Will I live for myself or for God? Will it be unto him or unto me? And when we are faced with these tough questions, there will be temptation. We will tell ourselves that we can actually go it alone, that there is a way out, that we ourselves are enough.
This is hubris. Satan tempted Christ with such things.
The Israelites did precisely this for 40 years in the desert. They were delivered from the Egyptians, provided for, and led by God, but they wanted to go back to Egypt! They were fed up with the wilderness, the miraculous provisions of manna and quail. They said “Let us be slaves again.” An entire generation had to die off. They were stubborn and not willing to accept the gift of the desert.
The Silver Lining
Your suffering in the desert is not without meaning. It is not an empty, nihilistic experience void of significance. The wilderness is a place of preparation. We are broken and torn apart so that we might know how to be more tender and compassionate to others.
If you’re going through hell, don’t stop. The desert is not the goal. You don’t want to stay there. It is a means, a path, a gateway, a route. It is to equip us to get back into the world and make a difference. Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus all had their wilderness experiences, and then came out of the desert ready to re-enter the world to make a difference.
And finally, the wilderness is a place of benediction. It is a blessing. We find grace in the desert. The heat cannot erase the grace of God. God first takes us to the river, then to the desert, and back out again, but while we are there, he can bring us water.
If you are in the desert right now, don’t hang out there, but hang in there (that line broke me). Ask God, what is it you are trying to teach me? But teach me quick Lord, because I do not want to be like the Israelites, wandering the desert for 40 years, but rather like Christ for 40 days.
If you are there or have been there, do not think of it as a curse, but a blessing, for the best is yet to come.
I listened to a podcast the other day, an interview of a person who counseled people through tough times, but this person had never quite experienced one themselves. And then, as it does for all people, hard times came upon them. They said all they learned and understood about depression seemed so academic and useless in the face of trying times. Experience is the great teacher.
I have not visited the desert for a long time, but I remember my wilderness experience clearly. Not day by day, not event by event; that is not the kind of memory I am talking about. I remember how it felt. How I was dragged to the depths of depression; how, on many days, I did not think there was a way back again.
But there was, and there is.
If you are struggling, hang in there. If you’re going through hell, don’t stop.
There are many paths out of the wilderness, but inaction is not one of them. Find your friends, group up and be with them, the ones that when the hell comes, they will go through it with you.
Find help. There’s no reason not to. And don’t listen to that voice that tells you otherwise. It’s wrong. If you have no resources, a place to start can be the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And it’s not just for those struggling with suicide, but also for people in emotional distress.
And then find God, in whatever way that is meaningful to you, and learn the lessons of the wilderness.