I’ve never thought about the wilderness much, although some might call the prairie I grew up on the wilderness compared to the big city lights of the Bay. But that never felt like the wilderness to me.
During a particularly difficult year, my counselor said, “Jackie, I think you are in the wilderness. You weren’t expecting this move to Michigan to be so hard, and it has challenged you more than you thought possible. But what could God be doing with you here?”
I wanted to yell, “being a big jerk who is making my life miserable!!!”
Instead, I mumbled that I had no idea.
The next year was a year in the wilderness, in loneliness, in trying to figure out what God had for me there.
Lesson #1: I can’t even imagine my whininess if I was forced to eat manna every day with an occasional quail instead of wood-fired pizza and lavender lattes. I would be unbearable.
Lesson #2: I like my life to be fun and full and easy. I hate the wilderness. I hate the empty and the barren and the scarce.
And I hate facing who I am in the wilderness, hate seeing my brokenness and my sin. I hate all of that mess being exposed, hate letting others into it.
Lesson #3: Whether or not I want to admit it, God has always worked in beautiful and painful ways through the wilderness. I am not an exception to this rule.
I love this passage in Deuteronomy, when God pulls back the curtain a bit to show the Israelites a peek into what he was doing while they were in the wilderness.
“And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Deuteronomy 8:2-3
That year – and every patch of wilderness since – has indeed been the testing ground, a humbling. Because I am so relational, loneliness is often the place of my wilderness, the place when I am most tempted to leave the God I love. It’s the empty spaces where it doesn’t seem worth it any more, when I am most prone to chase after other lovers, quite literally in this case.
But it’s in the empty and the barren and the scarce that I learn about who I am when life isn’t going according to my plans. It’s where I learn to bring that broken heart to God, to offer the shreds of it to him. It’s where I learn to grieve, to long for heaven. And it’s where I learn what I really believe about God, if he is enough or not.
That year turned out to be one of the most painful of my life. My circumstances didn’t change much, and the loneliness was searing. I would not wish it back.
But it was also a year when I probed whether I love God because of what he gives me, or because of who he is. It’s a year when I started to learn what my faith actually was underneath all of the chatter. It’s a year when I learned to sit with the questions instead of offering easy answers to myself and everyone else, like a spiritual vending machine. It’s a year when I learned to ask for help, to humble myself in new and vulnerable ways. It’s a year when I learned to see God’s provision, not in the ways I wanted, but in the ways I needed.
And it’s a year when I met God in a new and raw way, where he took me to a place I would have not chosen to go and changed me in ways only the empty could.