Lessons in the Desert
By Liz Rhodebeck
You doesn’t usually think of acres of desert sand as an ideal vacation spot. But, there are man-made attractions in the desert such as Las Vegas, and people may go to the desert because a job has brought them there. But generally, people do not go to the desert to view the landscape or camp out in the same way they visit the Grand Canyon or national forests for fun and relaxation. However, from a biblical point of view, time in the desert bears consideration.
For just a few examples, John the Baptist spent his adult life preaching in the desert of Judea (Matt. 3:1-6; Lk. 1:80; 3:1-6; Mk. 1:1-6). Jesus went into the desert for over a month after his baptism (Mk. 1:12-13; Lk. 4:1-2; Matt. 4:1-2). The apostle Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia (Gal. 1:17-18) after his conversion. God’s own people spent a generation wandering in the wilderness or desert (Exodus). Why the desert? What was the purpose?
The desert is a place of solitude, of being separated from other people to contemplate and meet God face to face. Some commentators have suggested the desert is where Paul was taught the gospel by God himself, rather than parroting what the other apostles could teach him; he had his own personal encounter with the Lord validating his apostleship.
Jesus was tempted in the desert before he began his public ministry. This was a time of preparation, of perhaps firming His resolve to do the will of His Father. It was not an easy time. Although angels ministered to His needs, He still had to face what was in Himself as a man through the temptations of Satan.
What does it mean for us to go to the desert today? Going into the desert means more than our daily prayers or our weekly gathering at the church. It means more than reading a chapter a day in the Bible or attending spiritual workshops. It’s an acute examination of our life before God – away from distractions, demands, and preconceived ideas of what the Christian life is all about. It’s more than a relaxing, meditative retreat in a lovely woodland setting.
What can you learn in the desert that you won’t learn elsewhere?
The desert is a place full of hidden surprises and potential.
An old rock song has the line, “The ocean is a desert with its life underground.” It refers to the abundance of marine life that is not visible on the surface of the water – it’s hidden beneath. Much like the ocean appears, the desert seems empty and void of life on the surface. But things are not always what they seem. Marvelously adaptable animal life thrives in the desert. There are many species of insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals that fill the desert if you know where to look for them. Sometimes they are hidden in burrows, caves or under rocks, but there is a viable ecosystem in the desert.
Individuals can be full of hidden potential, too. We can become so accustomed to interpreting life and defining spirituality in a certain way, that we miss the treasures hidden in unconventional places. Sometimes God offers opportunities for service that stretch our ideas of what we think we’re capable of doing. To see the life in the desert is to see new life and talents hidden in ourselves.
The desert is a place of extremes in temperatures that is rarely comfortable.
Most people think of the desert as a dry, hot climate. While the temperatures do indeed soar to over 100 degrees, what many don’t realize is that it can also be very chilly at night – the temperature has been recorded to drop up to 100 degrees in one day. It’s a dramatic daily change that you can’t help but notice. Being prepared for the climate necessitates an odd array of clothing and protection. The truly moderate times of the day are relatively brief; most of the day it is either unbearably hot or cold.
A time of quiet self-examination before God can also help us to see the extremes in our own nature, both good and bad. While there may be inspiring possibilities for good within us, we also can grow from a more honest awareness of our weaknesses. Human nature being what it is, most persons prefer to ignore their faults or greatest temptations. It is more comfortable to live in a mediocre moral climate and not have to face the sometimes painful reality of our own character in order to grow spiritually. On the positive side, time in the desert can afford the opportunity to set new goals, to clarify the dreams in our hearts, and to trust in God’s help to achieve these goals.
The desert is a land of endurance in the face of hardship.
Much like survival in the counterpart arctic climate, to survive in the desert one must be constantly vigilant to the protection of the body. Sunburn, heatstroke, and dehydration are just as dangerous as frostbite and exposure. To drop your guard for even a short time can have debilitating consequences. However, you can live in the desert if you are prepared for the climate and remember to wear light-colored clothing, cover your head, protect your eyes, and drink enough water.
This life on earth is also fraught with spiritual dangers. To live in the world is to live in a climate of moral decay and a plethora of temptations. It is possible, however, to survive as a godly person. It will take daily effort of proper “dressing,” appropriate nutrition of prayer and study, and the patience to put one foot ahead of the other in moral righteousness with our trust in God to lead us.
The desert demands obedience to its rhythms of the day for survival.
A photographer once wanted to take photos of the native wildlife in the desert. Finding a rattlesnake sequestered under a rock, the photographer hooked it and brought it out into the sunlight for a picture. While the photographer took a short ten minutes to set up the camera equipment for the shot, the rattlesnake died. The person had neglected to realize that the snake could not survive in the full afternoon sun and it had literally “cooked” to death in the heat. The rattlesnake’s instinct had led it to the cool safety of the shaded rock, but the ignorant photographer had removed it from life-saving protection.
The desert has a daily rhythm of heating up and cooling down to which the native species have adapted. During the hottest part of the day, nearly all creatures seek some kind of shelter and rest. When the relative coolness of evening arrives, activity picks up and the desert animals venture from their hiding places to forage for food. It is suicidal to try and search for food in the scorching sun of the afternoon.
The wise traveler in the desert will do likewise, taking rest in the heat of the afternoon and moving on during the more moderate times of the day. To disregard these daily cycles of the desert is to expose yourself to unnecessary risk; it is learning to live in the confines of the environment.
Likewise, God has given us boundaries or a certain environment to live within. To ignore the will of God usually only causes discomfort and gets us into trouble. To obey the rhythm of God’s will, like submitting our routine to the rhythms of the desert, will ensure our comfort and survival. Rebellion to these principles can cause our demise. God longs for man’s fellowship and provides moral guidelines not to deprive us, but to make sure we make it safely through the spiritual desert and to His side.
Making a trip to the desert.
Obviously, a literal visit to the desert is not feasible for most, nor is it necessary to do so in order to understand the lessons of the desert. We can, however, take that journey in our spirits and minds. We can seek that solitude and separateness that leads us face-to-face with God. It is a time of being inwardly still and listening for God’s voice in the silent desert.
How do you get there? It’s hard to explain in some ways. It is more than desire and requires a certain “readiness.” It’s like wanting to be mature and saying, “Alright, today I am mature.” It can’t be done because maturity is more of a process that needs time to develop. Going to the desert is a matter of timing and desire. When the time is right, God’s spirit can lead you to that inward desert. When you desire honesty in your spiritual life more than comfort, when you have the patience to endure the heat, then you may go. One season in the desert can give us the singleness of purpose that John and Paul found; it can deepen our knowledge of God and of ourselves.
Go to the desert and learn its lessons.