“At certain times and places God will build a mysterious wall around us. He will take away all the supports we customarily lean upon, and will remove our ordinary ways of doing things. God will close us off to something divine, completely new and unexpected and that cannot be understood by examining our previous circumstances. We will be in a place where we do not know what is happening, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives by a new pattern and thus where He causes us to look to Him. Most Christians lead a treadmill life – a life in which they can predict almost everything that will come their way. But the souls that God leads into unpredictable and special situations are isolated by Him. All they know is that God is holding them and that He is dealing in their lives. Then their expectations come from Him alone.”
Streams in the Desert, 5 April LB Cowman
It took some time for me to understand God’s University of the Desert and then to trust Him in those deep experiences. But then it took even further time to recognise not only God’s presence in the loneliness of the desert, but also God’s purposes in the desert as He would be preparing me for the next season of my life.
In the process I found perspective as I began to read the scriptures with a desert paradigm and I was surprised how many of God’s choice leaders spent time in the desert at critical seasons in their lives. Many of them became my mentors on how to live life in the desert. People like Joseph (Genesis 37:36), Abraham (Genesis 12:1-7), Moses (Exodus 2:15), David (1 Samuel 22:1-2), John The Baptist (Luke 3:2-3), Jesus (Luke 4:1-2), Paul (Galatians 1:16-17) and the Apostle John (Revelations 1:9).
Gradually it dawned on me that God has a choice discipleship training school called the University of the Desert. It is not one in which we can formally enrol and undertake classes of our own choosing and be graded on our academic achievements. Rather, it is one in which God sovereignly works through the circumstances of our lives to test us in order to approve us and then entrust us with responsibilities that are known only to Him (2 Thessalonians 2:4.) Sometimes it is only God and I that are aware of the fact that the class in the University of the Desert is in session.
The following are some of the lessons I have learned as a result of studying the scriptures and from my experiences in the desert.
- It is normal for God to sovereignly plan seasons in the desert in the lives of His servants. So important is the desert experience in God’s leadership emergence program that it is unlikely that the people God uses will avoid time in the desert at some critical stage in their lives. There are some tests that can only be passed in the desert and there are some lessons that can only be learned in the desert where the flesh life is dealt a stunning blow and total dependence on God and a humble spirit is developed.
- In the desert, God tests us to reveal what is in our hearts. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert those forty years to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.” Deuteronomy 8:2 (Also Proverbs 17:3, Deuteronomy 13:3, 1 Samuel 16:7) God does not promote people on mere potential, but rather He promotes those who pass the tests that come their way, often unnoticed, like tests of integrity and obedience and faithfulness that can come in moments of disappointment and rejection and failure. Perhaps there is no better reference that a person can have than the reference we find in Romans 16:10: “Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.”
“Storms may sweep down upon us from different directions and for different reasons. Sometimes Satan causes the storm, sometimes people cause the storm. Sometimes I cause the storm. And sometimes the Lord sends the storm. But no matter who or what the cause, they all work to reveal the same things: – the nature of my faith – the strength of my commitment – the level of my maturity – the health of my attitude – the measure of my teachability.”
- Our Journey that leads us into desert experiences does not take God by surprise. Even in Jesus life we read that He “was led by the Spirit in to the desert, to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1) Sometimes it might even seem that it is a consequence of the sinfulness of other people that causes us to go through a painful season in the desert but God is sovereign and He is still able to work out His purposes in the most difficult of experiences. Joseph teaches us the importance of attitude and focus on God and not our circumstances in the desert when he speaks to his brothers who purposed to destroy him years earlier:” Don’t be afraid. Am I not in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
- In the Desert God allows many or all of our ‘Props’ to be removed from us. In one particular desert experience, I witnessed the closing of some familiar doors that had become sources of security for me. These props were removed and in the process, I realised that it was appropriate to let go of them as God began to reposition me and remind me that my security and identity needed to be found in my relationship with Him alone. In the desert, God is taking us to a place of total dependence on Him and that can involve some painful moments of props being taken away as we learn to walk by faith. Some of these props can include sources of income, areas of responsibility, positions of influence, relationships, health etc.
- The Desert is a place of choices. Options emerge in life in the desert. I can take control of life in the desert and react to the circumstances in which I find myself, or I can trust my situation to God and surrender my circumstances to Him. But I must make the choice as to which option I will select. In one desert experience, I remember clearly hearing God speak into my unfolding situation. He said, ‘In this desert, Rod, you can give birth to an Isaac or an Ishmael.” And I remember the story of Abram and Sarai as they needed to trust God for the birth of their promised son. To choose an Isaac requires a person in the desert to wait on God and trust God for what is humanly impossible and is born of the Spirit. To choose an Ishmael results in a person in the desert taking control and rushing ahead to do that which is born out of the flesh and is humanly possible.
- The Desert is an intensive time of personal character growth. Consider the contrast in the life of Moses before and after his desert experience. In his first forty years of life we read “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.” (Acts 7:22). Compare this with Moses’ own words after the second forty years of his life after his desert experience, Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). What an incredible change as Moses experienced brokenness and a loss of confidence in the flesh and now was forced to be totally dependent on God. He would now learn that when he was weak, he would be strong. Often we find that when a person’s growth in competence outgrows their growth in character, this becomes a recipe for self-destruction. The desert is a place of humbling and brokenness where we are stripped of our independence and pride and learn to become God dependent.
- The Desert is a place of Spiritual Warfare “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit in to the desert to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew 4:1 Not only is the desert a time where God is at work preparing us for future seasons of life, it is a time when the enemy will do all he can to remove us from the arena of God’s purposes. In the desert, our points of vulnerability can become even more acute and Satan, who knows us all too well, will press in to try and cause us to fail the tests of the desert. Paul challenges us to be “strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” and to “put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Ephesians 6:10-11 Remember, the devil is persistent. “When the devil had finished all this tempting (of Jesus), he left Him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13)
- The Desert is a place where we learn to experience intimacy with God at a deeper level and see things from His perspective Life in the desert is less cluttered and more simplified. In the desert God strips us of the things of the world and frees us to go deeper with Him. The wells of life are deeper in the desert. More and more we begin to see things the way God sees things. This is perspective, that quality which separates leaders from followers. The desert is a place of revelation, as we see in the case of John the Baptist: “The word God came to John… in the desert.” Luke 3:2 The desert is a time of preparation for the future and is a time where God teaches His chosen servants to learn how to follow His promptings and partner with Him in what He is doing. In the desert, we transition from knowing about God to knowing God, as we are weaned from the accumulation of things that have hindered us from hungering and thirsting for the Living Water. “But when God who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but went immediately into Arabia (the desert) and later returned to Damascus” (Galatians 1:15-17)
- The Desert is a place where we strengthen the disciplines that form a strong foundation for our future lives and ministry. God has no shortcuts in His training program and the dropout rate can be high. The desert has a way of stripping life down to the basics and causing us to evaluate what is ultimately important and what is not. In the desert we are set free from the world’s agendas to create a materialistic heaven on earth and we realise that it is in the establishment of spiritual disciplines that we can move beyond the superficiality of our culture and deepen our foundations. Upon these foundations, God is then able to build a strong kingdom.
- The Desert is a place of victory that leads to a new future in the fullness of God’s time. “Forget the former things. Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert. And streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19
“But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23:10
There comes a time when life in the desert will end. For life in the desert is a time of preparation, a time of revelation and new perspective, a time of learning how to walk in the presence of God, a time to pull all the props away and move on from the things of the past and a time to walk by faith into the future and trust God to be our provider. Just as the Lord leads us into the desert, so it is that He leads us out of the desert, often with the promise that the best is yet to come.