It was the hardest season of my life, and I had not yet figured out the reason for it. One thing I was absolutely sure of: It was not — it could not be — God’s will.
My spiritual life had followed a powerful trajectory. My faith was born in a Christian home, and it was real. It continued to be real all the way into my teen years. Early in that decade, however, I came to a crisis of faith. I thought I already knew everything about the Christian faith and walk, and it wasn’t fulfilling my deepest longings. In youth group, I was the kid who lived a squeaky clean life; I was the one who could answer all the Bible questions and lead deep discussions on theology. But it wasn’t ringing true — not deep down, not where it mattered.
“God,” I prayed, “there has got to be something more. If this is all there is, I can’t keep following You.”
God heard that prayer and answered it dramatically. A few nights later, alone in my room, I encountered what people call the “presence of God” in a way I had never known it before. For the next nearly two years, I lived in a new realm of love for God and incredible, continual joy at being His. I could sense Him everywhere. I was overflowing with love. I was “on fire.”
It was revival, and I was convinced it would never end.
Then came the breakdown. Somewhere in the midst of my fervor, my fire began to cool. I began to believe that His love for me hinged on my ability to keep His commandments and please Him, and deep inside I knew I wasn’t good enough. Times of worship and prayer became dry, no longer transporting me the way they had once done, and I couldn’t do anything to restore my old passion. And worst of all? My perception of God’s presence faded away.
I stood in my driveway one night as I was taking out the garbage. The sun was setting beyond the mountains on the desert horizon, and I knew something was amiss.
It had been so long since I had felt His presence that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to feel it anymore.
I was afraid of Him.
That realization was devastating.
Led Into the Wilderness
With my inner world crashing around me, I did all I could to recover the walk I’d had with God. I searched my heart for sin and repented. (I made some pretty forced confessions.) I fasted. I prayed. I got other people to pray for me. I did all the right things, all the things that are supposed to transform you into a God-loving, on-fire, dwelling-in-the-presence believer.
And none of them worked.
One thing remained, but it scared me. I thought it was a cop out. That thing was trust.
Could I just give up my striving and trust God to still love me? Could I keep coming to Him in prayer and just assume He was accepting and hearing me because of His Son? Could I trust Him to still lead me and to have a reason for this strange separation, this apartness which I was so sure could not be His will?
I begged Him for some confirmation that choosing such trust wouldn’t be turning my back on Him. (It isn’t easy to give up striving. It doesn’t feel safe.) And then I opened Deuteronomy 8:
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, ESV).
“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you.” Up until that evening, I had always known the Israelites had a reason for the wilderness. They had sinned; they were rebellious and intractable, so they had to go there and wander for 40 years. What I didn’t realize was that God had a reason for putting them there — a reason that was more than just punishment.
The wilderness was training in faith.
I understood that fact at last, and with fear and trepidation, I let go of all my efforts to feel His presence in my life.
It was time just to walk in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a hard place. I struggled for a year with what I now believe was depression. For me, its roots were spiritual, but I’ve also learned that I am a creature of flesh, and the extreme lows I have known are probably linked to physical and circumstantial causes as well. That revelation is incredibly humbling.
The first reason Moses gave for Israel’s 40 years of wandering was this: “That he might humble you.” I hear echoes of Paul and his “thorn in the flesh” in that. That first wilderness season of my life, and others that have followed, have humbled me in many ways. I realize now that God does not owe me continual manifestations of His presence. I realize that I cannot control how God responds to me or even how I respond to Him, in many ways. I realize that I am a vapor, flesh and bone, and all that God has given me is by His grace. (His grace, by the way, looks more wonderful every day. I wonder if I would know it so fully if I had not walked in the wilderness.)
Next, Moses declared that God was “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” It’s interesting to me that we tend to measure spirituality by the degree of outward zeal a Christian shows, rather than by day-to-day commitment even when it’s dreary. Preachers get into their pulpits and beg believers to be more “on fire,” to be more passionately in love with God, to dwell in His presence — as though these are things that are fully within our control. But I know from experience that zeal, fire and passionate love are easy when we’re dwelling in the midst of God’s well-watered gardens, when we’re constantly feeling His presence and hearing His voice. To live in this way feels so good and so right that I could not initially believe it was God who was leading me into the wilderness. Surely not. Surely God would not ask us to stand on, well, faith alone.
Ah, there’s the rub. We are promised that God will be with us always but not that we will always feel Him. We are promised that He will care for us, but not that we will experience never-ending happiness. We are called to walk in faith, to believe that what we cannot see, hear or feel is true — just because God says so.
In dry times, seeking God is difficult. Prayer and fasting is hard. The Bible makes my eyelids heavy. Everything we do feels like going through motions. And yet, it isn’t. It’s incredibly important that God find us still praying in the wilderness. That we continue to walk with Him, sometimes doggedly, in all seasons of our lives. That we never quit clinging to His grace.
God in His mercy does not leave us in the wilderness forever. There are seasons in spiritual life. But the wilderness’ test — believing and seeking God when our surroundings are dry and brittle as sun-baked bone — can actually create a stronger faith.
Living by the Word
Finally, God said, “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.”
What the Israelites learned from manna, God asks me to learn through the circumstances of my life as I read, lean on, cling to and fully trust His Word. The green, rainy seasons of our Christian walk encourage us to lean on what we can feel. We base our faith on the indwelling sense we have of God’s presence. Our fire flows straight from the touch of His hand. But God wants to build in us something stronger.
As my experiences with God began to fade, my need for His Word grew stronger. I couldn’t stand on feelings anymore. I had to know what the Word said, and I had to know how it applied to me. All my hope, all my faith, all my life rested in the things God had spoken and written about himself and about me. That He loved me. That I was justified by the blood of Christ. That I was an heir and child of God — no matter where in this world I wander.
Deuteronomy 8:17 proclaims that God did all this “that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.” The wilderness may last a long time, but it does not lead to more wilderness. God is bringing us to a good land where we will never lack the full knowledge of His presence.
“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills,” Deuteronomy 8:9 promises. When I close my eyes, sometimes I think I catch the scent of water not far away. I pray that God will find me humbled, obedient and trusting Him.
And then I will throw my head back and open my mouth wide, will lift my hands and close my eyes, and let the water drench me until the dust of the wilderness is eternally gone.
Copyright 2011 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.