5 Lessons I Learned in the Desert

5 Lessons I Learned in the Desert

God actually brings people through the desert. On purpose. Because He loves them.

Let that sit for a bit.

The desert.

You know, that place where you’re all alone. That place where there’s absolutely nothing around for miles. That place where wild animals are looking for their next meal. That place where your deepest fears and insecurities seep up from the depths of your soul because you’re left alone with them.

That place where no matter what you do, you don’t feel God’s presence and nothing turns out the way you thought it would. That place where you’ve done everything you’ve been told to do in the past: pray, read your Bible, listen to hymns about God, go to church and it just doesn’t work.

That place is where I’ve found myself wandering throughout this past year. To say that it’s been exhausting, emotional, and just plain hard would be an understatement.

And yet, being led into the desert was God’s purposeful and loving path for me to be formed in the ways of Jesus. And through it, I’ve learned a lot.

1) God cares more about my heart than He does about the results of my “ministry”

God used the desert to show me the places in my life where I didn’t love Him. He began to strip away any semblance of productivity and success. God made it clear: more than the number of people I lead to Jesus, more than the leaders I’ve trained and developed, more than the partnerships I’ve forged, He cares about my heart being surrendered to Him.

2) Often times I live like I’m a Christian Moralist

When I didn’t see the results and “fruit” of all my hard work I felt guilty and shameful. In order to cover those feelings up, I worked harder. But what God began to show me was that it’s not my job to take away guilty and shame. That’s Jesus’ job. That’s why He died. God began to show me what was in my heart. Spiritual pride. “I can do it myself.” Instead God pointed me to a place of love and humility; the way of Jesus.

3) You can’t read and pray your way out of the desert

Scripture is full of verses that talk about “waiting on the Lord.” We often think that that the longer we’ve been walking with Jesus, the more “experiences” we’d have with Him. We’re often told that we’re supposed to “feel” God’s presence all the time. And so it’s confusing, we often think that the more character/maturity we have in Christ, the deeper the experience of God we should have. When we stop having the “feeling,” often our response is to go back to what we know. “But, I’ve read my Bible, I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to church…why does God still seem so distant?” What I began to understand is that God’s desire is to take us to real places of growth. Thats the purpose of the desert, to expose one’s heart. God strips us of what’s worked before to draw us into deeper relationship with Him. God brings us to places where all we can do is pull up a chair and sit down while we wait for Him to form us, grow us, and lead us out of the desert.

4) God desires for us to be vulnerable with Him

I was raised as a good Baptist.  I could never imagine telling God I was angry at Him. I mean, I probably told God I didn’t like something once or twice, but never dared to express my anger towards Him for putting me in a specific situation. And yet, this past year I’ve spent more time reading Psalms and Lamentations than ever before. Let’s be very clear: David and the writer of Lamentations were extremely honest with how they felt about their subsequent situations. They held nothing back. As I began to share the anger, frustration, sadness, and brokenness that was in the depths of my heart, I in turn experienced the invitation of God to draw near to Him in love and comfort. He loved me despite the smorgasbord of genuinely negative feelings I had towards Him. Allowing yourself to feel emotions in the midst of your situations and offering them up to God who in turn responds with love is a recipe for heart change. And that’s what began to happen.

5) We need community to point us to Jesus when we can’t find the way ourselves

The desert is disorienting, exhausting, and grueling. When you’re in the middle of the desert it’s hard to tell which way is up. I’m grateful that in the middle of one the hardest seasons of my life, God graciously surrounded me with people who knew which way was up. When I couldn’t hear God’s voice, they listened on my behalf. When I couldn’t “feel” God’s love for me, they showed me the love of God. When I couldn’t see God’s faithfulness they pointed out God’s gracious provision. They prayed faithfully for me, listened intently to the cries of my heart, and sat with me when I needed friendship and comfort. They pointed me to Jesus when I couldn’t find my way through the desert. A community that reflects the person and work of Jesus transforms neighborhoods and lives. That’s why community is so important.

 

Truth and Love

These past couple of months have been pretty crazy around here. We’ve seen a lot of suffering, brokenness, and devastation in the lives of those around us. Fires have destroyed homes and left many to start over completely. Some have lost loved ones; babies, relatives, friends, all without any warning or reason. Others have been hit with financial burdens that seem almost too big to overcome. Addictions have ruined marriages and families. All of these are vivid reminders that things aren’t as they were intended to be. 
If you grew up in the church at all – upon one of these tragedies extending to your immediate family you’ve most likely been inundated with promise upon promise about how God will take care of you, how He’s always there with you, or even how He has a plan for your life even in the midst of this tragedy. When something in someone’s life begins to go wrong these promises come flying out of mouths faster than clay pigeons out of a trap. We drop “promise bombs” all over the pain, hoping to bring comfort to the afflicted and hope to the suffering. 
When someone dies; Tell them it’s part of God’s plan, Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Then follow it up with, “I’m praying for you.”
When someone loses their job; tell them about the birds, Matthew 6:26 – “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Then follow it up with, “I’m praying for you.”
When someone is struggling with just about anything else; tell them God’s always with them, Hebrews 13:5b – “…“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Then follow it up with, “I’m praying for you.”
I want to first acknowledge the truth and complete veracity of Scripture. I believe that these passages (though most often taken terribly out of context) are completely true and point us to the reliability, faithfulness and deep love our Father has for us.

With that being said, if you’ve been on the receiving end of any of those “promise bombs” you know that in the midst of pain, they often times ring hauntingly hollow. I believe people genuinely want to say something that’ll help. Most of us simply don’t know what to say. But we feel obliged to say something to fill that awkward void that so often surrounds the pain. But I’d argue, saying something along the lines of the aforementioned is about as helpful as a solitary box fan in the middle of a house with no AC in the middle of a heatwave (useless – not that I speak from experience or anything).
Often we think that pointing people back to the truths of Scripture in the midst of devastation and brokenness is helpful. And, in most ways, it absolutely is. The problem arises when we point back to truth and it’s devoid of any real, tangible love. When that happens, our words often serve more as a catharsis for our own selves than actually providing any semblance of encouragement for those in a place of hurt. And when we speak truth apart from real tangible love we are encapsulating well what Warren Wiersbe says, “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” The two must go together.

You see, rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is a connection, a relationship. The reason I think that so many times our little words of encouragement ring so hollow is because they come from a place detached from connection and relationship. It’s so much easier for us to simply speak truth from a place of “having it all together” than to step into the hurt with those dealing with it. Walking with people through the hurt is a lot harder than simply offering up a little anecdote. It takes work, it takes risk, it takes being inconvenienced – it takes love.

Jesus was a great example of this, he stepped into those places of pain, walked through it alongside of those suffering. I love John 11, it paints this beautiful picture of death, suffering, and Jesus entering into the pain that was felt by Mary and Martha in the wake of their brother’s death. He felt it with them. He didn’t simply say, “At least you still have your sister,” or “Don’t worry, I work everything out for the good of those who believe in me…” No, he listened, he entered into their pain, and loved them well in it and through it. Jesus’ response was one rooted in connection and relationship.

As we walk with our neighbors, our friends, our family, we are continually reminded at just how hard it is to really love them well and contend for them as Jesus did. But I believe that’s what we’re called to do. Especially as we walk through difficulties and tragedies with them. May our first response to tragedy be one of love, engagement, and walking with those who hurt. It’s when we do that well, that our words of truth have much more power. Truth and love must always go together.