What comes to mind when you think of the word “wilderness”? A parcel of land in the Adirondacks or maybe in the Sahara Dessert. Well, Rob Renfroe, in his book titled, “A Way Through the Wilderness. Growing in Faith When Life is Hard” (Abington Press), invites us to see that the word wilderness might well describe a life situation that we find ourselves in. “The wilderness,” he writes, “is that time when we learn the lessons that God has to teach us ‘old school’-that is, through suffering and persevering and trusting in a God whose plan we cannot comprehend and whose presence we may not feel.”
A number of years ago, I was serving as pastor of a church and I found myself in a very hard place, in the wilderness. As I look back over that time, I now see that I learned some challenging lessons that God wanted to teach me as I suffered, persevered and trusted in God’s plan for me that wasn’t all that clear at the time.
Renfroe helps us to see that we end up in a wilderness for a number of reasons, of which he mentions four: 1) because of our own bad decisions and wrong actions like when we choose to give into fear rather than live by faith, 2) because of the actions of others whom we trust and love when they betray us and act uncaring or even demeaning toward us, 3) because of the natural flow of life’s circumstances like when our company downsizes and we’re let go or when a loved one becomes seriously ill, and (4) because God may be testing us in order to help us see what needs to be changed or corrected in our relationship with God so that we may be better equipped to live like Jesus and fulfill his mission for our life. Our time in the wilderness can be productive if we see it as an opportunity to grow, or it can be viewed as a burden unjustly placed upon us and cause us to be bitter.
Renfroe encourages us to view the wilderness not as our enemy, but as our friend.
“It’s telling you exactly what you need to know about yourself – where you’re strong, where you’re weak, and where you need to grow so that you can become more like Jesus.” This is the reason we’re told in the Old Testament as to why God led his people, the Israelites, into the desert before they entered the Promised Land. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart whether God provides all that we need and is willing and able to use every circumstance and situation that we experience in our wilderness or not, you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3 NIV).
Our God promises to be with us when we’re on the mountaintop and when we’re in the desert! Our gracious and loving to deepen our faith and develop our character, so that we may not only love more like Jesus, but live more like him, too.
Today, if you find yourself in a dark place, a wilderness in which you struggle with suffering and pain for whatever reason, know that you are not alone. God is with you! And because God loves you immeasurably more than you’ll ever know, begin to trust his word and promises to provide for you and to help you to find your way, his way, out of the wilderness that you’re now in. Know also that there are others who have traveled through the wilderness and are willing to be there for you to encourage you and support you – your sisters and brothers in Christ.
“Sometimes” Renfroe writes, “God allows us to enter a time of wilderness so that we will turn to him, be transformed inwardly, and be made ready to be used for his glory and the good of others.” Maybe, just maybe, this is God’s desire for you. Maybe it’s time to turn from your ways to God’s ways and come home.
The Rev. Ed Hackett Jr. is the pastor of Foothills United Methodist Church in Gloversville.