The wilderness as a classroom

In Hosea 2:14-15, God says to the Israelites, “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” 

Haleakala Sliding Sands Trail on Maui. 
Yes, even Maui has places that seem hostile to life.

Through the prophet, the Lord is telling His people that He will need to take them to the wilderness, a place of deprivation and hardship before they will really understand His love for them and start responding to that love in covenant loyalty.

Recently I did a study of the concept of wilderness in Scripture. The wilderness is a lonely place and life is harsh. It is not a fun place to be. Whether you call it a dry time or a period of discouragement or a wilderness experience, many of us have experienced a time in our ministry when we feel that we have lost our passion for ministry or feel like we no longer are contributing anything important to what God is doing in this world. 

I can think of a couple of times in my life where I felt that God had temporarily “shelved” me.   One of those times came during language study, when due to my inability to communicate and lack of understanding of my new culture, I felt very restricted in my ability to do those things in ministry that I had done with joy and ease in my previous assignment.  Another time when I felt as if God had set me aside came later after many years of ministry and significant experience in leadership.  Due to a number of discouragements in ministry, I went through a span of several months when I thought of resigning basically every day.  I had no idea if this wilderness road would ever end, and I wondered whether the only way out of it was to change jobs and return home.

In a previous blog post, Elaine Loewen from Japan shares a short testimony of how God took her through one of those wilderness experiences and restored her passion for ministry.    As Elaine says, the wilderness is a place where we learn to deepen our faith in God.  She writes, “My pain and discouragement were opportunities to hold on to who he is and to express my faith in him.”   When life looks bleak, and we do not see the end of the road, God calls us to walk by faith, not by sight.

Duane Garrett in his New American Commentary on Hosea in an excursus on the ideal of the wilderness says,

(The wilderness) is also a place where one learns complete reliance on God. The wilderness is therefore also the place of testing, repentance, and spiritual growth. Deuteronomy 8:2 declares that God left Israel in the wilderness for forty years “in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.”  Thus the time of Israel’s punishment was redeemed in that it became a time of cleansing and renewal, and Jer 2:2 remembers it not as a time of apostasy but of special devotion to Yahweh. John the Baptist, fulfilling Isa 40:3, preached the message of repentance from the wilderness (Matt 3:1–3). Jesus, moreover, had to confront temptation in the wilderness as the final act of preparation for his ministry (Matt 4), perhaps because it was there he especially confronted the weakness of what it means to be human. Paul also appears to have spent time in the wilderness prior to his missionary work (Gal 1:17).   (Garrett, p. 90)

Sometimes the wilderness is the place where God needs to take us before we can start hearing His voice. I found more than 75 different passages in both the OT and NT that identified the wilderness as a place where people met God in a significant way. Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus all experienced the wilderness as both a place of great testing and wonderful communion with God.   When we are in the wilderness, we no longer hear the voices of others assuring us that we are important, successful and even indispensable.  We realize how weak and helpless we really are.  In the quietness, when we are left alone with our doubts about our own significance, God’s still small voice can finally be heard (see 1 Kings 19:13).  All though He will speak tenderly (Hosea 2:14), what we will likely hear from God will likely focus more on His significance and sufficiency, rather than our own.   

So maybe rather than seeking to avoid the wilderness at all costs, we should be scheduling times in the wilderness when we can hear God.   I am not talking so much about a literal wilderness as a place of quiet and solitude where you can turn off the noise of ministry demands and email for an extended period of time.   
In the book that Elaine references, Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion, Wayne Cordeiro says, 

The desert fathers went to the wilderness because the simplicity of life there offered few distractions. They quieted every demand and opened their ears to only One Voice. In the silent sands they turned to prayer and reconnection with God. Then when they were refreshed, they’d return to teach, counsel, make spiritual decisions, and provide pastoral care. In due time, they turned again to the desert for another period of refreshing. This oscillation between desert and ministry is a nonnegotiable pattern for today’s busy pastor” (p. 69).

Cedar Mountain Wilderness in northern Utah

I believe the same cycle of ministry interspersed with times of solitude and reflection is necessary for the busy missionary. How long since you have taken a Day Alone with God, a half-day of prayer or even a regular Sabbath?  I believe that regular times of listening to God and reflecting on what God has been teaching us over the last while is an essential part of livelong learning.  I find that I need several hours, if not a whole day, to quiet my mind and heart enough so that I can listen and reflect on what God might be trying to teach me over the past few months.

The wilderness is a great time for this reflection.   In Leading on Empty, Wayne Cordeiro says,

Solitude is a chosen separation for refining your soul. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the first.  (p. 70)

 Experience alone will not make us wiser. When we repeat a mistake, experience only reminds us that we made this same blunder before. But experience plus reflection will grant us insight, and insight helps us to grow and change.   Pain is inevitable. Misery is not. You see, pain is a result of loving deeply and living fully. Misery, on the other hand, is a result of living without reflecting and trying to forge our future without insight.  (p.97-98).

On the SEND U wiki, on the Personal Development page, you can find the Helps for a Day Alone With God, one that we give to all of our new missionaries in our Member Orientation Program.   On our Language & Orientation page, you will find a learning activity for new missionaries focusing on solitude and deprivation, using the example of David’s experience in his wilderness years.   On the wiki page for Member Care, you can find some good books dealing with balance, margin and Sabbath. I would also recommend a series of reflection questions that I go through once a quarter, entitled Reflect and refocus.
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