It was history in the making before their very eyes. The all-powerful God of the universe destroyed the cruel and powerful nation that was enslaving them. The very support systems that gave their masters the ability to suppress them were pulverized. The people of Israel literally walked out on the Egyptians. God’s final blow left the Egyptian army drowned in the sea. It’s an unparalleled story of salvation and redemption.
Israel was free—free from oppression, free from slavery and free from cruel and merciless treatment. But God’s salvation plan wasn’t completed. Oh no, there was a much more sinister enemy that needed to be destroyed—one they didn’t realize was enslaving them. This enemy would prove much harder to defeat.
God rescued Israel from Egypt and led them straight into the wilderness. Why did God lead them to this place of barrenness? Why to a place with so many difficulties? Hadn’t God promised a land flowing with milk and honey?
In his farewell letter to Israel, Moses recounts the events of the wilderness experience and reveals God’s purpose for it. He told the Israelites, “…God has led you… 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).
God still uses wilderness experiences today. While we may not face a literal wilderness, we all face spiritual wildernesses. We experience times of barrenness and discouragement. There are times of complete inadequacy and God seems silent. How should we respond in these circumstances?
Let’s see what the Scripture quoted above teaches us about Israel’s experience in the wilderness and what lessons we can draw for our experiences.
God uses the wilderness to humble us. Our own attempts at being humble fall short and usually leave us proud of being “humble”. Sometimes we mask our lack of confidence as humility. True humility, on the contrary, is fully confident. True humility recognizes the truth that we’re totally dependent on God and our confidence rests fully on him. This kind of humility is formed in the wilderness.
The wilderness exposes what’s in our hearts. Our tendency is to find someone to blame. We fault our environment. We complain about our leaders and churches. We blame fellow believers. If they would do or say the right things, it would make it easier to respond correctly. But this focus totally misses the real issue. Jesus said. “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34b). Our lack of Christ-like responses isn’t the fault of the wilderness but rather of a misaligned heart. The wilderness doesn’t create a misaligned heart, it only exposes it.
The wilderness tests my faith. God’s call is to walk by faith, not by sight. I want God to fill my coffers before the need arises. I want God to fill my pantry before I’m hungry. But wait, isn’t that walking by sight? God let the Israelites experience hunger and thirst (Deut. 8:3, 15) before providing what they needed. Faith rests in God’s goodness and provision in times of need. Faith obeys God even when it doesn’t make sense. The needs experienced in the wilderness test the authenticity of my professed faith in God.
The wilderness counters self-dependence. God wanted Israel to recognize that their source of life was in Him. In the wilderness they couldn’t sustain themselves. Their own strength couldn’t produce the manna or bring the water out of the rock. They were dependent on God.
It was in the wilderness that Israel’s greatest enemy was exposed--the one staring back at them from the waters of Marah. It took 40 years of wilderness wanderings to deal the enemy a sufficient blow. It was God’s mercy and love that led them into the wilderness to save them from that enemy. His intent is clear, he humbled them and tested them to do them “good in the end” (Deut. 8:16).
I’m sure all of us want to grow in humility, have a deeper faith, recognize areas of needed growth and be more dependent on God. If this is your desire, you can embrace the wilderness. The lessons it teaches and the redemption it works are for your ultimate good.