Not every desert in our lives is one we are led into by God, and not all of the time we spend wandering in the wilderness is time given to God.
But God does lead people into the desert, not to punish them, but as an act of love. Hosea tells us that God ‘lure’s the people, God ‘woos’ us away from a thousand other things that are making a claim on us and lead us jealously to a place in which we can be alone with God our Lover.
The desert is not a place of escape. If the desert we are in is a place of trouble in our lives then it is obviously not so. Even if we choose to spend time away in the desert - it is not to escape - as the monastery is not an escape from the world.
The wise monk Thomas Merton said that we must only leave the world to learn to love it more. We must only leave behind needy people in order to become more committed to serving them. We must only embrace celibacy in order to deepen our love for men and women and ourselves. We must only vow poverty as a way of learning to see true value in the world. We must only waste time with God as a way of discovering what the time of our lives is for.
The desert is not a place for self-hatred or masochism. The Holy Spirit leads us into the desert to speak to our hearts.
To go into the desert is to go on a journey of the heart.
The heart can be a dangerous journey to embark upon, in our hearts we will find that there are things deep inside that can catch us unawares and draws out all the negative ‘stuff’ that God does not want us to have. We need to learn to let go of what binds us and allow God to instil in us a freedom and peace that raises our head and our eyes onto Him when we are caught in a place we do not know or want to be in.
It is in our hearts we find our true being, our identity. We must search our hearts to seek what God has put there so that we may live the lives he created us to have. Human beings are unique in that we store our fears, sorrows, and weaknesses in our hearts and in this state we claim that these are a part of our identity. In our lives we go from one thing to another, meetings, tv programmes, books, meals, friendships, websites…and it can take us away from the journey in the desert that God draws us to.
Elijah was one man who journeyed into the desert and there he found his desert experience was to be one where he needed to sleep, eat and rest. God had a task for him to do, but first of all, the priority was to sleep, eat and rest. God is aware of the task, but we need to be aware that there are limits to our capacity and seek the gifts that God has given to us to be in line with how we are created.
In the desert we see that Jesus suffers three temptations, in two of them Satan merely asks Jesus to prove Himself; by the third he was demanding worship, something that God would never agree to.
Jesus was tempted towards the good parts of being human without the bad: to enjoy the taste of bread without having worked for it by tilling the soil and baking it; to face risk with no real danger and to enjoy fame and power without the prospect of painful rejection – in short as Philip Yancey concludes, to wear a crown, not a cross.
In our greatest weakness, we must find our strength. The temptations we face involve our vices, greed or lust…but for Jesus, the temptations he faced attacked His very being of purpose – if He had given in to temptation, then I would surmise that Jesus would have made it too easy for people to have faith in him. We would have been awed by his miracle, mystery and authority and giving into these temptations would have been Satan’s victory. Philip Yancey suggests that Satan was offering Jesus a quick way of accomplishing his mission, but Jesus amazingly keeps the path of following Him narrow, making the choice of being a disciple of Christ one we shouldn’t make lightly!
The Psalms are a wonderful expression of every human emotion and sufferance and a reminder to each of us that God knows us and His grace knows no bounds.
For Elijah God knew what he needed in the desert, for Jesus he knew the plans of Satan and how to use the Word of God in His defence. For us in our desert we find that all the things we use to define our identities are missing, and we are left with nothing except for what is inside.
My question is, what is inside of you? A lot of us fear that we would find nothing, or only fear and pain, and so we never venture into the desert. In the desert there is nowhere to hide, we are exposed and vulnerable and if God comes to us, as he did for Jesus, as he did for Moses, as he did for Elijah, to show us who we really are to him, then we have a choice to embrace not only Him but the true identity in our hearts – that of God, a child of His making whoever we are, whoever we think we are.
God meets us in our desert. As a 17-year-old teenager I found myself in an urban desert, that of Hackney East London. Homeless and family-less I had no-one but God to throw myself onto. In my homeless desert I found too much quietness, loneliness, despair and seemingly no hope. Lying on my bed in the shelter trying to make sense of what was going on – an echo came back to me of the sound of tears and questions.
Since then I have crossed the path of many an oasis and I have mercifully discovered that God was not only with me in the desert but very much protecting me from great danger and harm in the people that He sent to me.
In other deserts in my life I have found that God has taught me to raise my head and my eyes to Him and as I have done so I have realised that it is not a desert at all. For some of us, we may find that if we raised our heads and eyes a little we will see that the desert turns out to be a beach, after all, so we make a bonfire and know that God is with us, and as the Psalmist declares: is our refuge, our strength, our ever present help in trouble.