The Sahara can be a lonely and disheartening place. I’ve been to this seemingly endless North African sandbox several times. Its beauty, overshadowed by the harshness and potential for disaster, was often not seen till after I returned home and reviewed my photos. On one trip, I hunkered down in a house with my team, riding out a sandstorm in which the air remained a foggy dark brown with little visibility for almost three weeks. During another, I nearly froze under the stars in my sleeping bag in the sand, anxious about getting trampled by a group of nearby camels. But the most disheartening experience was running out of gas along a barren stretch of road, miles from any village. We never saw another car. Our vehicle had a second fuel reservoir, but the mechanism used to switch the intake between the two tanks wasn’t working. In the end, I had to suck on a siphoning tube to manually move gasoline from the full one to the empty one. What a relief when the car finally started again.
And yet occasionally I have had the eyes to see some profoundly beautiful things in this grim and desolate place. Green spots can suddenly appear while driving through the sea of brown rock and sand. An oasis is an exquisite sight in the desert. Jesus followers who somehow persevere in the midst of threats and persecution can unexpectedly show up at your door. What a humbling experience to interact with a believer who truly understands the cost of following our Lord. And, in my mind, the symbol that best represents hope in this seemingly lifeless and uninhabitable land is the date palm. It thrives in desolately arid regions and produces some of the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted. We gorged ourselves on this desert candy while camping beside a cool pool of water in an oasis. It was a very exotic experience.
Life in the Wilderness
Sometimes, followers of Jesus feel as if we have been led into a desert with no oasis in sight. It’s difficult to imagine beauty or opportunities for nourishment in harsh, dry and dusty places. The goal is usually just to find a way to get through as quickly and as painlessly as possible. And yet many followers of Jesus talk of the “dry seasons” of their faith. They wonder where God has gone, what’s up with not being able to hear His voice like they could in the past, and why serving Him feels so much harder than it use to. Desert experiences are not fun. What kind of good can they possibly provide?
God has a habit of revealing aspects of His character during dry and barren seasons. In Genesis 16:7-15 we have the story of Hagar, pregnant, running from an abusive situation, and in the wilderness alone. God shows up and she comes to understand that He is “the God who sees me.” In Exodus 3, Moses is performing the mundane task of watching sheep in the desert when God appears in a burning bush. He receives his calling to lead the people of Israel out of slavery as well the understanding that God’s identity is summed up in the phrase “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Then there’s Elijah. He’s in a lonely cave, depressed and ready to give up on life when he learns that God speaks in a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12-13). And of course Jesus, hungry and in the desert, experiences victory over Satan. So what’s going on?
A Unique Place for Unique Growth
In the desert our resources are reduced, with calling on God sometimes the only option. We feel our frailty and weaknesses more intensely. Desperation arises within, and our values become clearer as we see what is unable to sustain us and what gives true life. God is very aware of those moments when we are most likely to respond positively to what He is saying. And thus He sees the potential of what can grow in those arid seasons. Like the date palm, some of the sweetest and most nourishing character is produced in the desert. In fact, some qualities can grow only in the driest of conditions. Our Heavenly Father values the eternal fruit these miserable but unique seasons can produce in our lives. Do we?
So, how do we survive and even thrive in the desert? First of all, don’t curse it. It is the perfect time to declare our trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness even though we can’t see or feel what He is doing.
Second, we must secure our fuel supply. The spiritually dry times are when we have to press daily into the scriptures and pray without feeling it. Although our emotions may be fasting from sweet and comfortable experiences, our spirits must be fed to sustain us through the wilderness travel. I have found personally that the dry seasons provide opportunities for me to practice operating out of my spirit in communion with the Holy Spirit rather than purely from my emotions or intellect. I often forget that I am both a physical and spiritual being, and my spirit must be fed and exercised as well.
And thirdly, remember that it’s temporary. Letting go of hope is one of the dangers of journeying through the desert. We are tempted to believe that it’s going to be this way forever. But it’s not. Foolish decisions are often made when we feel we’re hopelessly stuck. Yet He is always providing a way forward.
Essential to Our Maturity
Ultimately, the dry times allow our roots (using a different metaphor) to deepen and spread out, allowing us to draw nourishment in ways we haven’t before. We are meant to grow in the wilderness, increasing our capacity to endure and see new aspects of God’s character.
There is beauty in the desert if we will only stop and let God adjust our sight. He is always drawing us to Himself, no matter the place, no matter the season. Will you trust Him even when it doesn’t feel like He’s near?