At some point, then, it seems we all have to pass through a time of wilderness. Everything gets a bit dried out, the path seems rocky, we look in vain for the greening of the landscape that we believe will put everything right again.
I have felt that longing, believe me. I have stared at every twig that shows promise of a green shoot, willing myself out of the dryness of the wilderness and into the comfort of something altogether easier and more verdant. It doesn’t seem right that God would want me out here, alone and thirsty. Surely? Isn’t he as invested as I am in getting me out of this place?
This is what the people of God have wrestled with since forever, it seems. The Israelites were in the wilderness for way, way longer than anyone expected (or thought remotely reasonable). And it’s true, somehow in the wilderness they found God. Scripture tells us that he ‘split rocks in the wilderness and gave them to drink abundantly from the deep’ (Psalm 78:15). So they had some sort of encounter, their thirst was being met. But they still wanted more, it wasn’t enough simply not to be thirsty while they trudged through this barren landscape.
So “they spoke against God, saying ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ They demanded food they craved … When the Lord heard he was full of rage … because they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power.”
And here’s the kicker: “Yet he commanded the skies … he gave them food in abundance … he gave them what they craved … But … he killed the strongest of them” (you can find all this in Psalm 78).
This stops me in my tracks: God did indeed have purposes for the wilderness time. The wilderness allows us to get in touch with our deep thirst. It brings us to a place where only the water that God offers is enough for us. The wilderness brings to our attention those appetites that bend us away from our trust in God. It is a place of invitation. There is no getting around the hardships of the wilderness, the ways it wears on our soul. But the wilderness is an experience that stokes the fires of our longing for God, if we refuse to take the edge off those longings in any other way.
What a shame it would be, what an incredible loss, to enter into the wilderness experience only to demand that something other than God would assuage my needs? How terrible to have God give me what I crave - a shallow facsimile of salvation or satisfaction - only to have my deep strengths compromised, to sacrifice the person I could have been had I allowed his salvation to do its work.
Friends, some of you even now find yourselves in the wilderness. It is not easy. It is not comfortable. I feel your wrestling, your longing for release. And yet, even here - maybe especially here - there is an invitation to meaningful reflection: In what ways do I, even now, demand my cravings be satisfied instead of trusting the salvation of God in this place? To what extent will I trust God in the wilderness?
May the wilderness do its inimitable work in you and in me. May we get in touch with our deep thirst, and recognise in it something that only the depths of God will satisfy. And may we become aware of those cravings, appetites, affections that would incline us towards a lesser salvation; those things that promise release but can never deliver.
In the great words of C.S. Lewis: “Come further up, come further in!”