I have always viewed a spiritual wilderness as a blessing in disguise; an intensely painful and lonely place, yes, but a good place.
The wilderness is a place or season in our lives where God strips away what is precious to us so that we are able to hear Him. Many times in the Bible, God drew people away into these quiet spaces and His presence transformed them. In the wilderness, people discover that all they ever truly wanted was God.
However, I recently realized for the first time that sometimes the wilderness is a blessing and sometimes it is a curse.
Will and I attended a church event some time ago, an event we had been to about five years before. The place was full of smiling people, but Will and I were struck by the same thing: the lack of God’s presence.
We had felt exactly the same way attending this gathering five years prior. After we got home that evening, Will and I looked at each other with sinking hearts and said, “not a thing has changed.”
And this is when I learned that the wilderness can also be a curse. As Will and I processed the difficult feelings that arose, Will said thoughtfully, “These people are like the Israelites. They have rejected God’s voice and have been sent to wander in the wilderness.”
I pondered this much in the following days. What did happen to the Israelites? How does God feel about people who insist on rejecting His voice?
After God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea in a breathtaking rescue, He gave them a job to do. He sent them to spy out the land of Caanan and prepare to possess it.
But instead of listening to God and remembering His miraculous care of them in the past, the Israelites turned to a new master, one they thought would be a better protector. They turned to fear.
Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”
Numbers 13:31 ESV
Joshua and Caleb were two courageous men in the group who tried to remind the people of what God had done, but the others wouldn’t listen. This made God angry.
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?
Numbers 14:11 ESV (emphasis mine)
The Bible speaks strongly about this rejection of God’s voice and the wilderness curse.
But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.
Numbers 14:21-23 ESV (emphasis mine)
Later in the same chapter:
And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”
Numbers 14:33-35 ESV (emphasis mine)
However, that isn’t just one isolated incident. God makes it clear in the New Testament that He feels the same way even today about those who close their ears to His voice.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
Hebrews 3:7-11 ESV (emphasis mine, also see Psalm 95)
Over and over, I see a direct connection between a people who do not hear and obey God’s voice and a subsequent lack of God’s rest.
This is my theory based on the Scriptures and what I have experienced: when a church repeatedly rejects God’s voice, He sends them to a spiritual wilderness.
When a group of God’s people decides that keeping their religion, protecting their reputation, or hiding sin is more important than hearing God, God can only stand that for so long. After all, has He not given Himself for His people whom he owed nothing, utterly poured out Himself even to the extent of dying naked on a cross?
When a group has dealt with the same festering problems for twenty years, when no spiritual progress has been made and no new wind of the Spirit has ever come, perhaps that church is wandering in the wilderness because they rejected His voice.
When a church decides to make fear their god, they have no room for the God of Israel.
But that is not the end. God’s mercy is unfathomable, and in the face of unspeakable rejection, He is ever ready to woo. He is not willing that any should perish. He gives the tenderest care to win His people back.
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years 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. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.
Deuteronomy 8:2-5 ESV (emphasis mine)
Few things hurt my heart as much as rejection of God’s voice, especially under a religious pretense. I beg you, if He is speaking, do not harden your heart. What He asks may seem impossible, but He is there. An easy life without Him is sick, empty, meaningless, void.
God’s voice is sometimes terrifying, sometimes convicting, sometimes reassuring and comforting. But always, the light of His presence is so beautiful and clear, so filled with the warmth of His glory, that there is no other place I would rather be.
Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart. A wilderness without God is a wilderness indeed.