Few things threaten our faith more than when a good gift of God, beautiful and innocent in itself, slowly becomes necessary for our happiness.
“The most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth,” John Piper writes. “For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable” (A Hunger for God, 18).
“The simple pleasures of earth” are good things, of course. A satisfying career, a healthy body, a best friend, a fulfilling marriage, and every other good gift comes down from the Father of lights and, like the heavens themselves, declares something of God’s glory (James 1:17; Psalm 19:1). When Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), he really means enjoy. God’s ocean of gifts is meant for swimming.
But the simple pleasures of earth are never completely safe in the hands of sinners — even redeemed ones. Without care, we feast on the abundance of God’s house and forget that it is his house. We eat and eat, and gradually neglect the host. Eyes lower from heaven to earth. Spiritual senses dull. “Desires for other things” begin to choke the word (Mark 4:19).
In moments like these, it is one of God’s severe mercies to deal with us as he dealt with Israel, and to send us into the wilderness.
Not by Bread Alone
Forty years had passed since God stretched his arm over Egypt. Israel stood on the edge of the Jordan with their backs to the wilderness, about to trade manna for milk and honey. But before they did, Moses pressed the lesson of the manna down into their hearts:
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 8:3)
Bread is another one of earth’s simple pleasures, a kindness from God meant to “strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15). But when Israel was in the wilderness, the giver of bread took away bread so that Israel might know where life comes from. Life — true, deep, abundant life — does not come from bread, or from any of God’s other gifts. Life comes from the words of the living God — words better than gold, sweeter than honey, more nourishing than Canaan’s best wheat (Psalm 19:10).
If Israel was ever going to stand in the promised land, with their hands full of bread, and say, “I know how to abound,” they would first need to walk through the wilderness, with God’s word in their hearts, and say, “I know how to be brought low” (Philippians 4:12). They would need to learn how to look around at a wasteland of sand, and sing for joy to the one who gives and takes away.
Exposed in the Desert
So it is with us. Often, God teaches us how to handle his gifts rightly by first withholding them. He does so for at least two reasons.
First, the wilderness exposes what’s inside these chests of ours like little else does. For all the beauty of the promised land’s hills and forests, they offer dozens of hideouts for our idols. It is frighteningly easy to give lip service to God while our hearts are lost in his gifts — and to trick even ourselves in the process. We can sing, “Hallelujah! All I have is Christ!” with both hands lifted, while the tendrils of our heart slowly wrap themselves around a marriage, a friendship, or a career — scarcely recognizable, almost incurable.
Not so in the wilderness, where our idols can only sit on sand beneath a barren sky. What comes out of you when you are in the rubble of a broken friendship, or a prolonged season of singleness, or a job that feels utterly hollow? Some of us, like Israel, find ourselves “painting pictures of Egypt,” as Sara Groves puts it: we idealize our former life and pine for its comforts, forgetting how godless it was (Numbers 11:4–6). Others of us run to sexual sin or some other pleasure in an attempt to ease the pain (Numbers 25:1). Many of us grumble against the God who takes away (Exodus 15:24).
Our seasons of lack do not create the cancer that comes out of us; they expose what was already there, but hidden by abundance (Deuteronomy 8:2). In God’s kindness, he puts our idols in plain view so that we might see them, hate them, and give them a desert grave.
Fellowship of the Desperate
Second, the wilderness can cultivate in us that quality so beneficial to living faith: desperation. Left to ourselves in uninterrupted comfort, many of us wander. Sleep gradually swallows up our mornings, leaving little time for Scripture and prayer. We live as if sin no longer crouches at the door and Satan has ceased to prowl. We become careless with that one part of us we cannot afford to lose: our soul.
But the desperate, finding themselves in some wasteland of life, do not have the luxury of indifference. They stir themselves to seek God. They come to their Bibles like David: “Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). They find that they can scarcely go through an hour (much less a day) without lifting up their hearts to the only one who can help. Eventually, they become part of that great fellowship of the poor in spirit, who know not just in theory but in blood-earnest reality that God is near to the brokenhearted, that he hears the cries of the afflicted, and that, compared to a godless promised land, a God-filled wilderness is a heaven.
If we learn to live by God’s word in the wilderness, then we will find ourselves more ready to use his gifts for what they really are: servants of our joy in God, not substitutes for him. Those chastened by the wilderness will enjoy God’s gifts, not abuse them; delight in them, not put their hope in them; bless God for them, not forget him in them.
And even if God never gives the gift we want most, and the wilderness becomes a lifetime, we will not grumble our way to eternity. We will instead strive to become a monument in the wilderness, chiseled with the words that are better than abundance: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).
How Not to Waste the Wilderness
If you find yourself in some dry and barren land, cut off from life’s milk and honey, do not waste this season. Give grief, sorrow, and tears their place. But do not murmur beneath the hand of the Lord. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” All the paths — even the ones that take us through the desert (Psalm 25:10). Steadfast love has brought you here, and he will never leave you nor forsake you.
If you are in Christ, God has not brought you into this desert to starve you. He has brought you here to teach you that man does not live by bread alone. Your life, your hope, and your joy are not hidden away in some elusive land of plenty, but in the Christ who died and rose again to save you for himself — the one who is your life, your pleasure, your milk and honey, your all.