We experience times in the Christian life when worship seems as natural as breathing, when nothing seems easier than delighting in Christ. We enjoy seasons when our landscape is a garden full of life and fruit, when answering, “How can I get more of God?” is the greatest spiritual problem we need to solve.
Such was my experience as a freshman in college, when I awoke in a new and profound way to the joy of the gospel. An emotional dam broke in my gut as I realized with joy and terror the substance of Jesus. The margins of my happiness disappeared as the newly realized possibility of wasting my life met the overwhelming excitement that I didn’t have to. My prayers were infused with the timbre of triumph. In my excitement, I might have sung a fresh take on the “Gloria Patri,” “As it has now become, so shall it ever be, world without end.”
Today something in me winces when I recall my 19-year-old hopes for a spiritual program. I recoil because there is an internal collision between what was then an optimistic expectation of “fair winds and following seas” and what is now the memory of a far darker experience. What followed was not merely a slackening of my spiritual pace but a terrifying free-fall. The world I lived in split violently from its tamped-down security. Intense self-doubt clutched at my heels to pull me from anything fixed in my soul. For the first time in my life, I questioned whether God even existed.
I was no longer a garden, but a wilderness — parched land thirsting for refreshing rains. The preceding period of spiritual growth only set my symphony of despair in a more dissonant key.
I would not seek to draw any significance from my personal experience were it not for the fact that I know I am not alone in the coupled episodes of a dramatic peak followed by a frustrating trough. I know because I’ve walked through it more than once with close friends and heard the same pattern repeated in testimonies. But beyond these instances, and more significantly, we find the pattern in Scripture.
Their Surprising Distrust
Israel stood on the eastern perimeter of the Red Sea. In a dry, corporate baptism, God’s people are brought through the waters of judgment unscathed, and the fear that Israel felt for Pharaoh’s army is set on holy fire and turns to God, for “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord” (Exodus 14:31).
The people who are told before “only to be silent” and “see the salvation of the Lord” no longer keep quiet but break forth in corporate praise: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:1). This is worship as natural as breathing.
But following Israel’s great deliverance, God’s next move is to lead his people “into the wilderness. . . . They went three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus 15:22). And the worship which poured out effortlessly from the lips of the redeemed quickly congeals in discontent when they are led into the desert. “The whole congregation of Israel grumbled . . . in the wilderness” for lack of food (Exodus 16:2). The psalmist later offers an inspired interpretation of the people’s true sin: “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ . . . They did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:19, 22).
Israel is three days out from God catastrophically decimating their enemy’s entire army by picking up a sea and throwing it on them while they passed through on what may as well have been the King’s Highway.
And they did not trust his saving power.
Three days out from the pinnacle of the most supernatural display of sovereign election since Noah, and Israel’s most immediate consideration amounts to, “Wait, there’s no food?”
The sheer irrationality of the thing is horrifyingly surreal. There is no scapegoat issue to which Israel can point to explain their lack of trust. There is no long train of abuses leading Israel to throw off God’s government, no trial vicious enough to swallow up the display of God’s grace and power shown in the exodus. Just rebellion — naked, raw, and ugly — offering no explanation outside itself.
Our Surprising Distrust
Surreal, we might say, but not because Israel’s lack of trust is something alien to us. It strikes us — or ought to strike us — with a certain horror only because in it, we read our ordinary disbelief with the skin and tissue pulled back. If our own distrust doesn’t appear so shockingly absurd, it’s only because we’ve stretched over it a tawdry flesh of reasons and explanations to prove we have real grounds to believe God hung us out to dry.
But tear away these reasons, and we read the same narrative: God led us into the wilderness to show his power and test our trust in a new way, and it is we who have failed. We believed more in the reality of our barren circumstances than in the God who led us there. In violent rebellion, we questioned, “Can God spread a table in this wilderness?”
It is helpful to see patterns in the way God deals with his people and know that our spiritual wilderness is, in fact, God’s sovereign plan. Perhaps Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness benefits us simply because it illuminates our own sin. It is comforting to realize that when spiritual starvation gnaws at the soul, doubting God’s provision is a type of open rebellion, and even still, “he rained down on them manna to eat” (Psalm 78:24).
Yet in the trenches of doubt and despair, hope lies on a deeper and firmer foundation than the awareness of a negative example to avoid and the recognition of mercy when we fail. It lies in the true and perfect Israel who trusted God to provide in his wilderness.
Grace Enough for Your Wilderness
In the exodus, the Lord went before Israel in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). In these last days, he has gone before us in his Son.
Jesus, after passing through the waters of baptism, felt the favor and pleasure of the Father upon him. And then immediately, he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted” (Matthew 4:1). Where Israel and we ourselves failed, Jesus obeyed perfectly. He did not speak against God in rebellion but trusted perfectly that God would spread a table in the wilderness by every word that comes from his mouth (Matthew 4:4).
In the high tides of desert trials, our hope lies not in our ability to stay above water, or trek across the tundra. Rather, we rest fully in this Savior who has himself passed through the wilderness without sin.
In Jesus, God has displayed his saving power and will vindicate the hope of those who trust in his sovereign goodness, even when it leads to the most barren of places.