Scripture shows consistently that when God calls someone, he sends them to the wilderness. If it’s an important enough category for God, then we need one too.
Moses, Israel, David, Elijah, the Apostle Paul, even Jesus all were sent to the wilderness. Why? Because the wilderness is where people learn how much they need God and they find their sonship confirmed.
The Wilderness Category
Without the wilderness category, we might miss a vital part of understanding how God’s call works. Maybe our wrong assumption is that how busy a person is correlates to their impact. If true, wilderness wandering would be viewed as a waste. But in God’s strategy, the wilderness is where he reveals the shortfalls of the human strategy to keep him at a safe distance.
There’s a cycle to discipleship. There’s the call, then the sending, then the resting. Within the call we find the invitation to simply be with Jesus. His invitation to “follow me,” includes watching how he lives, teaches, corrects, rests, and eventually dies. At the right time, the discipleship life will always bring opportunities to circle back around to focused time with the caller. Sometimes we choose how to respond with a simple day off, a sabbatical or other extended break. But sometimes these seasons are thrust upon us through tragedy, burnout or exhaustion. But every time we revisit the caller, the wilderness follows.
Jesus in the Wilderness
Mark 1:9-14 records the story of Jesus’ baptism and immediate sending into the wilderness. In fact, the text says the Spirit drove him there. The image comes to mind of a bride and groom whisked away after their wedding to their honeymoon. The honeymoon for Jesus was the wilderness. It was there that the words, “You are my Son, whom I love…” (Mark 1:11) were understood more deeply. Why did the Father love Jesus so much? It was because Jesus was the only one who ever depended totally on him. Jesus showed this throughout his life with the repeated words, “I can do nothing without the Father.” (John 5:19; 30, 8:28)
One observable lesson from Jesus wilderness experience was how he lived in total dependence on God. Our wilderness experiences are a bit different. For us, our wilderness experiences reveal our lack of dependence on God. Re-learning dependence happens only through going to the only one who did it perfectly. Unless you are there, you’ll have a hard time accepting that the wilderness experience can’t be had while simultaneously working a 60 hour work week. It requires space. One writer put it well that when we defend our busy schedules, it’s simply a sign we aren’t yet ready.
Choosing the Wilderness
I’m coming out of one of these seasons. After fifteen years of hard work, continual moving and starting over, our family came to a point of exhaustion. We made the decision to enter into a time of rest and it has borne good fruit. Don’t misunderstand, I still had to work a job and tend to normal responsibilities. But taking a break from leading anything gave me the capacity to sleep more, get back in shape physically, write, and get some soul care.
Increased time for reflection has brought a more realistic, and holistic view of discipleship. I’ve realized how hard I’ve been on myself, and others, who are in a time of rest, wandering, and questions. God’s heart is big enough to hold people like that and I want to be someone who can do that too.
My nine-year-old son had the idea last week that he wanted to control the turns we took on the way home from running errands. “Dad, I’ll show you the route we take when I ride the bus,” he said. As I let him navigate and we went further into the Tennessee countryside, I knew quickly he didn’t know where he was at. But instead of fixing it, I let him keep trying. As the five-minute trip home turned into a 20-minute drive, he eventually said, “Dad, I don’t know where we’re at.” With that we pulled over to get our bearings. Sitting on the side or the road we took in the beauty of the mountains on one side and the fields growing with wheat on the other.
The detour was worth it because my son got the experience of feeling small. When he plays Minecraft, he’s the master of everything. But in the real world, he needed the wilderness to learn vulnerability, and to acknowledge how little he knows.
So much of our focus is on productivity that we’re afraid to let each other fail. But it’s in failure that we feel small, and we learn what areas of our lives are not yet submitted to Christ. This is what being a disciple is about—learning to submit all areas of life to the lordship of Christ. How are you learning this personally? If you’re a leader, how are you helping others learn submission to Christ in the midst of failure? When our focus is on our strengths and what we must do, we cannot receive—that’s what the wilderness is about.
A re-calibration of the call is what happens in the wilderness place. And for those who enter in whole-heartedly, re-emergence from it may look slower, maybe smaller, but will carry deeper impact and conviction.
Making Space for the Wilderness
In our churches, have we made space for those in a wilderness place? Or are we trying to rush them out of it so they can get along with our program? Those in wilderness places need real friends, not managers. When people are weak, they eventually give up and allow God to do whatever is right for them. If you’re a person who feels like you’re in a wilderness place, trust God’s process. There’s something in the wilderness he wants you to receive. It’s not about your strengths or wishing your way out it. The wilderness is about receiving, not doing. He may want you to receive rest, counsel, or the simple commitment to eat regularly with friends.
How do you know when the wilderness is over? For some, you’ll begin to feel like you can articulate what’s next. For others, you’ll get a clear directive, like Elijah who was hiding in a cave, to “get moving.” (1 Kings 18-19)
Whoever you are, please remember this—just as the Spirit did not allow Jesus to abandon the wilderness after his baptism, we must accept that the wilderness is part of the call, and the life of a disciple. It’s not a forever phase, but it’s an important one preceding being sent. Rushing others into mission without making space for them to sit with the caller, can prove ineffective and painful. Trust God’s process, and he’ll make it clear when it’s time to get moving.
How have you accepted the wilderness in your own discipleship?
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