The theme of “wilderness” has come up quite a lot lately in conversations and in class. Here are some good things I’ve taken away from studies and life in the past couple of years…
Wildernesses are not fun. They are not brimming with life or vibrant with green. They are dry, dusty, hot, and difficult to navigate. They may even seen to go on forever. Many have made the connection that the New Testament people of God wander in some sort of wilderness. We are called sojourners, strangers, and exiles on the earth by the New Testament writers (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 1:17, 2:10-12), presupposing that our current local is not our final destination. The context in which we find ourselves now is saturated with rampant death, famine, persecution, uncertainty, tears, pain, sin, and the like, none of which reflect the way things were meant to be or the way things will be. What do we do with the dusty road we walk? What do we do with our present sufferings?
Our wilderness wanderings, like those of the Old Testament Israelite nation, assume two things.
God loves us. Hebrews 12 is rich with the language of God’s loving intent in the use of discipline for His people. Having urged believers, in view of the Old Testament saints and their faith, to fix their eyes on Jesus who has gone before them in suffering and glory (v.1-2), the author of Hebrews turns to discipline: “‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives,” (v. 5-6). What’s interesting about this passage is that it is used in the context of resisting sin (v. 4). Our sin functions, then, as a sort of wilderness, a testing and pruning ground presupposing the love of God for His people. In love, God allows His people to wrestle with sin! What’s more, our discipline only occurs because we are sons and daughters; our wilderness wandering marks us out as children of God, a people on whom the love of the Lord rests. Then, in contrasting our earthly fathers with our Heavenly one, the writer of Hebrews says, “For they disciplined us for a short time, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness,” (Hebrews 12:10). God is actually, through His discipline, working for our good, preparing us to share in His holiness. How does this suffering and sin, this discipline, prepare us to share in holiness? Certainly, as we learn of our own weakness and His sufficiency, we are prepared more and more to honor and treasure Him above all things. Certainly, as we are brought to the end of ourselves and made to behold His strength and power by His Spirit, we are molded and shaped into vessels better prepared to magnify His glory. As we engage with the power of the Spirit within us to resist sin more and more, we are forming the muscles to worship Him for all eternity.
The wilderness assumes a God who loves and cares for His children. As we find out in the Old Testament, God’s people were exiled into the wilderness, inches away from taking possession of their promised land, for forty years (Numbers 14:33-35). Why? So that the generation who rebelled against him would be burned away as dross. God loved His people enough to purify them before bringing them into a land of their own. He loves us just the same.
We are headed to a better home. For the people of God, there is no arbitrary wilderness. The wilderness is used by our Father, because He loves us, to prune us and burn off our impurities. But the wilderness is also only a means to an end, a highway up to the door of our eternal home. Our time on this planet, the time of sanctification and growing in godliness, assumes the love of God and our future dwelling place with Christ. Wilderness wanderings assume a coming promised land. Sufferings presuppose a future glory. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” (v. 16-17). Our heavenly home is a conditional home, a home entered into only on the basis of previous suffering. Why suffering? Our union with Christ entails that we experience, in an analogical way, the sufferings of our Elder Brother. Only then may we may be able to taste His glory, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come,” (Hebrews 13:14).
Friends, we live in a wilderness, having tasted of the richness of Jesus truly but not perfectly. We are being prepared, right now, to taste at the banquet table the food long prepared for His people in unspoiled fashion. There we shall taste without sin and experience without suffering. As we suffer now, as we wander, let us remember that this wilderness assumes a God who loves us enough to discipline us and train us to treasure Him alone. Let us also remember that the wilderness functions to remind us that at the end of this road is a home we can really call Home, a city that we can truly call our own.