We all have desert experiences at some point in our lives.
Sometimes we have little say in the matter—like when a global pandemic hits and our social structures are turned upside down.
But other times, we choose to create greater solitude in some way—like when we intentionally disconnect from the always-on world of technology, which is currently a personal favorite of mine.
As I mentioned in another post, I recently started working my way through both the Old and New Testaments—reading one chapter from each daily, along with commentary from two Bible experts.
This week, I finished Genesis—which describes how a number of great leaders of faith made the most of their desert experiences to listen more closely to God and then act on what they heard through the power of that relationship.
There are many instances, but here I’ll talk about Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses (who’s actually in Exodus).
I’m also nearing the end of Matthew, which means that I’ve read about John the Baptist’s seemingly odd lifestyle and ministry in the desert as he prepared the way for the coming Messiah (Matthew 3).
And through several instances in which Jesus purposely withdrew from the crowds to spend time alone with the Father (Matthew 14:13,23; 17:1-8).
Of course, He also had that notorious desert experience after John baptized Him: spending 40 very spartan days alone in the wilderness after which He was tempted by Satan when Jesus was at His most vulnerable (Matthew 4: 1-11).
That was a key desert experience, since He overcame those temptations as proof that He both knows what we endure in that sense, and that He can also provide the help needed to overcome them (Hebrews 4:15).
Finding purpose in the desert
A common thread that stood out to me in all those stories was that although God can certainly get our attention in any way He likes, it seems that those described were better able to hear God’s voice when they were in the desert alone.
Which may have been God’s purpose for placing them there.
After all, if Noah had received unquestioning support during all those years as he plodded through building a very big boat under sunny skies to supposedly save humanity from an existential flood—he likely wouldn’t have relied nearly as much on his relationship with God (Genesis 6:9-22; 7-9).
If Abraham and Sarah had been blessed with children right off the bat, he wouldn’t have had to count on God (over decades of waiting) to be true to His word about making him the father of a great nation (Genesis 11:30; 15; 17; 21:1-7).
And then there’s Joseph—whose story is one of my favorites in the Old Testament.
He was only 17 when he proclaimed to his brothers-who-already-didn’t-like-him-because-he-was-the-favorite that God had revealed to him in a dream that they would one day bow down to him.
If you have any sibling rivalry in your family, you can imagine how that went over.
Although Joseph was obviously someone special if he had that kind of connection with God, he lacked the spiritual maturity at that tender age to know that he would’ve been better off keeping such a revelation to himself.
Since he didn’t, his older brothers plotted against him and ended up throwing him into an empty well before deciding that—even better—they’d sell him into slavery in Egypt (with hearts cold and hard enough to tell their father that his favorite son had been killed by a wild beast).
Long-story-short, although Joseph spent a number of years in slavery and then jail, he didn’t dwell on the injustice of his situation and plan his revenge.
Instead, he made the most of that desert period by deepening his relationship with God—which meant he was able to provide divine insight at critical moments, eventually leading to his promotion to be Egypt’s second-in-command.
As a result of all that, he was able to reconcile with his brothers, enjoy a tearful reunion with his father, and save the nation of Israel from starvation.
That story covers several chapters (Genesis 37, 39-50), but one of the most significant moments occurs after their father dies and his brothers become fearful and try to find some way to say how sorry they are for all they’ve done to him.
But again, because of his deep relationship with God that had been refined during his desert experiences, Joseph’s response was loving, forgiving, and in recognition of God’s greater purposes: “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:19-20, NKJV).
As I moved from Genesis to Exodus in the last few days, I’ve been reading about Moses, who had a very dicey start in life—since, as an infant, he was placed in his own little ark among the reeds of the Nile river by his sister to save his life.
His long-story-short is that after being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (though his mother was still able to raise him during his early years), he was groomed as an Egyptian who lived within the trappings of the palace (Exodus 2:1-10).
However, since he knew of his Hebrew roots, it was too much to take when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of his countrymen—which is why he murdered the Egyptian and was then forced to flee his royal life and start from scratch in a new land (Exodus 2:11-15).
It was when he was around 80 years old (Jeremiah Study Bible, p. 78), while tending sheep, alone and in the desert, that Moses noticed that odd bush that wouldn’t stop burning and heard the voice of God laying out His plans for him to return to Egypt and rescue the nation of Israel from slavery (Exodus 3; 4:1-17).
Embracing the riches of the desert
When Psalm 23 describes a place of rest and renewal, there are green pastures and quiet waters involved.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t normally think of the desert as a desirable place to be.
After all, it’s hot, dry, and much of the vegetation will prick you if you touch it.
However, from our various trips out west, I know the desert can be a pretty place, too—with lots of bright sunshine, blue skies, colorful flowers, and fluctuating temperatures from morning to night.
What I also like about the desert is how peaceful and quiet it can be.
Maybe all of that is why God has used it so frequently to both develop and connect with the great leaders of faith.
Because while He is certainly with us in the busy places of our lives, it is within the quiet that we can hear Him most clearly and discover the treasures waiting for us there.
That’s why I’m loving my current disconnect-from-tech journey so much.
I’ve written about embracing an analog life the last several weeks and those posts are on my blog if you haven’t seen them and want to.
However, while I’d been feeling so much more peaceful and focused as a result of purposefully limiting the always-on connection of my smartphone, I had two days this week in which I fell back into my old habit of taking it with me during my daily picnic lunch on a blanket in the yard with Blue.
Since I had it with me, I decided to read through the day’s news instead of enjoying the beautiful nature all around, praying, or reading a good book.
As a result, I found that I wasn’t nearly as peaceful as I’d been up to that point.
Instead, I was more distracted—which meant I was less able to focus on pausing and praying throughout the day.
Which meant I was also less able to sense the direction of the Holy Spirit in my new approach to a list-less life.
I have much more I’d like to say about all of that, but this post is getting to be long enough as it is.
So, I’ll close with this…
You know that flip phone I mentioned a few weeks ago?
That’s looking better all the time.
This post is adapted from Sue’s Perspectives column in the latest edition of The Empowered Traveler™ Newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can do that here: Subscribe to Sue’s newsletter.