Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. -Mark 1:10-12
At the time of writing this article we have just celebrated Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wrote about this in my prior article (Pentecost Insights). What an amazing time for the people of God! When the Spirit comes, he comes in power and gentleness, lives are transformed and the wonders of God are proclaimed! The Spirit of God makes real the presence of God to the people of God.
But often, we stop here as believers. Pentecost really is the culmination of the promise Jesus made to his disciples following his crucifixion and resurrection which are celebrated during Passion Week just fifty days prior. But then…we seem to wait till Christmas to reflect deeply on any other truth we can glean about the life of a Christian.
Therefore, I would like to focus on what happens after the Spirit comes and fills his people and we go forth into the world. I believe a lot of our confusion, disillusionment and despair comes from a lack of teaching and understanding about how the Spirit leads his people.
Here is the bombshell: The Spirit of God does not lead the people of God to “safe” or “comfortable” places. Rather, he often leads his people into “dangerous” and “uncomfortable” places!
Notice what happened right after the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and the Father voiced his approval and delight in his son. At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Wait…what? The wilderness? With the wild animals? To be tempted by Satan? Without physical food or drink for forty days? Doesn’t sound very glamorous does it?
A careful reading of Scripture (and even autobiographies of saints through the ages) reveals this is not an isolated experience. God calls Noah to build an ark because a flood is coming. And while yes, they are kept safe in the boat, the floods and storm rock the boat back and forth for 150 days! I am sure that wasn’t very comfortable with all those animals in there for that long too!
When God called Abram to leave his country for a new country, promising to bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, Sara remained completely barren for 39 years following this promise. Joseph, when given a dream from God, was 17 years old, but waited 13 more years, seemingly forgotten and languishing in Egypt (some of that time in prison) before he became prime minister.
Moses, before God appeared to him in a burning bush, spent 40 years tending sheep in the back-side of a desert. David, from the time he was anointed the next king, to actually becoming the next king, waited around 15 years, most of that time being spent hiding in the desert, mountains and wilderness from the jealousy of King Saul!
Jesus himself, lived in obscurity for the first 30 years of life before revealing himself as Messiah and beginning his earthly ministry. And preceding him, his cousin John LIVED in the dessert, eating a strict diet of locusts and honey until the time came for him to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah. And the early church was persecuted and scattered after the coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts.
The desert is a familiar place for the most anointed people and leaders and prophets of God! Of course the desert speaks of hiddeness, dryness, uncomfortablness, challenge, danger, even isolation. Yet, this seems to be the place the Spirit of God himself leads his most trusted servants. It seems to be their “proving ground”, the place their character is forged, sharpened, and strengthened. It is the place they are tested and tried, and although feeling weak, emerge with a strength of spirit unrivaled by others who have grown up in more pleasant circumstances.
But let’s not pretend the desert is where we want to be. Mother Teresa spoke of it as the “dark night of the soul.” Scripture speaks of it as a place of spiritual warfare, temptation and hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. It is the “boot” camp for the spiritual solider. The place where you are pushed to physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
So, here is a word of encouragement. The desert can become the most holy of ground and place of most intimate and meaningful encounters with God. Think of the Psalms that were inspired as David was on the run hiding in the caves, mountains and wilderness. Think of Moses, on the back-side of the desert encountering the holy presence of God himself in the burning bush.
And notice again “who” else was present with Jesus in the wilderness: the angels were there ministering to him and strengthening him for the battle. It sounds so simple as to be obvious, but we forget we don’t need strengthened by God unless we are in a position of needing strengthened by God! We don’t need refreshed by the Spirit if we are not in need of being refreshed. We don’t realize our need for God if we don’t sense our need for God!
Sometimes we assume something must be wrong if we find ourselves in dark, dangerous, uncomfortable, dry places. Sometimes we think God must be angry with us or we are being punished. Sometimes we wonder if God has forsaken us, abandoned us, given up on us, or forgotten us. But rather than assuming something is wrong, perhaps we should assume something might be right!
Yes, God’s people can find themselves stuck in the wilderness like the Israelites because of their unbelief and sin. But there is a difference between being stuck verse being sent. The Israelites were initially sent, by God, into the wilderness, not to get stuck there and die, but to encounter him and live! Jesus himself, immediately after being filled with the Spirit and hearing the approval and delight of his Father, was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness…for a time! It was just a season. I am sure those days, especially while fasting and being tempted seemed to drag on, as dry, desert and dark seasons for us seem to linger too long. But, take heart, you who are loved by the Lord, it is just a season!
And let the season and it’s purpose do it’s work in you. Growth happens when we are uncomfortable. Character is forged in the desert while being tempted and tested. Seeking God happens when we are aware of our need for him. Encounters with God happen when we “turn aside” from the normal routine of life on the back-side of the desert. The view from on top of the mountain can’t happen unless we first scale the mountain. And the intention of God is not to destroy you or leave you to die, but to empower you for service according to his purposes in the lives of others.
Notice, that Jesus went into the desert full of the Spirit, but when he emerged, he came forth not just full of the Spirit, but in the power of the Spirit: Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. -Luke 4:14-15
You are not being punished but equipped. God is not angry with you, he is pleased with you. You are not being abandoned, your character is being forged. God has not given up on you, he is entrusting you with his kingdom power! Don’t give into despair, seek God. He will strengthen you, sending even his angels to minister to you!