Deserts are big. Deserts are hot. Deserts are dry. Deserts are boring.
These were my observations from my first experience of a desert on a recent business trip. It’s not exactly Michael Palin, but it was enough to get me thinking.
I’ve been in a bit of a metaphorical desert of late, mainly caused by an extremely busy time at work. It’s led to a wilderness season in a number of areas of life, including how connected I feel to God and to church, family life, and my physical and mental wellbeing.
I don’t think I’m unusual. In fact, as far as I can tell, there will be two types of people reading this blog post: those who are in a desert now, and those who will be in a desert in the not too distant future.
Desert seasons are a fact of life. And they different for all of us. A desert might be a crisis of faith or times of feeling unmotivated or disconnected; or times when we feel low about ourselves or our lives; or times when become overwhelmed by worries about finances or health; or how we feel about ourselves and our lives. Or a desert could be a time when the shiny things of the world – holidays, houses, lifestyles – distract us from things of true value.
Pause as you read this, and in your mind’s eye, arrive in that desert place: how does it feel? How do you cope?
When we’re in the desert, we’re vulnerable. It’s true of everyone, even Jesus.
The gospel writers tell us about the time Jesus spent forty days in the desert wilderness without food. When I get tired or hungry, I get irritable and less able to cope with difficult situations. Jesus’ extended period of extreme heat and lack of sustenance would be enough to put anyone to the test.
Inevitably during this time Jesus was tempted in a number of different ways to trust in himself, not God. His experience, and the way he survived it, offers some helpful pointers.
Firstly, be aware of your weaknesses. This will disarm them of their element of surprise.
For Jesus it was his stomach (unsurprisingly in the circumstances!) – for us it might be the pleasures of the world or material possessions. Jesus was tempted by status and influence, and being seen as a success by those around him – a distraction I can certainly recognise. Finally, Jesus was confronted by questions of his identify (“If you are the son of God…”) – we too may find ourselves questioning our identity or value, before God or the world around us.
What are your areas of greatest vulnerability?
Secondly, be prepared. Jesus resisted temptation by countering the lies of the devil with the truths of God. He had the words of scripture he needed immediately to hand, not because he was the son of God and everything was easy for him, but because as man and boy, for thirty years he had studied these words. We are called to put in the hard graft of reading and pondering God’s word, but because of the wisdom and understanding it offers, an important part of our armoury when hard times come.
Are you rooted in God’s word?
Thirdly, develop good habits. When I’m under pressure the first things that fall by the wayside are the intentional things I have to decide to do each day. Routine things begin to go as well, but the more deeply embedded the routines are, the more resilient they are.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus regularly withdrew to quiet places in order to pray. Prayer was an established part of his daily pattern, and so we can only imagine that he continued his good habits in the desert wilderness. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes his prayer life as like maintaining a rhythm, or like eating his greens. It was only because of these foundations that prayer flowed so readily when he feared for his life in a building immediately next to the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001.
What are the good habits you’re embedding which will carry you through the desert?
Fourthly, seek out strong friendships. We are called to follow the example and calling of Jesus and the apostles to befriend and to serve all people, rather than withdrawing into holy huddles. However, when we find ourselves under pressure, we also need friends who will help us to respond well. If our weakness is that we respond to hardship with anger, then seek out friends in those times who will help bring us to a place of peace. If our temptation is escapism, for example drowning our sorrows in the pub, then seek out friends who will help us find other ways to process the realities we face.
Camels survive the desert because they seek out oases, and stock up on enough water and nutrition to survive extended times of wilderness. How are you preparing for your next desert experience?
There’s something curious about Jesus’ desert experience. If we read closely we see that he was led into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. Not only that, but in Luke’s telling of the gospel story, the wilderness experience fits neatly between Jesus’ baptism – the moment when God declares his favour over Jesus – and Jesus’ dramatic declaration in the temple: The Spirit of God is on me… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
What if the desert wasn’t a mistake, but was part of God’s plan all along?
There’s a recurrent theme of exile throughout the entire Bible: desert, wilderness experiences. It’s like the groove of a song, a familiar, defining rhythm. The gospel of Luke deliberately mirrors the most famous desert in the Bible – the Exodus story. This includes the parallels between Jesus’ baptism / crossing the Red Sea, 40 days / 40 years of desert, Jesus’ earthly ministry/ entering the Promised Land.
Many centuries later, the kingdoms of Israel then Judah collapse, leading to another time of exile. This is the fertile ground from which a rich prophetic tradition grows, and many of the most powerful passages of the Bible are written. It’s the tradition that Jesus inherits, leading to his “Spriit of God” declaration in the temple – taken from the prophet Isaiah.
And yet, despite the familiarity of the desert motif, in Jesus we discover something new. Jesus not only survives his temptation, but he thrives. He models a loving, powerful humility that leads him to the greatest desert of all, death on the cross; and to the greatest glory of all, his resurrection.
Our destiny and purpose is to become more Christ-like. To become more fully human, following the example of Christ not Adam (or Eve).
We can be left in not doubt that this will lead to desert times. As Christians we don’t avoid the desert. We understand it and journey through it, and by the Spirit of God are called to thrive in it. This is the greatest of mysteries and our greatest hope.
I know first-hand from my own recent desert struggles that there are things I will need to do differently in future to survive. But I also know that God has been teaching me new things, preparing me for future ways I might serve him more faithfully, and to thrive.
Think again on your desert experiences: what is God preparing you for? Come before him in prayer, and ask him to encourage, strengthen and guide you.