des·ert | ˈdezərt |noun
a dry, barren area of land, especially one covered with sand, that is characteristically desolate, waterless, and without vegetation.
Unless one has an outer shell like an armadillo, humps like a camel, or the speed of a jackrabbit, deserts are not the most hospitable places to be. Deserts are akin to barren wastelands that may possess a unique beauty appreciated by the occasional tourist but avoided as desirable domiciles.
Can anything good come out of a desert?
To me, deserts mean isolation, spiritual dryness, and pain. Deserts are to be avoided and bypassed if possible. Deserts are hard places that make growth difficult and suffering accelerated. But, as Gordon MacDonald writes, “The fact is unavoidable: the greatest lessons are potentially learned in deserts if one, in the midst of struggle, listens for God’s call” (Ordering Your Private World, 59).
In deserts we learn to cope with dryness, doubts, and dependence. We learn to listen, because the noise of the world is drowned out by the stillness of solitude. God called John the Baptist while he was in the desert (Luke 3:1-3). The Spirit led Jesus into the desert for His season of testing (Mark 1:12). Moses received God’s call in the desert (Exodus 3:1). God led the Israelites into the desert for forty years of a wilderness wandering (Exodus 13:18).
The last place I want to be is a desert. Give me the mountains where I can experience the majesty of God in the splendor of His glory. Give me the beach where I can witness the pageantry of the crashing waves and the simple pleasure of my toes digging into the sand. But in the desert I feel alone, suffocating on hot breath singeing my lungs.
In the desert we experience our greatest hardship, but we can also encounter our greatest transformation. When we find ourselves in the desert, everything of comfort is stripped away, and we are left undone. In each of the biblical accounts of God’s people going through the desert, including Jesus Himself, new life emerges on the other side. John the desert dweller becomes John the Baptizer. Jesus demonstrates His power over the Adversary. Moses becomes the Prototype of the spiritual leader of all Israel. And the Israelites finally enter the land promised to their forefather, Abraham, centuries before (Genesis 13:14-15).
I don’t know why we grow more through the desert than we do on the mountaintop, but that growth gives us hope that God does not abandon us in the desert. He walks with us through the crucible of suffering to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). Be of good cheer that the desert you endure is not a wasteland but a land of hope for who you will become on the other side.
“Only a person who has suffered desert-like hardship knows what it is like to totally cast himself upon God because there is nothing else left” (ibid., 60).