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Sometimes, God takes us to the desert to build our faith and fill us with new life. When we think of a desert, we don’t often think of it as a place full of life. The desert conjures up feelings of thirst, scorching heat, exhaustion, and death. If we fell out of an airplane, it would be the last place we want to find ourselves in. It is a landscape we usually pass through, not live in. And yet, God leads us there on purpose. He leads us there to test our faith and teach us.
What about those times on the mountaintop? What about those times when we are in the lush forest? Doesn’t He teach us and test our faith then? We often feel close to Him during these times. He sends us plenty of refreshing, flowing springs of water. However, faith is easy when everything is going well. In fact, we may even be tempted to think that everything is good because of something we did. But, is that real faith?
Weeds or cacti? The faith of the Israelites
God takes us to the desert because it’s in the tough times that we show our true colors. Our faith–or lack of it–really shows when the springs of blessings seem to dry up. Will we grumble, complain, doubt, and blame God for our troubles? Are we shriveled weeds that dry up and blow over the sand? Or, are we like cacti, drawing on the Living Water that God poured into us during the good times?
The Bible is full of stories of weeds that died in the desert. We also find many stories of triumph in the desert. Let’s take a look at the story of Moses and the nation of Israel. This story will help us understand God’s patience with us and how he lovingly tests our faith. We will also see what can happen when we don’t respond to him in faith, but repeatedly harden our hearts.
Before the exodus from Egypt, the patriarchs lived in fertile areas near the desert where their sheep and cattle grazed. Sometimes, they traveled through the desert, but God did not call them to spend extended times in the desert. So, the great exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan is the first time that God’s people spend a long time in the desert.
(Answers in Genesis has a fantastic documentary about the archeological evidence for the Exodus.) How did they behave? Badly.
Have faith and obey? No way!
The nation had just witnessed miracle after miracle in Egypt, as the great I AM demonstrated His power and judgement. God rescued them from slavery, He parted the Red Sea and they were on their way to Canaan, which He had promised to Abraham centuries before. In addition, God traveled with them in a cloud, a visible reminder of His presence. One might think that with all of these blessings, the people would be grateful and have faith in the Lord.
But, no, their faith was weak. The first time they show this is when they get to the Desert of Shur. They grumble and complain because the water is bitter. Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:25).
So, God is right there with them and instead of trusting Him, they complain. Obviously, He knew their hearts because right after He made the water sweet, the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you. (Exodus 15:26)
Grumble, grumble, grumble
But what did they do? Two weeks later, they grumbled again, this time in the Desert of Sin. They still didn’t have true faith in Him, they still said it was better to be slaves in Egypt. They wanted bread and meat. God rained down manna from heaven and sent them quail. He gave them specific instructions about how much to gather each day and some of them still didn’t obey. Their faith was still weak.
One might think that by now, after all the Lord did for them, their faith would be stronger. But, what happened? They finally got to the promised land, Canaan, and are frightened by the Canaanites. They rebel against God and start making plans to go back to Egypt, back to slavery. God burned with anger, ready to destroy them all. Moses interceded for them. So, God said that they would wander through the desert for forty years. They would never get to enjoy His blessings (Numbers 14:20-35). God was patient, but eventually, He had to bring judgement because He is a Holy and Righteous God.
“I’d rather be a slave than follow you”
When we hear the story of the Israelites, we often shake our heads and say, “What was wrong with those people? God did all those miracles, and they still didn’t obey Him. They still had hard hearts and wanted to go back to Egypt! I don’t get it. Were they blind? What was their problem?” I know I have thought that.
Their problem was that they wanted freedom from the hard labor and mistreatment, but they didn’t want to change anything else. Hundreds of years earlier, Joseph had given them the best of Egypt, Goshen. Goshen was not far from the centers of Egyptian government, near the Nile River delta. Imagine what that would be like, living in the shadow of beautiful palaces and gardens, able to grow food and raise cattle without trouble. What a comfortable life! They would have been happy to stay in Egypt if only they could escape from slavery. They didn’t really want to be rescued from Egypt, only from oppression.
Egyptian at heart
They fondly remembered what they had in Egypt and forgot the slavery. Take a look at Numbers 11:5, We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. Also, check out Exodus 16:3, The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
But, they weren’t just slaves to the Egyptian masters, they were also slaves to the Egyptian way of thinking and living. God needed to rescue them from themselves as well as from Egypt. But, they didn’t see that. In fact, within two generations, they forgot God again: After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Judges 2: 10
The lesson for us
What does the story of the Israelites have to do with us? What lessons can it teach us about faith? I can find at least three major lessons.
First of all, it demonstrates God’s sovereignty. He foretold to Abraham that his descendants would become slaves in a land not their own and that he would rescue them (see Genesis 15:13-14). He knew that the Israelites were a hard-hearted people and he brought them out of slavery anyway. His master plan would not be thwarted by anyone. The Lord wanted a people for himself, out of which would be born his Son, Jesus. Only by taking his people out of Egypt would he have a separate nation.
Like a patient and loving human father, God gives us many opportunities to trust him, to have faith in him. He is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 He showed the Israelites his mighty power, performed miracles among them, and gave them many opportunities to obey and trust him. Some did. Many didn’t. Even so, God endured their rebelliousness for a while.
And, the pattern continued. Even Jesus cried out during his time on earth, O unbelieving and perverse generation. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt. 17:17) But, Jesus continued to perform miracles, heal, and teach until his appointed time. However, he couldn’t do much in his own hometown because of the lack of faith (Matt. 13:58).
God’s eventual judgement
God is very patient. But at some point, our time is up and we come to judgement, just like the Israelites. God prepared a country for his people and they wouldn’t go in because they feared what they saw there. They did not have faith that God would give them the victory. During their time in the desert, God repeatedly brought the same lessons and asked, “Will you trust me this time?” And their consistent answer each and every time was “No.”
Our children do the same thing. As parents, we tell our children not to touch, not to say, not to do. Then, we shake our heads as we watch and hear them do exactly what we said not to. We dole out the consequence that we warned them about and sometimes, our children learn after only one time. But, other times, it takes several painful consequences before they remember not to do the offensive action. God treats us, his children, the same way. If we don’t learn the first time, God will bring the lesson around again. And again. And again, because he loves us. But eventually, he may just leave us to our miserable spiral of destruction and judgement. (see Romans 1:18-32)
Faith building during trials
When the Lord takes us to the desert to test our faith, it very often comes after a time of peace and blessing. These “mountaintop” experiences assure us of God’s provision, blessing, and intimate relationship with us. We may feel a tangible sense of his presence. Or, we may feel his anointing, like the dove descending on Jesus. But then, we are led into the desert to be tested.
Storing up living water
When we experience a season of great blessing in our lives, we need to figure out how to hold on to the Living Water that we receive. We never know how long the rainy season will last. We must be like cacti–vessels filled with a reservoir of water–and stand. Cacti have shallow roots that reach out far and wide to gather as much water as they can. We must do the same, gathering up all that God has to give us, to fortify ourselves for times of trial. We must be quick to defend all the good blessings and to prevent the enemy from bleeding us dry. Just like cacti, we need sharp spines of truth to keep him away.
Remember James 1:12, Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.
Setting up pillars of remembrance
God told the Israelites to tell their children about what he had done, to build pillars of stones as a memorial. When our faith is tested, we need to refer to our past victories, our past blessings from the Lord, and remember. Instead of complaining and doubting, we need to audibly remind ourselves of what God has already done in our lives. Doing this before our children helps our living testimony. (Read more about that HERE). One great way to do this is by journaling. Check out some Bible journaling tools here.
I think part of the problem with the Israelites was that they focused on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on all the Lord had done, their thoughts turned to what they thought he ought to be doing.
Crying out to the Lord
Those Biblical figures who successfully made it out of the desert cried out to God, relied on his Word, and stood firm on his promises. Like David, we need to cry out to him:
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)