Navigating the Wilderness: Transformation Through Brokenness

This piece was originally presented as a breakout session at The Upside Down Podcast Gathering in Chicago, September 21-22, 2018. It has more of a talking feel than a reading feel, so please forgive the lack of polish.
Identifying the Wilderness
When I was 4 I was placed in foster care because my dad had left before I was born and my mom was an alcoholic. There was abuse, loss, trauma, and acute loneliness. I felt lost and abandoned and so, so small. My entire life was a wilderness until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know how to navigate the desert of my existence. It was invisible to most people around me and I didn’t know any other way to live until I found a home in the church and people began to show me what the wilderness was teaching me, how God was meeting me there, and how he would show me the way out when he was ready to. 
I am NOT saying that God makes us suffer so we learn lessons. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe that God takes people from you or gives you a disease so you can draw closer to him. I believe that God is present in the suffering and he will redeem it for your healing and his glory. 
We are living in a fallen world which makes it a wilderness in itself. We suffer the effects of that original betrayal every day. There are wildernesses and deserts of our own making through defiant disobedience and lingering sin patterns we refuse to repent of. In the Bible God did use the wilderness and desert as a punishment for disobedience, but he was there with them, giving them sustenance, protection, and direction. 

Some wildernesses are circumstantial. It may be a family crisis. A relationship seemingly broken beyond repair. It could be years of shame oppressing and isolating you. It could be a secret struggle you are terrified to confess. It could be a desert of mental illness and chronic pain. 

The Wilderness As Invitation

Wildernesses abound. They may differ in size and location, but chances are, you will come across one sooner or later. At times it feels like forty years of punishment, but what is important to remember is that God speaks in the wilderness. He has led many people into it for a variety of reasons. The desert, even in its emptiness, can be a place of intimacy, a place of prayer, a place of temptation and victory

Jenny Phillips writes, “The wilderness has many functions. It serves as a place of barrenness and hunger, source of nourishment from God, a location for God’s testing and revelation, and a context for the transformation for God’s people.” Maybe some of us hear him better in the desert. 

There are many ways to experience the wilderness God calls you to. Here are just three examples:

Powering Through It.If the wilderness is a labyrinth, you are barreling through those hedges to find your way out, leaving behind a trail of nature carnage because you are uncomfortable and you will plow your way to safety, even if you die trying. You don’t need those signals on the trees to tell you where to go. You’re fragmented and everything is a blur because you are so determined to escape, even if it means losing out on the lessons the wilderness is holding for you. You’re avoiding your brokenness with frenzied activity. I think Jonah exemplifies this when he takes off in the opposite direction of Nineveh when God called him to go there. He ended up in a wilderness of whale guts, only to end up back at his original wilderness. Because of his disobedience, he faced two wildernesses instead of one. 

Playing Dead. the wilderness is so overwhelming you curl into a fetal position at the foot of a tree and wait for rescue. The problem is that paralysis sets in and you end up just making your home there.  You’re not even going to try because you’re terrified of doing it wrong. You get stuck. You shut down. Because it’s easier than looking for help. You refuse to engage with your surrounding, you disassociate and ignore the nagging feeling that your brokenness has meaning. This tactic reminds me of when Elijah killed all the prophets and Jezebel was like You are SO Dead. In 1 Kings 9 it says, “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” 

Accepting the Invitation. You submit to the wilderness. You acknowledge that it is a lonely, desolate place but you know you’re invited to something more, something deeper, someONE who will help you ford those rivers, portage that canoe, and trek that terrain like a BOSS. You know there is such a thing as redemptive suffering. The wilderness is not where you go to die. It is the place where you and Jesus meet, apart from the noise, distraction, and expectation. In Mark 4:1, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan because he was invited. The Holy Spirit led him there. Jesus went to desolate places to pray because he needed that space and time set apart for deep fellowship with his Father as a way to affirm his purpose and mission. 

You decide the way you will experience the wilderness. 

3 Blessings of the Wilderness

1. Intimacy. In the Book of Hosea, Gomer is called a whore and an adulteress and God says he will punish her by making her a wilderness so that she would die of thirst. But after declaring all the ways he will make her pay for her sin, he has mercy on her, and all Israel, and all of us, and he changes the purpose of the wilderness for her. In Chapter 2 verse 14 he says, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” God tells Hosea to accept Gomer as his wife again. He has to buy her back from her pimp. That is redemptive suffering. The desert becomes a place of intimacy. The rawness and restlessness that are revealed to us in the wilderness create a profound vulnerability that offers us a new way to encounter our rescuer.

2. Victory. In Scripture, the wilderness or desert can be a place of heavy and prolonged temptation. God allows temptation to prepare us for greater dependency and discipline. Temptations tangle us up for a number of reasons. Maybe we are getting prideful and arrogant, maybe we are drifting from him because we are keeping our own counsel and becoming foolishly self-reliant. Maybe we are lacking in compassion but abounding in judgment regarding other people’s sin and temptations. Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to get comfortable and avoid challenge. God allowed Jesus and to be tempted by Satan to prove God’s power in his people. Every temptation resisted makes you stronger for the next one. Even the smallest of victories give glory to God and strengthen us in our faith. He gives us a way out. He promises that we will obtain victory in life.

1 John 5:4 “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Luther imagines that “temptations are Christ’s embraces,” because He then most sweetly manifests Himself to the soul.”

David Powlison writes that after fiery trials “you have firsthand experience of both his sustaining grace and his purposeful design. He has kept you through pain; he has reshaped you more into his image,” which leads us right into the third blessing of the wilderness.

3. Transformation. Even though the wilderness is a place of disorientation, God promises to be present to us. As we burrow into the richness of our newfound intimacy and go from strength to strength as we triumph over temptation, we enter into growth so dynamic that it changes us forever.  

Jenny Phillips describes the wilderness of the Bible as “a liminal space—an in-between place where ordinary life is suspended, identity shifts, and new possibilities emerge. Through the experiences of the Israelites in exile, we learn that while the Biblical wilderness is a place of danger, temptation and chaos, it is also a place for solitude, nourishment, and revelation from God.” 

How God transforms the desert in Isaiah is also how he transforms us!

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. . . . Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. . . . and a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in the Way . . . . But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The Lord will cause our dry hearts to break forth into streams. He will make a road in the wilderness for us to walk upon, and it will lead us to Jesus, to healing, growth, and hope. 

The wilderness is our Way of Holiness.

“If we are in the wilderness, is not God the God of the wilderness? Were not His greatest marvels worked when He led His people about through the howling wilderness and fed them with manna and revealed Himself in a fiery, cloudy pillar? Where did Hagar look to Him who saw her, but in the wilderness? Where did Moses see the Lord in the bush, but at the backside of the desert? Where did Elijah hear a voice speaking to Him, but away there in the wilderness? And where did David, the Psalmist, meet with his God, but in the lone, solitary land where no water is? O my soul, if you are in the desert now, expect your God to meet with you. Open now your eyes and expect to see Him display His grace. Now that you are as the dry ground, He will pour floods upon you. Now that you are empty, He will fill you with His divine fullness. Your poverty prepares you to apprehend His riches. Your inward death prepares you to receive His everlasting life. Therefore, have hope and rise from your depression and fear.” ~Charles Spurgeon, “A Wilderness Cry,” August 4, 1878.

Journaling Prompts 
Take some time and list some of the wildernesses you have experienced in the past, and then identify any wilderness you may be in right now.

Go back to your list of wildernesses. Think about each one and determine which way you handled it. If you discover some different ways you did it, write that down. 

When have you met God in a wilderness place? What were the risks of entering your wilderness? How was God revealed to you?

Tammy Perlmutter
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