Recently, Ian, one of my nephews, had his fifty-fifth birthday. I can still recall Ian staying a few days with our family when he was a lot younger. Before leaving to go back home he presented us with a lovely piece of pottery he had crafted and inside the vase he had placed small hand-written notes to each member of the family with another note to all the family.
The note to me read, “Spring is at hand the very moment you realise it’s winter.” It brought a tear to my eye. I recalled that during one of our chats during his stay I had mentioned that I was in the midst of a personal winter.
You can see from the photograph we still have the vase, which is now used as a pen holder. As well as the pens the vase still holds the personally-penned notes from Ian.
Seasons or ‘wilderness experiences’ are common to the Christian journey.
In Song of Solomon 2:11-12 we find,
“See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Just as winter is preparation for spring so our ‘wilderness experiences’ can be used by our Heavenly Father, who cares for us, in preparation for a more effective period of ministry and mission.
The term ‘wilderness experience’ is drawn from several accounts recorded in the Scriptures.
Firstly, the Old Testament account of the tribal nation of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years following the nation’s refusal to enter the Promised Land. Throughout God remained with his people, provided for their daily needs and prepared them for their passage into the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy 2:7, “The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.”
Secondly, the account found at the start of Matthew 4 where Jesus, following his baptism by John, was led by the Spirit into the wildness to be tested by the devil. This period of examination was at God’s initiative and tested specifically Jesus’ newly revealed relationship with God, the Father, and his Messianic vocation as the Son of God.
Selwyn Hughes in his autobiography, My Story, following his own wilderness experience wrote,
“I studied and read a lot about what Christians refer to as the ‘wilderness experience’, and the conclusion I came to was that it is a prolonged or deeply intense period of trial and testing in which a particular providential purpose is being worked out. It is something we are led into by the Lord. God either arranges it, or allows us to enter into it, not because He wants to punish us but because He wants to prune us. He does this because it is the only way He can bring his purpose to pass in our lives. Wilderness is a place of pain, isolation, humiliation, uncertainty, loneliness, depression and desperation.”
Personally, I respond with a resounding, “Yes!” to all of the above.
I recall a particular occasion when a young man, who I had befriended, committed suicide. I was only a young man too. I had picked up Graeme on a Friday evening to take him home for weekend leave from psychiatric care only to receive a phone call the following Saturday morning to advise me of Graeme’s death. I still drive past the address in my travels around Ballarat.
Following Graeme’s death I experienced all of the emotional symptoms mentioned by Selwyn Hughes as I wrestled with the “What if?” question.
Life’s experiences continue to teach me that the Lord my God is with me, He will ensure that I will not lack anything and He is shaping me after the character of His Son, Jesus, for His purposes.
Here’s a word of encouragement from Romans 12:1-2,
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without really thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognise what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”