2020 has left us all scratching our heads, asking “When will it end?”
But to those who want to emerge from this year in a better place than we entered it, that’s actually the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking: “What do I need to learn?”
The desert is a dry place. It’s where dreams go to die, and survival looks like the only positive outcome. The kind of desert I’m talking about isn’t an identified land mass you can trudge through. It is a season of life that comes out of nowhere, and eventually ends just as mysteriously as it started. 2020 is a desert.
For months I’ve had one hard decision to make after another. For months I’ve been doing things I don’t want to do, and not doing the things I want to do. For months, instead of pursuing a compelling vision of the future, I’ve just been trying to get through the day while keeping things together. This is what happens in a desert.
I know what I’m experiencing isn’t special. You’re likely feeling many, if not all, of the same things. I don’t care what your plans were on December 31st, 2019, I can guarantee they didn’t involve vast economic adjustments, mask mandates, forced quarantines, or Zoom holidays. Yet here we are. 2020 has been the most difficult year I can remember—for myself, yes, but also for the people I know, lead, and love.
Those who aren’t spiritually self-aware will look for a scapegoat.
President Trump makes a good one. So do those in political power on the left. So does the media. Many of us would rather find someone to blame than to see the greater purpose of the desert. But the purpose is there, for those willing to look for it. And it is this purpose that gives meaning to the pain.
Thankfully, we aren’t the first people to be forced to walk through a desert we didn’t choose. This theme comes up time and time again in the pages of the Bible. The desert is the place where God refines His people. Where He strips them down to the core. It’s the place where they hang on, and find the strength necessary for their future—if they’re asking the right question.
When we hear the word desert, many of us think of mile after mile of sand dunes. Yes, there are deserts that look like that. But in the Holy Land, where God’s people have lived since the writing of the Bible, they look much different. Also known as “the wilderness,” the deserts the Bible refers to are craggy, rocky places. It’s extremely dry, and not much of anything lives out there. There’s little to no food or water. Because the terrain is so rocky, you end up trudging through the area with your head down, looking at your feet, hoping not to twist an ankle. Each step has to be taken carefully. Survival is your sole focus. The desert forces you to turn inward. You’re looking down instead of up.
The first major desert experience we find in the Bible is after God rescues Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Through a string of miracles, God takes His people to the brink of their Promised Land. The Bible describes it as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” It is poetic language to describe just how lush and bountiful it was, the direct opposite of the desert. But the Israelites don’t have the faith to fight for it. They chicken out. So God turns them around, and for the next forty years, they wander the dry and rocky wilderness. Everyone from that initial Promised Land crossing, except for two faithful spies and those under 20, are dead before God’s nation is allowed another chance at the land He promised them. Sometimes, deserts are brought on by our mistakes. But not always.
Thousands of years later, Jesus Himself went through a desert experience.
Immediately after His baptism, the scripture says that He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Deserts aren’t always a result of our choices. Sometimes they happen, simply because that’s what God wants to do. I’ve learned in my own life, there’s a kind of growth, a kind of spiritual toughness and fitness, that only comes through passing through adversity.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, without food, facing targeted spiritual attacks from Satan. He likely felt isolated. He likely felt separated from God. He was definitely hungry (no food for over a month? Hunger’s an understatement at that point).
Or what about sweet little Mary and Joseph, smiling in the nativity scene on your mantle. They likely weren’t smiling as they lived through the events of the first Christmas. It was a desert experience. As a young teenager, Mary was told she’d give birth to Jesus. She wasn’t married yet, and in her day-and-age, you could be killed for less. Likewise, Joseph had to trust that the woman he loved had actually remained faithful to him, that the child growing inside her was actually the son of God. That’s to say nothing of their trip to Bethlehem, their inability to find a proper place to stay, giving birth in a stable, or having to flee in the night from a murderous king. They were uncomfortable and just trying to hang on.
According to the pundits, our desert of COVID-19 isn’t likely to end as the first months of 2021 roll by. We all feel like we’re wandering around, just trying to survive. We’re not sure where we’re going. We don’t have feelings of accomplishment we’re used to. We’re doing a lot of waiting, a lot of backtracking, there’s a parchedness to our soul. We’ve stopped trying to move life forward, and are just trying to stay on two feet.
But hear this clearly: you aren’t alone.
Every hero of faith has passed through the desert. This isn’t the time for happy-clappy, deny-reality, positive-self-help-talk. It is a time to take stock of what our life really looks like. It is a time to notice the cracks in our foundation that have likely been there for a long time. It is a time to envision a future where God’s plan for our life is all that matters instead of us achieving our own plans. It’s the time to open yourself up to learn, instead of complaining about the heat.
You don’t will yourself out of the desert. The ancient people of Israel didn’t know the exact day or month their 40 years of wandering would end. Jesus didn’t know His desert experience was going to last 40 days. Joseph and Mary also had no clue how long their difficulty was going to last as a threatened ruler was trying to track them down and kill their child. If the greats of old didn’t know when their desert would end, then we won’t either.
But to those who persevere, the desert will change you.
The Israelites who crossed the desert gained the Promised Land. Jesus emerged from the desert in power and purpose. Mary and Joseph endured till the end, gaining the most important birth in the history of the world.
While sometimes we are in a desert because God is disciplining us, it is most likely that this is a season we haven’t brought on ourselves. We must wait it out. Joshua, Caleb, and the youngsters in Israel were all innocent, and one day the desert ended as mysteriously as it had begun.
God has not abandoned you. You are not crazy. You may not be missing anything. It’s not about the next goal right now. The desert is about learning to stay close to Christ. To learn to live on less nourishment than you’re used to. To keep choosing faith over suspicion.
In the desert, our flowery cliches fall apart. Our little devotional sayings become meaningless. That is a good thing. Because what’s left after the desert is strong, true, and unshakable.
Every other Friday, thousands of people get unfiltered encouragement and challenge from me delivered to their inboxes. If you were helped or challenged by this, subscribe for more at the bottom of the page or at briantome.com. To quote the great John McClane… “Welcome to the party, pal.”