Embracing the Wilderness
by Susan Meissner
Some years back when my husband and I were stationed overseas, we had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. It was an amazing trip to say the least, and I came home far better able to imagine the unfolding of my faith’s history than ever before. One afternoon we were on a bus traveling to the Dead Sea. Outside my window were miles upon miles of wilderness. In that moment it wasn’t hard to picture the Israelites of old, wandering for forty years in that toast-colored vastness. I could almost see the cloud that guided them by day, the pillar of fire that chased away the darkness, the water from the rock, Moses and his staff.
Sometimes I wonder how could that generation of believers have seen so much of God and had so little faith when things didn’t go their way? And of course whenever I ask a question like that, I immediately sense the question being turned back onto me. Aren’t there plenty of times when I see so much of God and yet have so little faith when things don’t go my way? There are great truths about trust to be learned from Israel’s long sojourn in the desert. And, for me at least, those insights show up best not in the cloud or the pillar or the water from the rock, or in Moses and his staff.
The greatest insight for me shows up in the flakes of manna on the ground.
When I read the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, I can see plainly that the people of God were unhappy with where He had brought them. Their ungrateful tummies wanted food and they had so quickly forgotten the oppression that was Egypt and were whining to go back. They said what we find all too easy to say when we’re in a place we don’t want to be and we’re hungry for other things.
If only we had stayed in Egypt where we had pots of meat and ate bread to the full (verse 3).
I can barely read those words without shaking my head in astonishment? Pots of meat? Bread to the full. Is that really how they remembered it? Is this how I remember God’s work in my life? Do I minimize His miraculous provision the minute I don’t like the circumstances He has brought me to? More astonishing still is God’s response.
I will rain bread from heaven.
The Israelites awoke ready to grumble yet another day about how hungry they were, and to their surprise the ground was white with flakes of bread so unlike anything they had ever seen they called it “manna.” Translated from the Hebrew this word means, “What is it?” Not, “Wow. Thanks, God!” but “What exactly is this?”
And in the midst of this strange provision, God graciously gives them a test to help them acquire the faith they had so sadly lacked the day before and apparently still don’t have. In fact, it seems to me the entire exercise was not one of provision but one of trust. When God gave them the conditions for the manna, He was essentially saying, “Will you trust me today for what you need tomorrow?”
It is most interesting to me that when some of the Israelites disregarded God’s instruction that they save none, and then kept back some of the manna for the next day, it stank and drew maggots, as if to plainly show that faithlessness toward the God who loves you is an ugly thing. To have no faith in God should make us turn away in disgust.
When we’re in our own “wilderness time,” I think we can take some cues from the Israelites here on how to look to God in faith and trust.
We can refuse to play the “If Only” game.
We can choose to rightly remember what God has done for us in the past.
We can prepare ourselves for a surprising answer to our desire for deliverance.
We can commit to living within the limitations He sets before us.
I am learning that faith is like a muscle. It becomes stronger as it is stretched. I’ve exercised my body enough to know that when a muscle is stretched it protests. And we cry out, because it hurts. And yet it is only when a muscle is stretched to the point of pain that it is rebuilt stronger than it was before.
The wilderness only seems like a place where nothing is happening. If God is there with us in the rough country, we can rest that He brought us there not so much to test us—He already knows what we lack—but to show us what we lack, and then lovingly grant us opportunities to strengthen what is feeble.
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