This particular wilderness lasted about six years.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but seasons in the wilderness tend to have at least two elements: (1) a lack of something we desperately want, and (2) an abundance of something we desperately don’t want. The wilderness I was slogging through had a nightmarish lack of sleep and a bumper crop of weekly, if not daily, vomit. I believe I would have eagerly welcomed an actual nightmare had it meant I would have been unconscious, in a real sleep state, for greater than meager minutes and short hours strung together.
Yet the physical manifestations of the wilderness—things like lack of sleep and too much vomit—are never as trying as the deeper realities of what we’re being denied and given. I was being denied a healthy, normally sleeping, able-to-eat-by-normal-means, neurotypical son. I was being given a fragile, normally not sleeping, tube-fed son with delays and frightening medical circumstances that made me fear for his life. I longed for certainty about his development. I was being given an abundance of uncertainty and an opportunity to trust God in the midst of it. I intensely wanted to hold my son’s life (and our family’s life) within my own grasp and take control of the storyline; instead I was held onto by the Lord and propelled into a story I hadn’t prepared for. I longed to see our future; I was given a vision of a holy and good God by his word and Spirit.
Catching a Glimpse of the God Who Sees
Hagar found herself in the wilderness not once but twice. The first time, she fled there after Sarai dealt harshly with her. Newly pregnant by Abram and contemptuous of the mistress she was called to submit to, an angel of the Lord came to Hagar. He spoke words of command: “Return to your mistress and submit to her,” and words of comfort: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:9–10). In response, Hagar exclaimed a twofold truth—that she had seen the God who sees (Gen. 16:13).
Her second time in the wilderness, God not only saw her but heard the voice of her son and came to do his eye-opening work once again. He opened her eyes so that she could see water, and she and her son were saved. The wilderness exists for sight—both to know that we are seen by God and at last to have our tightly shut eyes opened to see the seeing God.
When we walk through any season of wilderness, the greatest danger is not the scorching heat of the trial or the horrible dryness of the ground; it is that we would be blind to the God who sees us. The greatest danger is that we would begin to believe our wilderness is out of his plan, away from his providing hand, and obscuring his line of sight. We must never believe such deadly things.
It was in the moments of deepest deprivation that I was tempted to question whether God was the seeing God that he has revealed himself to be. Did he see the many nights our bed was soaked—with sheets sopping wet with formula after the tubing disconnected from my son’s G-tube in the middle of the night? Had he noticed my new slippers and all my shoes splattered with vomit? Could his eyes penetrate the ceiling of our bedroom, where night after night after night, year after year after year, I tried to comfort my restless, sad, unsettled son, begging him for sleep, begging him for peace? Did he see us in the hospitals, in the PICU, in the ambulances, in the waiting rooms and pre-ops and post-ops? The fact is, he could see, and he did see.
What took me too long to understand was that those circumstances were his gift of sight to me. He stripped away so many things I thought I needed, many things I thought I couldn’t live without, and in doing so he made one precious and irreplaceable gift come better into focus: himself. He showed himself to be the God of the wilderness. The God who makes streams flow in the desert and who reaps a harvest of fruitfulness in the most unlikely of places.
Our God is the God who sees, and even more than Hagar we have had our eyes opened to see the very image of God, the exact imprint of his nature, the revealing of his glory, very God of very God, our Savior, Redeemer, and perfect friend—the Lord Christ.
Two Wildernesses and Two Israels
Not only is the wilderness a place of seeing; it is a place that requires dependence, not self-reliance. This is, of course, where God’s covenant people Israel went so terribly wrong.
Israel’s wilderness lasted for forty years. It was a result of their disobedience, and it repeatedly showcased their rejection of God. Jesus, who was all that Israel should have been, was in the wilderness for forty days. He was not there as a result of disobedience but because of his obedience to the Spirit, and he repeatedly demonstrated his reliance on God.
When Israel needed physical food or water, God provided it, yet they were not satisfied. Jesus, who could have turned stones to bread, fasted from physical food and water, feasting and being satisfied only by God’s words. Israel rejected God’s commandments, instead fashioning for themselves a new god to worship in the form of a golden calf and becoming deceivers themselves by saying of idols, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). Jesus refused to worship the deceiver, rejecting the glory that comes from the kingdoms of men, and instead spoke the truth: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10).
The wilderness exists for sight—both to know that we are seen by God and at last to have our tightly shut eyes opened to see the seeing God.
Aren’t we thankful for the second and better Israel? Doesn’t your heart swell to see him do what the first Israel couldn’t? Aren’t you encouraged that your wilderness season is overseen and orchestrated by the God who provides a way to escape temptation? Unlike Eve, who took physical food offered her by the tempter in order to try to gain power and divinity, Jesus refused physical food offered by the tempter as a sign of his power and divinity. Unlike the Israelites who were unhappy with the daily provision of God, Jesus is satisfied by the provision of God’s every word. Jesus saw beyond the wilderness and the cross to the joy set before him at God’s right hand so that we can look to Jesus in the midst of our own wilderness (Heb. 12:2).
The Bread of Adversity That Leads to Sight
Isaiah prophesied, “Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isa. 30:20).
We have a teacher whom our eyes have seen and our ears have heard. He is leading us by his word. Whether you are in a dark night of the soul or experiencing chronic pain or disease or persecution from the authorities or a very hard marriage or unwanted divorce or miscarriage or cancel culture or disability or joblessness, his word is saying to you, “This is the way, walk in it.” The wilderness is a surprisingly safe place for us–the safest place of all. Don’t get me wrong—the wilderness doesn’t ensure the earthly outcomes we want, but it does ensure our dependence on him. Danger lies all around in worldly comfort, earthly riches, status, fame, and independence, but the wilderness is free of those traps. It gives us one thing we desperately don’t want: the bread of adversity; but it also gives us an abundance of something we desperately need: eyes to see our teacher and ears to hear his word and receive it as our food—“This is the way, walk in it.”