A twenty-something friend reached out to me recently, just to talk. He had abandoned the idea of God in his late teen years after religious culture and hell-fire-and-brimstone left a bitter taste in his mouth. I can’t say I blame him for spitting it out. Now, after ten years of tasting all that life has to offer, he is weary—thirsty for something that life isn’t providing. Sure, he’s successful, and he’s a great guy. But he’s sinking. He’s in the midst of some personal adversity and it feels like he’s in the desert and the sand beneath his feet is consuming him.
This spiritual desert is a place where uncertainty is vast and the heat of fear threatens to evaporate our last ounce of faith. But in that place, my friend said that he felt this odd, inexplicable nudge that he couldn’t rationalize to anything but a higher power. He even called it God although he said that sounded crazy to him.
Whether you’re twenty-something or forty-something, chances are you’ve experienced this kind of desert. As I look back on my own life, it seems like a journey in and out of these desert seasons. So instead of avoiding the desert, how can we learn to embrace it? How do we navigate life in the desert?
Because the desert is necessary—it’s in the desert where we learn who we really are.
Rest in the Desert
For the longest time, my natural response was to become angry with God and complain when I was in the desert. But I’m learning that some of God’s greatest work is done in the desert. I think my cancer diagnosis taught me that. It was a purification of some of my deepest struggles. Although painful and difficult, I emerged better for it.
I’ve been writing for more than three years now—an attempt to bring to light that nudge that this is what God wants me to do. As I look back, I’ve been writing my way through the desert. This journey, like every journey, has been met with challenges and as I wrestle with those challenges my tendency is to become impatient and frustrated. But God’s voice has been consistent.
When I question Him, His answer remains, “Rest. I will provide.”
In the book of Exodus, as Moses is leading God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, God says:
“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14
If you find yourself in the desert, the first thing you must do is rest. And by rest, I’m not implying a physical rest like sleeping, I’m implying a condition of your heart. When things start to go wrong, when we’re met with challenges, our visceral response is to take action, to take control. But that’s not what God has His people do. In the midst of their insurmountable obstacle, He commands them to rest. It seems counterproductive and unconventional, but we have to be reminded that we serve an unconventional God.
We can’t expect right-side-up answers in an upside-down kingdom. The last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16). Instead of striving and yearning and longing and trying to figure it all out, we have to quiet ourselves. We have to be humble enough to say, “God, I’m listening.”
God in the Desert
The desert might be uncomfortable for us, but it’s not an uncommon place for God:
He led Abraham through the desert and formed a covenant with His people (Genesis 12)
It was in the desert where God fed Elijah and strengthened him to do His work (1 Kings 19)
Paul spent three years in the desert before He spread the Good News to an unbelieving world (Galatians 1:17)
And, of course, Jesus spent forty days in the desert before His ministry began (Luke 4, Mark 1, Matthew 4)
The desert is God’s territory. And in the history of God’s story, He takes His people into the desert to show them who they really are. When we learn to trust Him in the desert, He reveals our true identity—His purpose for our lives. Abram became Abraham, that father of nations. Moses, a stuttering murderer, became the leader of God’s people. David, a shepherd boy, became king. Saul, a Christian-hating legalist, spread the hope of the gospel to the Gentiles. And Jesus, the son of a carpenter, became the name above all names.
With God, even the harshest desert can bear the sweetest fruit.
Letting God Lead Through Adversity
Life is and will be full of these desert-like seasons. It is a continual part of our collective journey. The question isn’t, “How can I avoid the desert?” The question must become, “Am I resting and letting God fight for me?”
Kevin Adams, my friend and mentor once told me, “Entering His rest doesn’t mean that we don’t do work, it simply means that the work we engage in must be led by Him.” That convicts me to my core and it is a foundational principle that I have built my life around. Being still is being led by Him—especially through the desert.
We don’t overcome adversity by our own willpower. We overcome adversity by letting God lead us through it. Until we’re humble enough to rely on the strength of the One who holds power over our circumstances, we’ll never be able to rise above them.
If you find yourself in the desert today, be encouraged. In God’s economy, the desert brings life. He is fighting for you, you need only be still.
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About the Author:
Matt Ham calls himself a pastor although he doesn’t have a church or a captive congregation. He is an insurance agent in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina and his first book, Redefine Rich: A New Perspective on the Good Life, was published in 2015. He now speaks nationally about the story.
Matt helps people address difficult questions through a lens of practical perspective and Biblical truth. Questions of death and life, security and protection, purpose and faith. He and his wife, Liz, have three sons and a daughter.
To contact Matt, or inquire about his availability, visit www.mattham.com/speaking