The desert (Part 1)

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I will start with 3 related texts. The first is Matt. 4:1-3, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him…”

The second text is Matt. 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And the last one is Rev. 12:11, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as so shrink from death.

What do these three texts have to do with each other? A lot, I believe, for our on-going theme as Jesus’ disciples is loving him and following him. On this path of discipleship we are promised the fulness of life. As we read in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” But if we are honest, our experience often suggests something quite different. We certainly do not always experience this fullness. Why do so many Christians struggle through life with a great devoid of peace, joy, comfort and calm?

In order to come up with some answers we must ask ourselves initially why we became Christians in the first place. It is seldom solely love for Jesus which motivates a person to make a decision to follow him. I believe that this decision is often based on an instinct for self-preservation. Some decide from fear of hell, which is a legitimate reason; because without salvation through Jesus’ cross we would surely be lost. But this has everything to do with ourselves and little to do with God. Others became Christians because they hoped for Jesus’ help and support in their marriage; still others because they could not cope with life and thus accepted the offer to become whole, to receive a helping hand to get out of their troubles.

These are all legitimate motives, for Jesus himself calls to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (help you). Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

Selfish motives

 We come to God in order to receive something. We want to be helped and to be whole. Our eyes are fixed firmly on ourselves. Our motives are selfish. And God knows this! Because he knows our hearts to their core. He is not deceived. But God’s greatness becomes visible precisely when he is concerned with us, in spite of our egoism. He accepts us as we are.

Our first steps toward Jesus are usually selfish. We can even serve him or go to the mission field from egotistic motives. But God does not want to merely gratify our acute hunger. He doesn’t only want to lead us into the fullness of life. He wants to lead us close to his heart – for we can find rest nowhere else. So he does not leave us as we are. He must familiarize us with the integrity of his kingdom. According to these principles, it is not those who grab for life who find it, but rather those who let themselves fall into God’s hands and lose their lives.

If we don’t realize this we will never really understand what it is to be Jesus’ disciple. But God is so great that he gives us peace and joy when we take our first selfish steps. Everyone who has truly encountered Jesus knows what it is when God’s wonderful peace fills their hearts. At these times we get the impression that now all is well. We have encountered Jesus. Our lives belong to him. We love him and we belong to his congregation. Filled and enraptured with this gift of God we feel close to him and love him. We are certain that now nothing adverse can happen to us.

But then comes the inevitable, which under all circumstances must come: the next step! Jesus says to us, “We must go on! I have set the table for you in the presence of your enemies. You have eaten and drunk; I have strengthened you. Now we must go on!”

The challenge to set out for the desert

Being saved, receiving forgiveness and salvation is only the sustenance which gives me appropriate strength to set out for the desert, towards my mountain of God where I will in truth encounter God – and myself. The desert is not always an external reality. It is usually an inner condition of our souls, a period of darkness and drought. In this desert God will ask me about my deepest motives. He will reveal his heart to me. He will call me to follow after his son in order to transform me into his image. Previously I had not even been a disciple! I had been merely a guest at Jesus’ table. He nourished me and relieved me of my burden. And while we were still sitting at the table, the challenge arose. As we read, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.”

This is where the path to discipleship begins. Discipleship means following after Jesus, being led into the same challenges that he was. Jesus says of himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58). And of his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus forces no one to be his disciple. But if we want to follow him he cannot spare us the confrontation with ourselves and with the conditions of discipleship. In the desert God reveals the true condition of our hearts. The Holy Spirit must lead us deeper into truth. The desert begins to gnaw at us. We get hungry and thirsty. Our senses cry for satisfaction, for peace, even for the numbness of no feeling at all.

But God doesn’t come back on our cries. He seems silent, unmoved by our need. Instead of satisfying our hunger for comfort, joy, peace and security, the dam walls of suppression inside us begin to burst. Our inner being finds a path to the surface. Suppressed emptiness, existential fears, inferiority feelings, self-rejection, loneliness, bitterness, accusations and anger erupt out of a boiling heart and clog the mouth with bitter gall.

In the desert all the hitherto locked inner rooms are unbolted. Nothing can remain hidden. The light must shine into every dark corner so that the truth can penetrate and transform our hearts. In his goodness, God continues to lead us ever deeper into the desert during the course of our discipleship. Thus he reveals the mystery of our transformation into the image of his son. None of us would be able to bear the knowledge of our heart’s need of salvation if it were revealed all at once.

Our initial reaction to this process is usually confusion, disappointment and doubt. We don’t understand what is happening. The familiar peace has evaporated. We no longer understand God; his word no longer speaks to us as once it did. We have the impression that we are suddenly much worse off than before we lived with Jesus.

The spirit also led Jesus into the desert. These desert periods are always at the beginning of an encounter with God in which he wants to engrave the mysteries of his kingdom deeper into a person’s heart. Without these desert phases we would never really know the true condition of our relationship with Jesus, or how serious we are about discipleship. The desert is absolutely necessary in order for God’s spirit to lead us into truth. The Holy Spirit is the one who reveals Jesus to us; he must therefore lead us into the desert, into our personal desert.

The wilderness is the place where God’s wind sweeps away all the chaff and straw, all the void and meaninglessness, all the noise and numbness. This lays the naked foundation exposed and illuminates the fundamental starkness. Illusions and day-dreams with which I covered up my wretched reality dissolve painfully before my heart’s burning eyes. Even God’s care, which used to fill me during praise, when I read his word, when I was quiet in his presence, or in the fellowship of friends and other believers (yes, this sometimes intoxicated me like a good book or film, or whatever else I used for relaxation) is taken from me. It recedes so far that I lose all appetite for it.

There are periods in our lives when too many emotions, even in our relationship with God, can distract us from the essential work on our hearts. For the sake of the truth, God must hold himself back. He must bring me to the place where at last everything which was in my heart is revealed and where I experience the truth about myself; to the place where no further suppression is possible, no further distraction is effective; neither religion, hedonism nor culture. We know, after all, that God’s enemy is not choosy about the means employed to prevent us from experiencing the truth about ourselves and about God. This makes the desert absolutely necessary.

Encounter with my true self

When we look into our own eyes in the desert, we will encounter our true self. This self is normally filled with self-rejection and with accusations against our own personal history; because fear, insecurity and homelessness dominate our lives. Rebellion against the path God gave us is not only the usual reaction, but we discover that it’s like a chronic illness we can’t shake off. Only then do we begin to sense our heart’s unimaginable need of salvation. We discover how hurriedly we mistrust God and turn from him when things don’t develop as we had expected. Then God must expose us to the enemy’s attacks in order to reveal the true state of our relationship to him.

On the one hand, the desert is a fruitless wilderness of solitude and homelessness, where an unprotected, solitary person is constantly surrounded by death. Therefore it is the home of demons, and the devil is very present. On the other hand, the same desert can be a jewel of beauty and a sea of peace and glory when God’s breath fills it with his whisperings, when he lays hold of the unplumbed depths of our soul. God speaks and acts in the desert. God’s spirit led Jesus into the desert and exposed him to the attacks, the questions and above all the lies of the devil.

This method is necessary in order to prepare and equip us, because the path of discipleship will take us through a world ruled by God’s enemy. I must go to the desert to learn the difference between God’s voice and the devil’s. Such a wilderness is the framework of training. There God’s spirit familiarizes me with the strategy of “the liar and accuser of the brethren”. He teaches me to recognize the devil’s wiles. I learn to differentiate between the devil’s lies and God’s truth, between light and darkness, pride and humility. Then I can see Jesus’ footprints and stay on the path in a world marked by deception and pride. This I can learn only in the desert.