What do we usually experience in the desert? Our first impression, as we have observed, is that God has abandoned us, because we no longer feel him nor hear his voice. We lose our desire to pray and read God’s word. Everything in and around us is empty and dull. The needs of our soul and our spirit are no longer satisfied. We no longer feel peace. Our life with God becomes dehydrated and shrivels up. Nothing has any taste. Love for God becomes purely an act of the will. It no longer boosts me.
If we don’t cover up and whitewash this condition with a façade of activities and consumerism, but allow our heart to speak, our inner dam walls begin to disintegrate. The negative things in our heart surface. Accusations, disappointment, anger and resignation emerge.
Then the devil comes and says, “You see, your conversion, your so-called experiences with God are nothing but religious emotionalism. You just fell for what people said.” The enemy lies to us according to our present relationship to God. He says, “Look, there’s no solution for your present situation! God may be a god who heals, but you aren’t on his list. He doesn’t see you. God heals and liberates, but you’re so wounded and imprisoned, your past is so difficult that there’s little hope.” The devil doesn’t say that God doesn’t heal, that he doesn’t work in our lives or that he isn’t present. He says, “You’re a special case. God can help, but there are certain cases even he can’t solve and you’re one of them. Your case is more complicated than others.”
Lying is the devil’s weapon. He comes and tells us, “You have to learn to live with your situation. You must accept that this is the way you are and that you can’t change yourself. It’s just a shortcoming in your character that you can’t open up to others; that it’s hard for you to let others see into your heart. Not much can be done about this. This is easier for some people.” In this way the devil begins filling us with lies. His goal in the desert is that we see ourselves as victims – victims of God’s demands and calling or victims of our past, our up-bringing or other circumstances. He wants us to feel sorry for ourselves because then we won’t take responsibility or give account for our thoughts and actions. We will experience neither repentance – nor forgiveness and a new beginning.
The enemy of God and man always approaches us at our point of weakness. He drags us down by converting our weaknesses into paralysis. Whatever my weakness – self-pity, lack of courage, resignation, fear or mistrust – if I don’t put it in God’s hands, the devil will always use it as a weapon against me. In our struggle for genuine discipleship Satan will always pressurize us with the lie that radical discipleship and total openness and honesty are only for saints, not for the weak. A John Smith like myself must not overdo it. We need only read books about saints. What they went through is not for people with little strength of character. This perseverance is much more than you and I could muster in order to fulfil the radical demands of discipleship which in fact is a matter of relinquishing our own goals and dreams. It’s a matter of a life without guarantee of visible success, recognition or security; without hope for an empire of our own, however small.
God allows temptation. When my heart is revealed I must ask myself whether I am willing to believe God’s word and his promises – namely that he will lead me into life through darkness, problems and struggles if I lay my life in his hands. When it comes to letting go of our own lives, rebellion, lack of faith, pride, inferiority feelings, fear and cowardice can rear up like an impenetrable wall between us and God.
But God brings us to the point where he asks, “Are you really ready to follow after me, even when it costs you everything? Are you willing, even if I don’t always give you pleasure; if you have to pass through times of dryness and darkness, if things don’t always go well? Even if you lose a child, your spouse or your friends? Or are you willing to follow me only as long as I fulfil your desires?”
Love for God is a relationship, born of the unconditional decision to belong to him, anchored in the heart attitude described in Ps. 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And being with you, I desire nothing on earth.” Love is a question of my decision, whether my desires are fulfilled or not. It is a matter of seeking God as a person and not his riches or his gifts. The desert makes it plain whether I live from the nourishment of the world or from God’s word. God seeks my entire dedication. He wants to be my sole source of life. Dedication is saying yes to God’s paths in spite of all opposition. “Lord, I want to go with you; I trust you that you really are the one you have promised me to be. You are life, you are love – therefore I will give up myself into your hands. You will bear me in my pain, my emptiness, my fear, my despair over myself. You will bring me to the destination.”
Victory through the blood of the lamb
In the desert God teaches me to fight the true battle against the enemy. He teaches me to overcome the devil by the only strategy which leads to the goal. This is first the blood of the lamb. Here I must do nothing. Jesus has shed his blood. If the devil says to me in the desert, “Just see how your heart looks, how broken, guilty and impossible you are. You don’t have a chance…” then I can say,”It’s true, I’m guilty, I’m weak. (It’s best to confront the devil with truth, which he can’t stand.) But the blood of the lamb cleanses me. And there’s nothing in this creation which can resist the blood of Jesus. There’s nothing in my heart which can’t be cleansed by the blood of the lamb. No guilt is so great – neither in my life nor among other people’s – that it can’t be forgiven through the blood of God’s lamb.”
This silences the enemy. If I really believe that the blood of the lamb is stronger than every embedded characteristic in my life, than every ethnic characteristic, than every tradition and every other power, then I need not fear the enemy’s accusations. In the wilderness of our lives the meaning of the lamb’s blood becomes truly precious. It is the sole means by which we can stand up to the enemy.
The word of testimony
The second part of the strategy for overcoming is the word of testimony. What testimony is meant here? It is the testimony that Jesus overcame everything on the cross. In the desert everything is moving toward the cross. In the wilderness I experience the truth and reality of the cross for my life. God shows me how incurably ill my heart has become through separation from him who is life; how pride, arrogance, lies and greed hold me imprisoned in a hopeless condition; how un-whole, confused and destroyed my life is, so that I can only cry out like Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?” (Rom. 7:24).
But God shows me not only the depth of my need for salvation. He also shows me the liberating message which makes possible hope and my personality’s restoration. On the cross Jesus bore not only my guilt, but also the sickness of my humanity, the pains, the isolation and confusion of my soul, the wounds and ingrained grooves of destruction caused by my own history. He took on himself the crushing burden which was on my shoulders, the deadly poison in my heart, the depressing distress in my spirit. He wants me to stand up, breathe, hope, be joyful and live. There is nothing in my life which Jesus cannot liberate and lead into freedom and life. He who knows me to the depths of my soul is wholly for me.
God is love and I was created for him. What a message! When this testimony lives in my heart and I confess it before the visible and the invisible world, the enemy of God, the enemy of life must yield.
Not loving life so much as to shrink from death
The third part of the overcomer strategy is “They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11). This refers not only to those who long for martyrdom, but to every person who begins to follow after Jesus. This is not a matter of one last heroic deed when we are thrown into prison somewhere to die; it is the willingness to let go of our lives daily in small parts. Paul said, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered”(Rom. 8:36). This is a daily dying for Jesus’ sake; we let go of our lives in instalments. If I confess Jesus in my life and in this world, I will certainly receive blows to my being. For I live in a world which is hostile to Jesus. Whoever fears for his life is easy prey for the devil because he can be blackmailed with threats and violence. If I am afraid to lose my life, I am easy to overcome. Only those who have no fear of losing their lives have nothing to fear from the devil.
God wants to teach us how we can overcome the enemy: through the blood of the lamb, through the word of our testimony and by not loving our lives so much as to cringe from death. And all of this begins in the desert. If someone who is reading this finds himself in the desert right now, he can know that nothing better can happen to him because he is in a place where his love for Jesus will gain authenticity, substance and truth. In the desert we draw closer to Jesus and experience who he really is.
It is essential that we do not rebel in the desert, but watch and pray so that we can hear the difference between Jesus’ voice and the voice of the enemy. This protects us from falling into a victim mentality. The enemy always sides with our self-pity. He always confirms our rebellion. He always endorses our distaste for suffering and declares, “Yes, of course, this shouldn’t happen to you; it’s asking too much that God put you into such a situation. This is impossible. It contradicts God’s love. Do something to end this situation as quickly as possible.” The devil’s voice is always very much on the side of our problems! But God’s voice asks, “Do you love me – even in this situation? Are you standing with me? Are you really willing to persevere with me if you receive no answer now? Are you willing to be completely open? May I give you a heart of flesh, which is a vulnerable heart?”
Jesus’ words, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) always stand as a banner above God’s work in us. Yes, we can experience the fullness of life in the desert, for it is written, “Angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:11). Every one of us can experience that. If our hearts have grasped Jesus’ love, if we have given him our “Yes” and have continued with him, we will experience an increasingly full life. Then angels will really serve us in his name.