Have you ever come across a piece of art–a line of poetry, an image in a movie, a passage of Scripture–that captures your imagination? It’s the kind of thing that can mark your soul for ages, occupying your thoughts in the middle of the night months from your first exposure to it, dominating the landscape of your dreams, changing the shape of your heart’s desires. I call these occurrences “marvelous moments,” because they reveal to me something worthy of marvel and awe in this life.
Two such moments have so captured my imagination. I was reminded of my first experience of this captivation by the daily readings in the lectionary yesterday.
The angel brought me
back to the entrance of the temple,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east,
for the façade of the temple was toward the east;
the water flowed down from the southern side of the temple,
south of the altar.
He led me outside by the north gate,
and around to the outer gate facing the east,
where I saw water trickling from the southern side.
He said to me,
“This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah,
and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12
The prophet Ezekiel is shown a vision where there is a river that makes salt water sweet. Along its banks are trees that bear fruit every month of the year, which is good for food. And their leaves are for medicine, for the healing of the nations (echoed by John in Revelation 22:2). The image of this scene took root in my imagination during my senior year of high school. I got home every day from school at 2 p.m. and I had more than two hours to myself before my mom picked my sister up from school and made it home. I would walk around the ponds behind our house and when I finished, I would read Ezekiel.
Not the normal light reading of a 17-year-old, but I definitely wasn’t a ‘normal’ teenager.
Chapter 1 in Ezekiel opens with some pretty strange things, and my mind and heart were ripe for the magic of it. I say “magic” because that’s what it felt like–all the colors and strange creatures and the sounds described…it reads like something out of a fantasy novel. The book of Ezekiel goes on to speak with vivid imagery of the story of God’s beloved wife who turns her back on him, but there is redemption in the end. Especially in chapter 47, when I first encountered this river and all its trees.
It has haunted me since then, for over 13 years. In a good way.
That’s what good literature and good art are supposed to do–to capture our imagination and not let it go. We turn over images and phrases in our minds and our hearts until they are a part of us. The things we read, watch, touch, taste, feel, and experience mark us, change us powerfully–for better or worse.
The second marvelous moment is from the film adaptation of J.R.R Tolkein’s The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It’s the battle of Helm’s Deep, where there seems to be no hope against the forces of Saruman. But Aragorn remembers the words of Gandalf–“Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.” In faith, the overwhelmed captives break forth from their stronghold in the face of the invading army, and Gandalf appears, true to his word, with the Erkenbrand and 1,000 Rohirrhim. It is a powerful scene. You can watch it here.
Looking for the light of dawn to come through the window, determining to fight in the face of overwhelming odds, being willing to fight together with one’s friends to the death–these things have marked me deeply and have shaped me into who I am today.
Have you experienced a marvelous moment like either of these? What was it like for you?
Today is my daughter Lucy’s due date, and she is already a week old.
Allow me to indulge in some pictures of my beautiful girl.
I am so thankful for this little life. She has already made our family richer. My other children are as much in love with her as her daddy and I are.
She sneezes a lot.
I wonder if it’s allergies or just getting adjusted to the world around her.
It reminds me of the prolific pollen that will descend on us here in East Texas in the spring–the distinct yellow of pine pollen. When I am tempted to be annoyed by it, the Lord reminds me how passionate He is for life, so much so that He has the humble pine tree spread its seed far and wide so that we can have more of these towering, beautiful trees in our natural home.
Being open to new life, like the East Texas soil is to the showering of yellow pixie dust, is not always convenient or pleasant, but it is so worth it.
I’m not a very patient person by nature. That’s why being fewer than 24 hours from delivering this baby is a big deal. It’s finally here…and it’s wonderful and weird and strange and delightful all at the same time.
Being able to schedule a delivery is a relatively new phenomenon for the human species, and I don’t take that for granted. In my mind, there is something risky and magical and greatly rewarding about waiting to go into labor, but in my three pregnancies, I have not had that privilege. (For the story of our journey to Caesarian, check out the post I wrote shortly after our second child was born, Diary of a Wimpy Mom.)
I don’t know if I will be able to sleep tonight. I can’t wait to meet our daughter. The thoughts of anesthesia are fear-inducing, so I will probably be praying a lot trough that tonight. Life is such a risky thing, but as the adage says, “El que no arriesga no cruce la mar.” That means, “She who never takes a risk never crosses the sea.”
That’s kind of our philosophy with having kids…it’s a risk to have kids. It’s a risk to be in any kind of relationship. But it is so very rewarding.
As you go into your day tomorrow, will you pray for me and for baby Lucy’s entrance into the world outside? And while you’re at it, know that I am praying for you to take that next big risk.
Having your kids in church with you every Sunday is challenging. There is no way around it…it is exhausting when you have a 3.5-year-old daughter, an almost-2-year-old son, and are 38 weeks pregnant.
I know such a practice is not for everyone, but here are some things that I have experienced in the past few weeks that make me remember the perks to having my kids in a liturgical setting, week in and week out.
Today at the park, my almost-2-year-old dipped his hand in the fountain, touched his head in his version of making the sign of the cross on himself, and said, “Holy Spirit.”
A few weeks ago, when the priest genuflected (kneeled) before the blessed Sacrament during communion and disappeared briefly behind the altar, my 3-year-old said loudly, “Where did he go?”
Any time we see a statue of Mary, my kids want to take a closer look at it and touch it.
My 3-year-old has the Lord’s prayer written on her heart already and joins in when the congregation prays it.
My son loves to pass the peace during Mass. If anyone mentions the word ‘peace,’ he turns to every member of our family, extends his hand for a shake, and says, “Peace.” Repeatedly. And now my kids give each other peace across the back seat in the car.
My daughter heard the bells from our church while we were playing at the city park last week and recognized them.
Our new priest, a native of Northern Ireland, made a joke about not being told that East Texas was full of dry counties, prompting laughter from the whole congregation. My daughter laughed along and continued to laugh loudly.
Most touching to me, though, was something that happened about two months ago. I was having a horrible day. I was exhausted from parenting and incubating a baby human. I had just finished a glass of water and it was sitting on the coffee table. My daughter picked it up and brought it to me, made the sign of the cross on my head, and had me take a pretend sip. As she offered the cup, she said, “The Body of Christ.” And then she walked over to the kitchen and said, “Mommy, come here!” And I approached her and she gave me the cup again and offered the words, “The Body of Christ.” She invited her little brother to come and she blessed him by making the sign of the cross on his forehead and offering the cup of salvation.
I cried. My heart was softened to the presence of Jesus in my daughter. And I knew that the exhausting journey of parenting is not in vain, though sometimes it feels that way. My children are learning, absorbing the drama of the Cross and the Resurrection. They are learning to respect the Holy Scriptures when we stand to read them weekly. They are learning to pray with their brothers and sisters. They are passing the peace of Christ. They are laughing with their community. They are feasting on the presence of Christ, even though they are too young to partake of His Body and Blood through the Eucharist.
These little ones, the weak ones in the eyes of the world, are shaming the strong ones around them. And through their testimony, their humor, and their natural humility, I am invited to be a weak and small child in faith once more, running to sit on Jesus’s lap because I know He won’t turn me away.
It is worth the struggle. Press on.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you know me in person or on Facebook, you are probably aware that I am pro-life, like super pro-life.
You may not know that I am also a recent convert to Catholicism, or that one of the main reasons I was attracted to the Catholic Church was her consistent emphasis on the importance of speaking out for and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable of our human society—the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, the poor. I love the Catholic Church for many reasons, but very much so because she takes the call of Jesus to love the least of our brethren with utmost seriousness.
As an American Catholic, I have looked forward to Pope Francis’s visit, particularly his unprecedented address to the joint session of the United States Congress, which took place on the morning of Thursday, September 24. I had watched the warm reception by the first family of the Holy Father the day before, and I had listened to his words about protecting the environment. I know that in Laudato Si, Pope Francis ties the care for the environment with care and protection of the unborn, but I wanted to hear him make that explicit connection in his words to the American people.
Now, this is a man who makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable. On one hand, he is met with a lot of suspicion by virtue of being the leader of the Catholic Church. He has made comments that seem hostile to American tradition, calling for limits and regulation of the free enterprise and the capitalism our country has been built upon. And he talks a lot about environmental concerns and world peace. Unsurprisingly, he has been labeled by many as a liberal.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has reaffirmed the Church’s position that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and that its purpose is to create a new generation of beloved children. Prior to his visit to the United States, he has affirmed the need for protection of the unborn, and although he has emphasized the value and utmost importance of woman in the Church, he is firm on teaching that men alone are eligible for the priesthood. Unsurprisingly, he has been labeled by many as a conservative.
Pope Francis doesn’t fit. He doesn’t fit in our American political system. He is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat or Republican.
But Jesus didn’t fit in his time either. For me, it is actually an encouraging thing that the Pope has resisted categorization, whether intentionally or not. It means I can trust even more that he is listening for the voice of the Lord to lead him and lead the Christians of the world.
As I watched his address to Congress, my heart was in my throat.
Was he going to affirm the need for our elected officials to end the slaughter of innocents in our land? Was he going to condemn the barbaric practices of dismembering children in and out of the womb and then selling their body parts?
The short answer is “no.” The Pope’s speech was beautiful and elegant, so well-written and well-delivered that I was in awe of the thought, passion, and compassion that went into it. But he didn’t mention the unborn once. He didn’t take a stand on Planned Parenthood.
And so, I was disappointed. This Pope that I love, this man whom I trust as my spiritual leader, he didn’t support my cause explicitly.
Yes, there were many instances where he mentioned things that can be interpreted as a call to protect the unborn. (The Pope spoke of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” and said, “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”) It is undoubtedly true that protecting the unborn is part of Catholic social teaching to advocate for the least of these. But it was also so subtle that it could have been easily overlooked or ignored (as it has been by a lot of Americans).
And so, as the Holy Father leaves my beloved country and resumes his regular pontifical duties at the Vatican, I am left with questions like these: What do I do with my disappointment? What do I do with Pope Francis and his speech before Congress?
Disappointment. It is a real feeling. It can be devastating. To have something I have hoped for—to be supported by my spiritual father in something so close to my heart—not come to pass exactly like I wanted it has brought me disappointment. But I have to remind myself of the words of Scripture where the prophet Isaiah says that “those who trust in the Lord will not be disappointed” (Isaiah 49:23 NIV). Such disappointment can be a case of misplaced trust. Pope Francis is not the Lord; he is a man who has dedicated himself to the Kingdom of God as a priest and a shepherd, but he is still a man, whose perspective on the world and experiences of the world are very different than the ones I bring to the table. It is natural for discomfort and disappointment to arise when expectations aren’t met, when worldviews bump into each other, and when my cultural assumptions are challenged.
So when I find myself disappointed by this person whom I respect so much, I am forced to press into the Lord and ask, “What do I do with my disappointment? What do I do with Pope Francis?”
First, I hear the Lord asking me to forgive the Holy Father for any perceived injustice towards me, or the American people, or the unborn citizens of our country. From watching Francis interact with others and from hearing him speak before, I know that he is full of compassion and boldness and good will and love for Christ, His Church, and all the people of the world. So I know his intent was well placed. I can give him the benefit of the doubt. I can ask the Lord to help me move past the pain and discomfort that this disappointment has caused me and truly forgive him for any perceived injustice.
Second, I hear the Lord saying, “Listen to him.” Have you seen the meme that says, “Many people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”? It’s a quote from Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Well, I am guilty as charged. Far too often, I search the statements and stories and arguments of the people in my life primarily so that I may bring forward my own ideas and opinions by picking apart what they have said. This is not charitable or loving. It is self-seeking and arrogant, even when my motivation is to help others see the truth that I have discovered. This is not to say that I shouldn’t engage in serious discussion about challenging concepts or difficult truths. Rather, I have to orient myself first to listen, second to learn and think, and third to respond with thoughtful feedback and experience.
Had Pope Francis echoed my sentiments and convictions in his speech to Congress, I have to confess that I would have posted as many memes as possible showing others how right I have been and how important my agenda is. I may not have been in a place to listen or to engage in thoughtful dialogue.
As I wrote in a previous post, the Christian family on earth desperately needs to learn the art of conversation. We are so quick to judge our brothers and sisters for what we hear them saying or doing without sitting down, talking it through, and truly listening with a heart of love.
Where do I go from here?
Because I so greatly respect Pope Francis and his position in the Church and the testimony of what he has done and is doing to bring the Kingdom of God, I need to listen and prayerfully consider what he is saying. I am going to print off transcripts of his speeches—all of them from this US trip—and read them with a heart of listening and understanding, asking the Holy Spirit for help. Even though it will make me uncomfortable, I have to do this. I want to extend the same charity to the Holy Father that I know he would extend to me if we were to sit down and have a conversation.
And then I will ask the Lord to help me sort out where to go from here. I still believe that abortion is a great evil and needs to be addressed politically and socially. But maybe my approach needs to change? If I am not willing to ask this question, then I have to admit that my agenda is more important to me than listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of the Church worldwide. Which is something I don’t want to be true.
In the Psalms, David proclaims of the Lord, “You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom” (Psalm 51:6 NASB). Because God desires truth in my deepest part, I can trust that when I ask Him to show it to me, He will do it.
And that is what I am asking. How about you?
O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
Psalm 42:6 NKJV
It’s just really hard to be in a low place.
Do you know what I mean? It’s lonely. Vision is limited. Feelings are either overwhelmingly present or conspicuously absent.
Psalm 42 has been one of my go-to passages when I have been depressed. Verse 6 speaks so much to me, because the psalmist is being honest with God–the place that we all must start if we are to get out of the darkness.
O my God… It’s either a prayer or a groaning. Let your heart groan.
My soul is downcast within me… Sometimes it is so hard to just be honest with God about how crappy we feel. But there is no shame in being honest with Him. He can handle it. We have to be honest so that we can start a conversation that will change things within us.
Therefore I will remember You… Memory is a powerful tool against staying stuck in despair or depression. When we look back at the times in our lives that God has been faithful, the times when He has filled us with joy, the times we have seen Him provide, it grows our faith. The act of remembering sows seeds of hope. It’s what I call ‘prophetic memory.’
…from the land of the Jordan… The psalmist is talking about a valley, a low, low place. We have to remember Him in the deep, dark places. We have to start that honest conversation with God.
…And from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar… And I have to remember Him when things are good, when I’m on that mountain top and can see the beautiful goodness of God so clearly and profoundly. I have to write down or somehow record the good things I am seeing in the land of the living, so that when I next find myself in the valley, with no vision for my future because of the darkness pressing in, I can revisit them, remember them, take hope from the consistent kindness of the Lord.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
Psalm 42:7,8 NKJV
Know this: He has not forgotten you.
Peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ,
The thought of Tuesdays makes my heart beat faster.
Not in a good way. Not in the I’m-going-to-see-the-guy-I-like way. Not in the good-work-out-today way.
In a bad way.
In the I-can’t-do-Tuesdays-please-rescue-me way.
Tuesdays are no joke. For the past three Tuesdays, I have hit about 11:30 and texted my husband something like this:
Why are Tuesdays so hard?
I cannot do Tuesdays.
I am so sorry this is happening [referring to the meltdown I had that required him to watch the kids on his lunch break so I could escape our house and our kids].
I can ‘make it’ through the morning–the part of the day that is normally easiest with my kids–but when afternoon comes, I am DONE.
I ask again, Why are Tuesdays so hard?
My husband’s theory is that I get caught up on my rest and my sanity over the weekend when he is home being super-helpful. (No sarcasm here; he an amazingly helpful dad and husband.) And so Monday hits when I am rested and prepared. He thinks I spend so much energy and focus making Monday great that
hits me when I’m down
the life from me.
It’s an interesting theory, one that actually gives me hope, but cause it means that somehow, in my repertoire of mom skillz, I have the power to change the face of Tuesday.
Now, I warn you, this is just in the experimental stage, but I am going to try to avert Tuesday’s habitual failing and misery (because it’s miserable) by adjusting my expectations for Monday.
Expectations. They kill my soul when I operate with them as my unrecognized or unacknowledged guides.
I call the kind of thinking has ruled my weeks since I transitioned into full-time stay-at-home mom “ATTACK MONDAY MODE.”
It goes like this:
MAKE MONDAY AMAZING and the rest of the week will be amazing, too.
But what that has turned out to look like is this:
DO A BUNCH OF COOL AND ENERGY-REQUIRING THINGS ON MONDAY, THEN CRASH AND BURN ON TUESDAY. SPEND WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, AND FRIDAY PICKING UP THE PIECES AND REMEMBERING THAT I AM LOVED BY GOD IN MY FAILURES.
“ATTACK MONDAY MODE” has not really been a good plan.
So, I’m taking a breath
and taking inventory of my expectations.
I’m asking myself these questions:
What is the antidote for my addiction to expectations?
How can I lay hold of grace for Tuesday, my hardest day of the week?
Stay tuned for
answers trial-and-error, prayerful considerations to these questions.
Peace out. And PLEASE, if you have ideas or comments, fire away below.
I was sitting in a counseling session my senior year of college. It was way overdue—for years I had suffered quietly through anxiety and depression because I thought they were normal.
I had a lot of relationships that were dysfunctional with people of both sexes. The counselor was helping me sort them out and understand why I was still attached to these people.
I was afraid.
I knew that friendships and romantic relationships could be hard, and I had always been taught that Christians stick things out…tough friendships, tough marriages, tough situations.
But I didn’t realize that the reason I was sticking with these tough relationships wasn’t because I was trying to love these people like Jesus did, although I thought that’s what I was doing. The more I dug into my motivations, the more I discovered just how much fear governed my decisions.
I was afraid to walk away from a relationship because I might not ever date again.
I was afraid to leave a friend behind because I feared the loneliness that might come and the accusation that I didn’t try hard enough.
I was afraid to leave my house because I didn’t want to encounter someone I might have to share the gospel with.
In the valley of the shadow
The fear and the resulting anxiety overtook me and reduced me to a college student who once loved to be with people but who now just hid in her room and stayed with relationships that she considered safe, even though they were draining more life from her.
Sometime that first semester of senior year, my mom sent me a note, with this verse written in her beautiful handwriting:
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13 NASB
I would lie in my lofted bed in my crummy college apartment, when the anxiety and the fear overwhelmed me, staring at that verse and repeating in the smallest whisper, “You are the God of hope. You are the God of hope.”
Though counseling from professionals and friends more mature than I helped a great deal, what I really needed was time—time to see that not every little decision I made had a huge life-altering effect. Fear slowly faded, replaced by a sense of knowing that I was loved no matter what I did or didn’t do. There was a tremendous freedom.
By the middle of my second semester, I could honestly say that I knew that God was good and that He loved me—a far cry from where I had been only months before.
I will fear no evil
Fast-forward to my first year in grad school. I was engaged in a thriving church, the same one that had given me so many resources and so much wisdom–through staff and through friends who went there–in my journey through depression and anxiety. I had led a small group. I was growing. My heart was alive. I knew deeply that God was good and that He loved me.
But I sat in the service on Sunday morning, unable to connect with God. It wasn’t the first time.
The music, although beautiful and well produced, didn’t touch me. The message didn’t teach me new things.
“What is wrong with me?” I asked myself as I sat in the large auditorium.
Then I heard the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit say, “Nothing is wrong with you, Amanda. It’s time to move on.”
I shook my head a little to shake away that crazy thought. Why would I want to move on from this place where I had received so much healing? I loved this church. I loved this people.
But again I heard the Lord say to me, “It’s time to move on.”
I argued with myself for a while. And then I realized that I was unwilling to follow the voice of the Lord because I was afraid.
I was afraid that if I left this place where I had found so much healing, that I would regress.
I was afraid that if I left this specific church, I would be missing out on the big plans that God had for me in world missions.
I was afraid that if I left this anchoring place, I would walk away from God.
Once I identified the fear that undergirded all my objections—that I would walk away from God if I left this particular church—I heard the Lord speak to me again, through Psalm 23.
I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
The idea of switching churches may seem like a silly one to strike fear into the heart of an adult Christian, but the fear was all too real to me. I had learned a lot on my journey through depression and anxiety, especially about my absolute need for the presence and companionship of God. And here He was, telling me through His word that I didn’t need to fear any evil, even the evil of falling away from faith in God, because He was with me.
I will fear NO evil, because He is with me.
I cling to this verse these days. Being a stay-at-home mom is a daunting thing for me. I’m an extroverted external processor who thrives in the presence of other people (older than 3). My husband and I are keenly aware that I have to be completely honest with how I am feeling and what my needs are, because I sometimes revert to the practice of stuffing my fears and anxieties into the “be more like Jesus” box. It is a daily challenge to be open and honest.
The thing about fear is that it silences me. I fear failing. I fear vulnerability. I fear screwing up or even being perceived as a failure.
I will fear no evil.
I will not fear the risk of failing.
I will not fear the unpleasant consequences of vulnerability.
I will not fear screwing up.
I will not fear going crazy because I stay at home with my kids.
Because He is with me.
If peace is something you’re seeking in the midst of fear and anxiety, you can also read a previous post of mine, Speaking Peace. I’d also love to hear your story if you’re willing to share. You can email me at paintedwithoutmakeup AT gmail DOT com.
I have found myself in the desert more times that I care to remember.
It is an uncomfortable place where everything about my life seems hard, and I always beg for God to take me out of it, to take me back to the civilized world where there is water on tap and food in nice prepackaged containers.
I have to fight too much when I find myself in the desert.
Over the years of desert experiences, I have learned one really important thing:
The desert is where God leads us because He loves us.
This is not an easy thing to embrace. As a parent, I love to do things that delight my children immediately. I love to see the smiles on their faces as I say, “Let’s have ice cream for dinner!” or, “How about we watch an extra episode of the Octonauts today?”
It’s definitely not as fun to say things like, “Let’s go to bed on time because when you’re rested, you enjoy your whole life more!” or, “I know you’re hungry but dinner is in an hour and you need to learn to wait.”
So as much as I’ve fought this lesson, I really believe it.
The desert is where God leads me because He loves me.
Now, there are a few different reasons we might find ourselves in the desert.
Sometimes He leads us out of slavery into the desert.
The Israelites are the prime example of this. They are set free from the bonds of Pharaoh, but on the other side of the Red Sea is the desert. It’s the nearest freedom for them, even though it seems insurmountable and hard. But God promises to be with them, so it is conquerable.
The Apostle Paul is another example. After he is set free from the slavery of pride and self-conceit that had him murdering Christians and persecuting Jesus, God leads him into the wilderness for 3 years.
Sometimes He leads us out of bondage and the best place for us to go is straight to the desert.
He leads us into the desert because He is pleased with us.
This is a little harder to wrap my mind around, because I was raised with such a punishment mentality about God. “Why would God be pleased with me?” I have asked (and still do). But I am convinced now that He indeed is pleased with me and has good plans for me because He loves me and I love Him, even when I screw up over and over again. (Psalm 91:14-16 is one place where I start when I am feeling crappy about myself.)
“Surely the desert is a punishment,” my heart has told me. “Weren’t the Israelites wandering in the desert because they disappointed God? He rescues them, they rebel, and He punishes them to wander for 40 years.”
But when I look more closely at the story of God rescuing His people from Egyptian slavery, that’s not the timeline. It’s more like this: God hears them crying out and is moved to deliver them. They get the heck out of Egypt and pass through the harrowing baptism of the Red Sea. They find themselves in the desert and they do grumble and complain, and they even make a golden calf to worship at the very same time God is giving His beautiful law to Moses for their sake. But they are still headed toward the land He has promised them because He loves them. They make it all the way through the desert, to the edge of the Promised Land, and the spies bring back their report, and it scares the crap out of them. What keeps them wandering in the desert for 40 years is rebellion against God that is driven by fear and hard-heartedness. But the desert was always a part of God’s plan to bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey.
Think about Jesus in Luke 3.
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (NIV).
Right after that—right after the Father declares how much He loves and how pleased He is with Jesus—the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1).
The desert is where God leads us because He loves us.
In our baptism, we die with Christ and are raised to walk with Him. I can guarantee you that at some point, walking with Jesus means walking through the desert.
But we can take heart for these 3 reasons: In our time walking through the desert, God has a purpose, an appointed time, and a promised land waiting for us.
We read the Scripture to learn the character of God, and we see that He is slow to anger and abounding with lovingkindness. We read as God speaks of His people in Hosea chapter 2,
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
Hear this: He leads us into the desert to speak tenderly to us.
“Tenderly” is the word the NIV translators use. “Comfortably” is the word the translators of the King James use. The Hebrew word is transliterated “leb” and you can check out the different meanings of it here at blueletterbible.org.
He leads us into the desert to speak tenderly to us because He loves us. In the desert, we learn to hear His voice more clearly. Distraction is forced to fall away because we are desperate to be met by Him or we will perish. His very words are our food and drink, and our hearts slowly become tuned to hear His still small voice.
An Appointed Time
The path from the Red Sea to the Promised Land was indeed through the desert, but it had a definite beginning and ending. It was not indefinite, even after the Israelites rebelled and were disciplined with 40 years of wandering. Jesus was lead into the wilderness for 40 days. For Paul it was 3 years in the desert.
The Lord sets boundaries on our time in the desert, so even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel (or the civilization at the edge of the wasteland), we can trust that He has not abandoned us to wander in this desert forever.
Consider it a pilgrimage, and there are many miles to cross before you reach the goal. But you are ever travelling, one foot in front of the other.
A Promised Land Waiting
When we find ourselves in the desert, we can trust that God has promises waiting for us on the other side. He promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. He promised Jesus a Bride worthy of Him, who would love, honor, and lay down her life for Him.
But there are still battles to be fought, and that is why it is so valuable to learn to hear the voice of the Lord in our desert time.
The Israelites approached the Promised Land after their short desert time, and the reports they heard of the land were twofold: It is indeed beautiful and flowing with milk and honey, but there are many people who will set themselves against us.
The people of Israel rejected the good report and exhortation of Joshua and Caleb (Yes, the land is full of enemies, but with the Lord’s help, we will prevail!) and they listened to the reports of the 10 other spies. They believed the lie that the desert was all for nothing. They failed to learn to hear the voice of God and to trust Him. So they missed out on His promises and their children inherited the land.
Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted and leaning on the word of His Father. I believe that those 40 days filled Him with the vision and direction for all 3 years of His public ministry, as well as the promise that He would encounter and overcome the Cross. There were still battles left to fight—indeed, the greatest battle of all time, at the Cross—but because Jesus knew the voice of His Father, He was ready.
God leads us into the desert because He loves us, because He is pleased with us, and because He wants to speak tenderly to us.
The desert isn’t a punishment; it’s a time of refining our hearing and learning to lean on our Beloved.
The desert prepares us for our God-given life’s mission, starting with the most important tool of all—teaching us to hear the voice of God, and to follow Him.
Maybe you find yourself in the middle of the desert and it feels unbearable. Friend, if you can still your heart for a few minutes, listen to the voice of Jesus speaking to you. He says that He knows what you have done and what you have left undone, but He loves you nonetheless. He says that He loves you, that He is proud of you, and that He loves spending time with you. He says that He has not forgotten you.
This promise from Psalm 84 is for you, personalized:
Blessed is the one whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As she passes through the Valley of Baca,
She makes it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.
She goes from strength to strength;
She will appear before God in Zion.
As you walk through the desert, you may meet another on her way. When you have learned to hear and respond to the voice of the Lord, you become a spring of life for this other pilgrim. The Lord will rain down on you, refreshing both of you. You will grow in strength and you will reach the Promised Land, to stand before God in Zion.
And the daughters of Jerusalem, when they see you approaching the edge of the desert will say,
“Who is this coming up from the wilderness
leaning on her beloved?”
Song of Solomon 8:5