Lessons from the Wasteland
Into the desert
In AD 270, a famous Egyptian Christian sold his vast estates and donated his profound wealth to the poor. He then retreated into the desert to pursue a life of prayer and fasting. This man, Saint Anthony the Great, would become the father of monasticism in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. This revered saint willingly abandoned the comfort of society for the poverty of the wilderness. In doing so, he discovered rich fellowship with God.
Called to the desert
While we Christians do not need to follow this pattern literally, Anthony’s life teaches a vital truth: by following God into the places of brokenness, we find a veritable source of wholeness.
Sojourning in the desert would not be the first lifestyle choice for most people. This land becomes our habitation, however, through the Holy Spirit’s leading. Even though starvation and temptation await us, God directs our course over these wastelands so we can discover streams of living water.
Lessons from the wasteland
One would expect the Lord to use use the city or the garden as our schoolmaster for life. The work of God is often seen in the face of irony, however. By working through mystery, God takes a hammer to the glass of our expectations. Like that teacher who challenges his pupils to push beyond their horizons, the desert is God’s classroom for rowdy, self-rich students. Only in barrenness and solitude can we tune our ears to the master’s lessons.
Despite the promise of deep satisfaction awaiting the end of our wilderness journey, the desert is still an arid, barren, and dangerous place. It saps strength, intensifies thirst, and invites starvation. The beauty of this place, however, is that it provides a mirror for the soul of the Christian. As the believer gazes deeply into his desert reflection, three faces stare intently back at him: self-sufficiency, barrenness, and isolation. The Father guides his children to this parched place so those three mirrored images can meet their end. If the strength of your self-reliance is waning, let it die. If your false fullness is thirsty, don’t give it water. If your isolation is hungry, let it starve. Lay down your life in the desert.
An end to self-sufficiency
God loves the desert because it unveils the pride of our self-sufficiency. Each person was made to rely deeply on the Creator. Christ himself demonstrated his absolute dependence on God during his desert journey (Matthew 4). He prayed and fasted for over forty days. At the end, Satan offered bread to the famished Christ. Jesus instead chose to rely on the eternal word of God. Self-pride, like bread from the devil, will only satisfy for a moment, but God can eternally sate your longings.
An end to barrenness
For many people the desert is a place of spiritual dryness. Their prayers may feel hollow or their readings in the Word may seem unwilling to surrender any riches. Other believers feel like their sanctification has come to a grinding halt. This is all part of the desert’s paradoxical beauty, however. God uses the impoverished sands of the desert to grow his healthiest fruit (Romans 8:28). For the sojourner with a parched throat, the Father offers this promise, “Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses” (Isaiah 35:1). Maybe the desert has yet to bloom for you, but remain still and steadfast. “He who began a good work in you will carry it onto completion” (Philippians 1:6).
An end to isolation
In times of busyness, we often mistake our activity with fellowship. Even though we’re surrounded by others occupied in similar tasks, we often fail to connect on a fundamental level. The harsh, uninviting landscape of the desert, in contrast, reveals our own self-imposed isolation from God and others. Whether it’s from busyness, difficult circumstances, or sin, the desert exacerbates the believer’s loneliness. This scene forces us slow down and realize what exactly we are failing to grasp: God is still with you. Neither the barrenness of the desert, the frantic pace of daily life, nor the brokenness of sin has pushed God out of your life. In the words of St. Anthony the Great, “To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides from the blind.” Only in the loneliness of the desert can we realize that we have never been alone. As you learn to walk in the shadow of the Most high, you will find yourself surrounded by other sojourners abandoning their isolation in pursuit of God.
The feast after the famine
The desert journey is a terrifying prospect. Before we can feast at the Lord’s table, we must first face the famine. Every step you take in that parched land is God’s mercy to you. As the Spirit blows through the sands of your waste, he unearths your self-sufficiency, barrenness, and isolation. Gazing upon these ruins can be painful, but God is working to transform them into majestic monuments to his glory. As you undertake this journey, remember that “he knows your going through this great wilderness” (Deuteronomy 2:7). Go into the desert with boldness, for Christ himself is with you. To every sojourner who will walk into their brokenness, Christ makes this offer: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1).