Have you felt, as I have, that the last seven months of pandemic and lockdown were similar to the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness? They wandered for forty years but I’m beginning to think that 7 months of not hugging my grandkids, what I’m calling grandparent years, might be equivalent to forty years in the Sinai desert. Many of us have had other wilderness like experiences. Some of us may be dealing with an illness. For example, most people don’t realize how long treatment for cancer takes. Someone I know has been dealing with diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgery and radiation for about nine months now and it’s still not finished. It feels like a forty year wilderness wandering. Others of us might have lost a job and are concerned about being able to pay the rent or make the mortgage payment. Or a few of us might have lost a loved one and there’s an emptiness that doesn’t seem possible to fill. Wilderness wanderings take all kinds of forms.
When Israel completed their forty years and were preparing to enter the promised land, God revealed why He brought them to the wilderness. In Deuteronomy 8:2-10, the Lord discloses five reasons for the wilderness experience. Those are the very same reasons He brings us through the various wilderness journeys we’ve gone through or are still going through. So, for the next five weeks, we’re going to look at these five reasons for the wilderness experience, one reason per week.
Here’s the first reason God brings us to the wilderness: to teach us humility. Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “Remember the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you . . .” The verb translated “humble” is interesting because it can have both a negative and positive meaning. When it’s negative, it’s translated “afflict.” When it’s positive it means “humble.” It’s used in Leviticus 16 and other passages about the Day of Atonement, commanding Israel “to humble their souls” before God. The adjectival form is used of Moses, calling him the most “humble” man on the earth (Num 12:2).
The word doesn’t mean having low self-esteem nor does it describe people who demean themselves. Rather, it’s used of people who are not self-reliant and instead are God-reliant. They are people who know that in themselves no good thing dwells. That their successes in life won’t come from depending on themselves but depending on the Lord. It’s not as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rather, God helps those who depend on Him. As I pondered this I looked up all the uses of this word and discovered several of the ways the Lord will intervene for someone who is God-reliant or humble. Here they are:
- God hears and strengthens the humble. Psalm 10:17 says, “Lord, you have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their hearts.”
- God satisfies the humble. Psalm 22:26 says, “The humble will eat and be satisfied.”
- God leads the humble. Psalm 25:9 says, “[The Lord] leads the humble in what is right.”
- God gives aid to the humble. Psalm 147:6 says, “The Lord helps the humble.”
- God delivers the humble. Psalm 149:4 says, “The Lord . . .adorns the humble with deliverance.”
- God shows kindness to the humble. Proverbs 3:34 says, The Lord “gives grace (meaning kindness) to the humble.”
I once entered a ministry situation that I would have warned any person I knew, do not to take this job. It was one of those positions that was in so much trouble that no one really could help without getting eaten up and spit out. But I thought, well, I’m pretty good at this kind of work, I can help them out, and it won’t bite me. Boy was I wrong. And for years it kept biting, it brought me into the worst ministry wilderness experience I’ve ever had. I questioned God and doubted my call. After more years than I’d like to admit, I finally understood why God allowed it. That experience taught me the importance of humility, of relying on God and not myself. If I had any success in ministry, it would not be because of my reliance on my own skill but because I was relying on the Lord. Clearly, He brought me into the wilderness to teach me God-reliance.
The most important lesson I learned from my wilderness experience was that God brought me there not to hurt me or punish me but to help me. That’s because the only way God would hear me, satisfy me, lead me, help me, deliver me, or show kindness to me is when I was humble enough to rely on Him and not myself. If we’re in the wilderness, it could be that the Lord Jesus wants to teach us how to rely on Him during pandemics, or health crises, financial stress or personal loss. Here’s the point: When we quote Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” God wants us to emphasize the “Him who strengthens me” phrase over the “I can do all things” part.