How does God meet our needs when He leads us into the wilderness? Is meeting our needs part of the divine purpose of the wilderness experience?
When my son finished High School, he and I took a road trip all around the United States. We visited national parks, went to Yankee games as the team played their way west on a road trip, and stopped in what seemed like every hole in the wall restaurant across America so my son could decide which one made the best pancakes. One of the most surprising aspects we encountered was the emptiness of the desert in the Southwest United States. We’re used to the rest of the country where we could pull over at every Interstate exit, refuel our car and at least find a fast food joint and a cup of coffee. Not so, as we drove through the desert. When we finally found a Shell station and asked where there was a restaurant, the guy at the filling station said, “Well, you’ll probably have to go to Las Vegas for that.” I said, “That’s over a hundred miles away” and all he said was, “Yep!” And then I understood, in the smallest yet most personal way, how tough it must have been for Moses to lead the nation of Israel through the Sinai wilderness for 40 years! No public rest areas with Coke and candy machines, no 7-11s, no McDonalds or Burger Kings. Just desert. How could Moses feed these people? We can only imagine how Moses and Israel must have wondered why God came up with this plan of forty years in the wilderness for His people.
In Deuteronomy 8, at the end of 40 years of wilderness wanderings, the Lord tells Israel what His purposes were for their wilderness experience. And the Lord Jesus allows us to undergo the very real traumas and trials of our lives for the very same reasons. I’m sure recently many of us have encountered barren days, with financial loss, physical illness, spiritual dryness, or even the grief of losing loved ones. Why does God bring us into the wilderness? In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at two purposes: First, to humble us, or to teach us God-reliance instead of self-reliance. And second, to test our motives and obedience. This week we’ll look at God’s third purpose of the wilderness experience. God brings us through the wilderness to teach us to find spiritual nourishment from His Word. Take a look at Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
In the wilderness, Israel couldn’t plant or harvest. They couldn’t provide their own food and had to depend on God to feed the nation. So He gave them manna, a food that even those who ate it, didn’t quite understand. So they named it “manna,” a Hebrew word that means, “What is it?” Yet God’s purpose was not just to provide food, but to give them food that came by His decree by His word. At its source, it wasn’t this heavenly bread that kept them alive, but God’s word that commanded it to arrive daily. “Bread alone” refers to food they could obtain apart from God’s word. This wasn’t sufficient to keep them alive. They needed God to feed them by His Word. In this way they could learn that not just their physical sustenance came from God, but that their more important spiritual nourishment came directly from God’s Word.
The One who learned this and lived it more than any other person, was the Lord Jesus Himself. After His 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, “He was famished” (Luke 4:2, NET). Then the enemy tempted Jesus to misuse His own divine power to make rocks into bread (Luke 4:3). The Lord responded by quoting this very verse, Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). During these 40 days, the Messiah Jesus, the perfect personification of the nation of Israel, came through the wilderness and learned to receive spiritual nourishment from God’s Word. In this way, He became our ultimate model of learning to find our spiritual nutrition from Scripture.
30 years ago, my family faced a terrifying and deadly illness. I was distraught and didn’t understand God’s purposes for this wilderness time. Eva and I were desperate. And we took solace from God’s Word. I found a plan to read the Bible through in a year and followed it–but tripled or quadrupled the daily readings. In that way, I finished reading through the whole Bible in less than four months. It nurtured and nourished me. It gave me spiritual strength for the day and hope for the future. It was in that wilderness experience that I learned how crucial it was to obtain spiritual nourishment from God’s Word.
So how should we go about learning this same lesson as we go through the wilderness of illness, or loss, or pain or grief? Here are three suggestions:
First, we should take daily spiritual nourishment from God’s Word. Just as the Lord gave Israel daily manna, so we need to feed on God’s Word, the Bible, every day. None of us think we could get adequate nutrition by eating a meal only once a week nor should we think listening to a sermon once a week will be sufficient for our spiritual nourishment. We need to be in the Word every day.
Second, we need to be spiritually nourished with a balanced diet of God’s Word. In Exodus 16, it says God gave Israel a balanced diet of manna in the morning and quail in the evening. People often tell me that they want to read through the Bible, as if it were a novel, starting with Genesis, all the way through to Revelation, only to get stuck in Leviticus. That’s why I suggest that we not limit ourselves to reading straight through the Bible but to read from different sections every day. If you start with Genesis also include a Psalm, a passage from the Gospels, and a chapter from the epistles too, beginning with Romans. That’s what the Discipleship Journal Daily Reading Plan does and why I like it so much.
Finally, we’ll find spiritual nourishment with a varied diet of God’s Word. Too often we treat the Bible as fast food. We feel we need to take it in as fast as we can every day so we can move on to the really important facets of the day. No, we need to realize that reading Scripture is the most essential part of our day. Now, there’s a place for fast food but we don’t want a complete diet of it. We need to vary our intake of the Word with daily reading but also with extended study times, and group study to stretch us and see what wouldn’t learn on our own. We also need to hear God’s Word taught in our congregations so we can be challenged to greater obedience. A varied diet will help us grow.
If any of us are experiencing a time in a spiritual wilderness right now, let’s learn the lesson that Israel learned, even the one taught by our Messiah Jesus, that God brings us to the wilderness so that we can learn to obtain our spiritual nourishment from God’s Word.