The Wilderness of Testing
This is a difficult season in my life and ministry. For the past few months, my schedule has exhausted me. In July I dealt with the accident with my sailboat and the subsequent repairs. The marina where the boat was stored was two hours and forty-five minutes from home, complicating matters. I worked full-time in construction, remodeling homes, to raise the funds for the rudder repair. I spent my evenings preparing my home for the tourist rental market as I made the move to living aboard the sailboat. I tried to maintain the ministry. I worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, for almost five months. In the middle of all this, I rode out Hurricane Irma at home, and dealt with issues related to the storm for days before and after the storm. The ministry feels like it is on autopilot. Physically, spiritually, and emotionally, I am spent.
I struggled to maintain my relationship with God. I spent time in the Word, but it felt dry and uninspired. I talked with God about it, but even those conversations felt empty.
During this time, I also experienced lustful thoughts far beyond normal temptations. I’m used to the usual thoughts we all have as guys, but this was different. I mentioned to several friends how shocking these thoughts were. In my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever before entertained such thoughts. The temptation was so strong that for a moment I even considered walking away from the ministry to fulfill it. The next moment I had clarity and shuddered to think I would even consider such things. It frightened me that I could even think that way.
In all, the past months felt different from anything I’ve ever experienced in my relationship with God. Something was going on, but I was not sure what it was. I plodded on in my relationship with God, still spending time in the Word, still finding time to talk with him, but struggling throughout.
Last week, in the midst of all this, I heard the still small voice of God. “Tim,” he said, “you need to be very careful. This is not just a ‘Valley of Wait’ that you are in. I have led you to a Wilderness of Testing.” It was a quiet word to my spirit, but it felt as if it were shouted to me. This changed everything. For a moment, I saw the context of what has transpired over the past months. Oddly, I was greatly encouraged.
I looked in Scripture at others whom God led into the Wilderness of Testing. Jesus is the most obvious example. I started there. Matthew’s account resonated with me. This is what it says:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matthew 4:1-11, ESV)
I find this passage intriguing. The first thing I noticed is how Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to the Wilderness of Testing. This is important. It was not accidental that he was in this place. He followed the leading of the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. It was purposeful. This gives a sense of purpose to all I experienced over the past six months. There is a reason, even if I do not yet know what it is. It is not merely a season of waiting.
The next thought that stood out to me was how the enemy came at the moment when Jesus was physically spent. Jesus had fasted for forty days prior to this trial. Surely he was physically exhausted. In this place of need the enemy approached. He began by questioning Jesus’ identity. He said, “If you are the son of God….” This is often the core question Satan asks of you and me. He tries to question our identity. “Are you actually a follower of Christ?” he asks. “Are you actually a son of God? If you are, then why do you feel the way you do?”
But the enemy also struck where he suspected Jesus had the greatest need. “Go ahead. Turn these stones into bread. You’re hungry. You deserve it.” This may explain the lustful thoughts I experienced. It is the one area of my life I struggle with the most. On a regular day I want to experience the fulfillment of the normal physical desires God created within me. But when I am tired and “hungry,” the temptation is more difficult to resist. It is likely the enemy will strike in the area where our felt needs are greatest.
Gratefully, Jesus responded with clarity as an example for us to follow. He said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, ESV).
It is significant that he refuted the enemy with Scripture. Jesus quoted from a passage in Deuteronomy 8. Let’s take a moment to look at the passage. Moses addresses the nation of Israel as they look forward to the fulfillment of the promise of God to give them the land. Here is the full context:
And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, ESV)
Moses’ words give greater understanding to the purposes of the Wilderness of Testing. It is a place of humbling. It reveals what is in our hearts, and expands our understanding of our relationship with God.
This season certainly humbled me. There can be a subtle pride in saying I am full-time in ministry. It sounds successful. To work full-time outside of the ministry humbled me. I was confident God orchestrated the work for me as a way of providing for the repair of the boat, but it was humbling at the same time. This time also revealed what is in my heart. As a result, I have grown deeply in my understanding of my relationship with God. I mentioned in a previous blog the powerful truth that it is better to love God than to try to understand him. For me, this is a deepening of my faith in God and in his faithfulness and love to me.
It is also significant to realize the Israelites were looking forward to the Promised Land. They had not yet taken possession of it. The path to the Promised Land for the Israelites led through the wilderness. Often, in our lives, the path to a promise leads through a Wilderness of Testing. Perhaps you can relate. I continue to believe my best days of ministry are still to come. There is no logical reason to believe this. My ministry schedule is lighter than at any other time in thirty years of ministry. But I believe I have yet to see all God intends to do through my life and ministry. I look forward to the Promised Land. I focus on what is to come, not on what has passed.
There is much more to discuss. We have only tapped the first section of the wilderness experience of Jesus. I will expand on this in future blogs. For now, allow me to pause here and reiterate the lessons God is teaching me to this point.
- You are where you are by God’s design. As we follow Jesus, sometimes this means he will lead us by the Holy Spirit into a Wilderness of Testing. It is difficult, but it is by design. Take comfort in knowing you are where you are for a purpose, even if you do not yet know what that purpose is.
- The enemy will likely strike when you are exhausted emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Be extremely careful in those dangerous moments when you are spent.
- Guard your identity. You are a child of the most-high God. Never forget this. Commit to spending time in your relationship with God even when you don’t feel like it. Your relationship with God is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. It is not based on your emotions. How you feel has nothing to do with your identity. When you are spent, crawl onto God’s lap and let him hold you close.
- Embrace humility. The Wilderness of Testing is designed to humble you. Identify areas where pride has crept in. Confess it to God. Welcome humility.
- Look forward as you endure today. The path to a promise often leads through a Wilderness of Testing. Let hope reign as you wait for relief.
I am greatly encouraged as I continue to walk through this season. Recently there is a freshness to my relationship with God as I contemplate what it means to navigate a Wilderness of Testing. I have raised my guard. I am on high alert. I am also filled with hope. At this time, I have no construction projects on my schedule. I am slowly able to focus on ministry again. The sailboat is now repaired and safely in its new home here in Southwest Florida. I moved out of my home and onto the sailboat. The house is now in the rental market. And Hurricane season ended November 30! Hope reigns.
I wonder where you are in your relationship with God. Do you love him? Apart from my relationship with God, I do not know how I would have navigated these days. Are you in a Wilderness of Testing? Are you spent from the trials that have come into your life? God longs to meet you in the midst of your situation to remind you that you are his child. Let him pull you up unto his lap. His love for you is greater than any sin you have done. He offers forgiveness when we confess our failures to him. He rushes into our brokenness with healing and comfort. Find hope in him alone.
For me, it is a Wilderness of Testing. I look forward to sharing more from the Wilderness in the days to come.
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