Wilderness: n. A dry, hot place; a wild, isolated, barren, place; an obscure or unknown place; a deserted, desolate place.
The word, “wilderness,” appears over 300 times in the Bible, making it an important subject therein simply by sheer volume of references. Bible scholars and students have often focused on the “Wilderness experience” of Jesus (Luke 4: 1 – 13), and have often neglected teaching about the similar wilderness experiences of Jesus’ followers. This study will be mostly about our wilderness experiences as followers of Jesus, but we will first look at Jesus’ wilderness experience to sort of set the stage for the remainder of our teaching.
When studying any subject or topic in the Bible, the honest Bible student will first look at all the references in the Bible about that subject before arriving at a conclusion. In addition, all subjects or topics found in the Bible will always have one reference, chapter, book, etc., that serves as a summary of the Bible’s teachings on that particular subject. For example, the chapter that summarizes the subject of “resurrection” is 1 Corinthians 15; the chapter that summarizes the subject of “love” is 1 Corinthians 13.
Jesus’ Wilderness Experience—Our Pattern
I have examined all 300+ references in the Bible about “wilderness” before arriving at the conclusions I will set forth in this study. The main biblical reference summarizing the subject is Luke 4: 1 – 13, Jesus’ wilderness experience. I won’t go into any depth about his experience, but I want to touch upon a few points before moving on to the subject of our wilderness experiences.
First, I want to point out what should be rather obvious: Jesus didn’t end up in the wilderness by accident, or because He was “outside” the will of God for his life, because he had sinned and was being punished, because he had mistakenly wandered into the wrong place. NO! Jesus was in the wilderness because God the Holy Spirit led him there.
I’m not certain if I can “prove” the point, but it seems to me from the biblical record that we are also led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness experiences of our mortal lives. Yes, we may end up in the wilderness because of sin or wrongdoing, or by prideful rebellion, or by turning our back on God, or for some similar reason. But it seems that we are actually in our wildernesses because God the Holy Spirit leads us there. Oh, He may be orchestrating our wilderness experiences from behind the scenes, so to speak—not leading us directly—but leading us there, nonetheless.
Second, we must understand that—just as Jesus did—we will always encounter Satan in our own wilderness experiences. But, please remember that Satan is merely a limited tool, an instrument, in the overall plans and purposes of God for his children. Satan does not appear by accident in our wilderness experiences; He shows up only because God has “sent” him there so he can be used as an instrument by God to test and try us just as he did Jesus.
And, we must deal with Satan in exactly the same way Jesus did. We combat Satan’s conniving, scheming strategies by quoting to Him ALOUD the Scriptures, the Living, Written Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit! (For a full, detailed expose about Satan and his strategies in our lives, I urge you to read two other teachings: Satan: From Beginning to End and Soldiers Training Manual).
Third, our wilderness experiences are so that we will be tempted, tested, and tried at the weak points in our character and nature so we can emerge on the other side of the wilderness stronger at those weak points. In His sovereign, overarching purposes for our lives God always allows us to tested, and then broken, at our weakest points—so that afterwards we are strong at the broken places!
Although there’s much more that we can learn from Jesus’ wilderness experience in Luke 4: 1 – 13, those 3 points are all I want us to look at for now.
Obviously in this brief study, we are not going to examine every one of those 300+ references to “wilderness” in the Bible. Instead, we will examine only a few that seem germaine to this study or those encapsulating or summarizing the Bible’s teachings about our experiences in the wilderness.
The very first significant wilderness experience in the Bible was that of the Hebrews (Israelites) in the Sinai Desert after having been led out of Egypt by Moses, God’s servant.
Let’s examine the wilderness experiences of the 12 tribes of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years. What were those 40 years all about? God summarizes their experience in Deuteronomy 8: 2: God Himself led them into that wilderness to humble them and to test them. They weren’t there because they had sinned, or by accident, or because they couldn’t reach their destination by some other route (they could have!, but that’s another story–); no, they spent 40 years in the wilderness because God led them there and kept them there until they were humbled and until they had “passed” their test.
“Remember all the ways God led you during 40 years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would obey Him or not.” –Deuteronomy 8: 2
There’s a fundamental truth about wildernesses: On the other side of the wildernesses of our lives is the Promised Land!
In the very next chapter, Deuteronomy 9: 3, God says of Himself that He is a consuming fire! Wow, I could write a lot about that aspect of God’s nature in his dealing with his people, but—wait a minute—I’ve already written about that in another teaching on this web site, where I invite you to read all about the subject of fire in the Bible; that teaching is titled Fire! If you read that teaching, you’ll gain some more insight about how God tests us with fire in the wildernesses of our lives.
How does the Bible define “humble”? In its basic essence, it means to “bow one’s knee voluntarily.” God leads us into and through our wilderness experiences so we will voluntarily “bow our knees” to his absolute sovereignty in our lives. So that we willingly proclaim in our proud, stubborn hearts that He is in all, through all, and at the end of all. So that we will acknowledge that He is in absolute control of our lives. No, “Yes, buts….” He is Lord of all my life, or He is Lord of none of my life! And it often takes a wilderness experience for us to honestly humble ourselves before his absolute sovereignty.
To “test” us means that God puts us through the fires of cleansing and purifying so that the “gold, silver, and precious stones” He is working into our characters—into the very essence of our newly created beings—rises to the surface, and the “wood, hay, and stubble” of our old, pre-Jesus natures is burned up completely. You may read about that process in 1 Corinthians 3. I could teach much more about that process of cleansing and purifying, but my teaching about fire covers that in much more detail.
The ancient Patriarch, Job’s, exclamation in Job 23: 10 – 12 furnishes more insight into God’s testing us by fire. Isaiah 48: 10 speaks to the matter of testing by fire, also.
Four Major Areas of Testing
So…God leads us into our own wilderness experiences to humble us and to test us. My own observations and my own experiences based on the biblical record lead me to believe that the major areas of our lives where God seeks to humble us and test us are areas of disobedience, pride, rebellion, and where we have “hardened our hearts” over some issue in our lives. I’m sure there are other areas of our lives that God deals with in our wildernesses, but those are the 4 major areas I’ve seen over and over in my own life and in the lives of others. God will always “custom tailor” our humbling and testing experiences to areas of our own lives (often ones we attempt to keep hidden from others) needing such humbling and testing. He sees all and knows all; nothing in our lives is ever hidden from God!
Okay, now I want us to take a look at the actual processes in which God leads us into the wilderness, takes us through it, and then takes us out of the wilderness.
“Pay attention! I will do a new thing in you… I will make a road through the wilderness and rivers in the wastelands… I provide waters in the wilderness and rivers in the wastelands, to quench your thirst so you may proclaim my praise. I will allure you into the wilderness, and there I will speak tenderly to your heart. There I will cause you to bear new fruit. The Valley of Achor—the valley of trouble and testing—will turn out to be a Door of Hope for you. [When your testing has been completed] you will sing and rejoice!”
–Isaiah 43: 19 – 21, and Hosea 2: 14 & 15, paraphrased and personalized
One of the first reasons God leads us into the wilderness experiences of our lives is so that He can get us aside from the distracting routines and busyness of our lives and speak to us. Of course, God is always speaking to us through the Bible and by means of the Holy Spirit Who lives inside us in our spirits, but He often leads us into the wilderness so He can speak more “loudly” to us, in a sense, during a time when we are more apt to be listening more intently.
You’ve heard the old expression (or something similar) : “He had to hit him with a 2 x 4 to get his attention!” Well, the wilderness experiences of our lives are often “2 x 4” experiences when God needs to really get our attention so we will focus our listening to what He’s attempting to say to us. So, that’s one of the first things that happens when He leads us into the wilderness: He speaks to us.
Next, generally (but not always) God leads us into the wilderness so He can do a new thing in our lives. A new thing that will spring forth in the wilderness itself, often a new thing in our lives that we don’t even consciously know we need to have happen, a hidden area of our lives that needs exposed and brought out to the light so that God’s “laser light” can “burn” it out of us, to be replaced by a new thing. Something new and amazing often stands at the other side of our wilderness experiences . . .
Let me mention a recent experience I was involved in that might illustrate this point. I was counseling a young man who was an habitual liar, but he either didn’t know that was the case, or he might have felt he was hiding that part of his character. When I prayed in person for him, the Holy Spirit exposed his propensity to lie hidden deep in his character.
The young man confessed it, let it come out into The Light of God, and that LIGHT burned it out of his character just as the rising sun burns off the morning mist! That young man instantly became a “new creation” in that area of his life; that occurred a number of months ago and he is still “lie-free”! That was his own wilderness experience to humble him in that regard and burn out that aspect of his character.
Custom-Tailored For You
Each wilderness experience God leads us into is custom-tailored by God for us so we can humble ourselves, learn from the experience, be tested, purged, cleansed, and “broken,” so the Potter can re-form, re-mold, re-shape, and re-store us more and more into the image of Jesus, so, in turn, He becomes more “fully formed” in our new natures.
Isaiah 43: 19 goes on to say (in some versions of the Bible) that God not only leads us into the wilderness, but He also leads us through the experience. God-led wilderness experiences are always transitional experiences in our lives to take us from and old level of our relationship with God to a new, higher/deeper level of relationship. If…we allow Him to take us through the wilderness.
At any point in time, we can choose to run away from any wilderness experience and leave incomplete the changes God wants to work out in our character and nature. God will not force us to stay in the wilderness experience until it is complete on his terms; at any point, to our own harm and detriment, we can stubbornly and pridefully interrupt the testing, humbling, purifying, cleansing process.
Next in Isaiah 43: 19 note that the end result of our wilderness experience is not only that God does a new thing in us, but He also gives us rivers in the wilderness. The rivers God creates in our wilderness experiences are those rivers Jesus spoke of in John 7: 37 – 39. As you emerge from any wilderness experience, look for a new “Pentecostal” experience (however you define that experience based upon your own current state of awareness and level of understanding) with the Holy Spirit to come out of your experience—where rivers of Living Water will begin to flow anew from your innermost being to quench your own thirst and the thirst of others in new, creative, and power-full ways.
The reference in Hosea promises us that even though there will be a Valley of Achor in the wildernesses we find ourselves in, beyond the Valley of Achor there will always be a Door of Hope. In the Bible, “hope” is defined as “confident expectation of upcoming good based upon the sure and certain promises of God.” Dear readers, that’s the type of hope we can find in our wilderness experiences. You might want to look up Jeremiah 29: 11 in that regard. For the follower of Jesus there is always hope—culminating in what the Bible calls The Blessed Hope we have that Jesus will return and begin to set all things right!
Now I want you to turn to Song of Solomon 8: 5. I want to make this important point: The only way up and out of your wilderness experience is by leaning on your Beloved! Of course, Jesus is not only God’s Beloved, but He is also the one Beloved by all Jesus-believers!
I want to encourage you: you will get through and up and out of your wilderness experience by trusting God’s absolute sovereignty of leading you into your wilderness, by “bending your knee” to God, by letting his fires test you, purify you, and cleanse you, and by leaning on your Beloved to come up and out of your wilderness!
Comfort Beyond Human Comfort
Another thing God will do in our lives while we are in the wilderness is that He will comfort us. If I understand anything at all about such references as John 14: 6, 16, and 27, the Holy Spirit is The Comforter in a unique manner. Most of our wilderness experiences will lead us into a new, more vital and personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, The Comforter. One important characteristic of The Comforter is that He not only comforts us with a comfort He alone can give us (2 Corinthians 1: 3 and 4), but He also empowers us for work and service to God just as He did for Jesus after He emerged from his wilderness experience.
When you emerge from your wilderness experience, you will not only have been comforted in a special way by God, but you will be newly empowered with “Pentecostal Power” (Acts 1: 8) for work, service, witness, and ministry . . . and to comfort others with the same comfort with which you have been comforted.
Don’t miss out on all God has in store for you in your wilderness experience by stubbornly and pridefully resisting what God wants to do in you, through you, and as you.
God will bring you out of your wilderness experience in his perfect timing. God is never late. He is never early. He is on time every time! Hosea 2: 14 claims that God allures or entices or draws us into our wilderness experiences. One feeling that most people often have while they are in the wilderness is hopelessness. God always provides a “door of hope” while we are in our wildernesses.
“Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His boundless mercy we have been born from above to an ever-living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!” (1 Peter 1: 3) While you are in your wilderness, I want to encourage you: please do not despair, do not feel isolated, do not feel deserted by God, do not lose hope!
God Disciplines Those Whom He Loves
Since our relationship with God is by our inner faith-sense rather than with our “outer” five senses and objective reality, do you ever have those occasional moments when you honestly question whether you truly are a child of God? I do! Here I am, one mere mortal among 7 billion other mere mortals living on a tiny planet near the edge of an obscure galaxy in this vast, boundless universe and I have the audacity to believe I am a child of the Great God of the Universe.
Well, one of the reasons (among many other reasons) I know I am a child of God is because God tests, purifies, and disciplines those mortal humans who are his children! (Hebrews 12). If I—a mere mortal human—am often led by God to the wilderness in order for Him to humble, test, purify, and discipline me, that means I am a well-loved child of God. He wouldn’t discipline me if He didn’t regard me as his well-loved son. That’s one way I “know in my knower” that I am child of the Living, Almighty God! I know that’s a strange way of knowing I am his child, but He wouldn’t bother disciplining me if I weren’t his well-loved child. Think about it–
Our hope is as eternal as God is, and comes to us because we follow a risen, Living Savior Who leads us into, takes us through, and brings us out of our wilderness experiences. Lean hard on your Living, Loving, Returning Savior during your wilderness experiences!
“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand!”
Revised and Updated March 2023