“After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and selling on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.’ Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry.”
Lent is a time when people all over the world commemorate Jesus’ time of fasting, testing, and temptation in the desert. Many of us know firsthand that the opportunity for greatest growth is, ironically, in the desert. “No pain, no gain,” is a tired cliche, but these types of phrases only become cliche by first ringing true.
It’s equally true that pain does not automatically equate to gain. Just as an inflexible tree will break in a strong windstorm, the storms of life can easily cause great damage if we’re not willing to bend with the wind. In order for growth to be birthed by the pain, we must lean into it and embrace it.
It may seem an inconsequential point that Jesus allowed himself to be led into the desert, but I think it’s one we’d all do well not to miss. I, for one, do not naturally enjoy the desert. Let’s be honest, folks: the desert is unpleasant. It’s hot, dry, lonely, and there’s a reason it’s associated with suffering. Unfortunately, life is brutal, and there’s not one of us who will escape without going through some “desert seasons”. But if we run from them, resent them, or stiffly try to deny them, we will only become bitter, disillusioned, and unable to recognize the beauty in our lives.
Lent is about leaning into the desert season, and embracing the growth and strength that are formed by it.
About two and half years ago, my husband and I followed the leading of the Spirit, taking some big and tangible steps of faith, into what became a desert season for us. I have never doubted for a second that it was the voice of God speaking, that we obeyed, and that it was everything God intended for us. But it was incredibly uncomfortable. There was suffering. I was lonely. I was far away from family and friends who knew, understood, and loved me. There was hurt. There were nights I went to bed truly doubting I could last another day in that season.
But then the sunrise would come, and God would be there.
To those who can recognize it, the desert is a gift, for it’s a place of intimate presence with God.
Jesus went to the desert to be alone with his father. He was absent from the rest of the world, in a purposefully lonely place, to be present with the one who could minister to him deeply. When all our comforts and superficial dependencies are stripped away, all we have is God. And when we are in that place of emptiness, our intimacy with our father can blossom.
When I was walking through that personal season of trial, God showed up in a way I’d never experienced. I began waking up early while it was still dark (which, if you know me AT ALL you will recognize as a greater miracle than turning water into wine). I began to treasure that hour before anyone else in my house was awake, simply because God was there. I was pressed on every side, I had nowhere to turn, no one to lean on, and it was there that God met me. He spoke to me, almost daily. He ministered to me in the deepest places of my heart. He comforted me when I was distraught by legitimately concerning circumstances. My dependence on God and trust in his goodness, strength, and care for me plunged new depths. And none of that would’ve happened without the desert.
“So further up and further in we have nowhere else to go.
As we plant the seeds of toil and tears,
It’s beauty we have sown.”
The desert gave me the opportunity to have nothing except God, and it’s one I wouldn’t trade for all the world.
To those that will allow it, the desert lends an eternal perspective that can’t be seen anywhere else.
During that year, as I dragged my exhausted self out of my bed and crawled to the kitchen to fumble through making my coffee, my eyes would slowly adjust to the morning. And as I sat in the presence of God, the eyes of my spirit would adjust and my life would come into new focus.
As morning light gradually dawned, my view of our situation gradually shifted. I saw things as God saw them. Those who were continually hurting us were no longer enemies, but brothers and sisters who were wrestling their own demons. Instead of judgement, I began to feel genuine compassion. Instead of complaining about our legitimate lack, I began to feel authentic gratitude for all the abundant gifts of God to us. The grocery store ads were like Christmas: when our favorite produce was on sale and we could afford it, I felt like I was getting a personal gift straight from God. When Audrey desperately needed shoes, and I found a pair of Nikes in her size at the consignment store for the exact amount of cash I had in my pocket, I wept with gratitude.
The desert is a dry place where death, dust, and harmful elements abound, but if we run to God and allow him to renew our perspective, we can find exquisite beauty that is unrivaled elsewhere.
So during Lent this year, let’s embrace the desert as the gift that it is. Let’s lean further up and further into the heart of God, enjoying the intimacy that comes from the desert’s loneliness. Let’s seek the perspective God gives in the desert, and see the beauty of our lives, even in the seasons of pain.