Here in Guatemala, the country’s landscape features beaches, mountains, and even volcanoes, but not arid deserts like those the Israelites encountered when they wandered through Egypt for 40 years.
Still, wherever we’re from around the world, most of us can identify with desert-like experiences in our own nations, churches, families, and lives. We may view these struggles as attacks from the Enemy that we shouldn’t accept or experiences we shouldn’t have to endure.
But Israel’s wilderness pilgrimage after their deliverance from Egypt reminds us that deserts don’t come about just because of bad luck or Satan’s wiles. They can be places of transformation used by God for our good, if we walk through them by faith.
What if we welcomed the desert?
God’s Purpose in the Wilderness
In the book of Exodus, we see how God liberated the people of Israel from Egypt, and how he filled them with the hope of the promised land. But after miraculously crossing the Red Sea and witnessing the destruction of the Egyptian army, what Israel saw on the horizon wasn’t a land of milk and honey—it was a desert.
Had God been wrong? Did he actually plan to bring them out of Egypt and then kill them in the wilderness? The Bible’s emphatic answer is no. The wilderness wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t a sign God didn’t care. In fact, the desert revealed how God was caring for his people all along the way.
The wilderness wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t a sign God didn’t care.
Moses recalled the exodus as he instructed the new generation: “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” (Deut. 8:2).
The wilderness and the absence of resources revealed what was in Israel’s heart and their true level of commitment to God. As I once heard pastor Skip Heitzig say, “God had brought his people out of Egypt, but now he needed to bring Egypt out of his people.”
Pain and Promise
The creation account reminds us that God didn’t originally put mankind in a desert. He created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, a wonderful home with no sign of a desert or drought.
But the desert was coming. The Bible tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Sin led mankind out of the garden and into a new kind of wilderness. But God, as a loving Father, seeks to turn our hearts back to him. That’s what he did with Israel in the wilderness: he searched their hearts and disciplined them as a father disciplines his son (Deut. 8:5).
The same chapter tells us, “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not 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” (Deut. 8:3).
The desert is a place of transformation. Whether your desert is unemployment, church troubles, family woes, illness, or other trials, when you come out of it you’ll either be more like Jesus or less like him. You may become more mature in the Lord and more sensitive to his voice—or possibly more bitter, cynical, and hopeless. But you won’t come out the same.
So how can we come out of deserts more like Jesus? The answer lies in God’s provision for us.
Our Bread in the Desert
For Israel, God’s provision in the desert was manna, an unknown and strange substance. It’s suggested that the name the people gave to this food comes from the Hebrew expression “man hu,” which means “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15).
When you come out of the desert, you will either be more like Jesus or less like him.
Israel was worried about physical food, but God wanted a relationship with them. That’s why the provision of manna was daily, not weekly or monthly. The Lord wanted to teach his people—and us today—that beyond physical food, the greatest need man has in this life is an intimate and dependent relationship with him.
In the desert, where every source of security and stability disappears, it becomes evident that we need the Lord. The people who died in the wilderness didn’t die because of hunger or because of the harshness of the ordeal, but because they didn’t believe in the Word of God (Num. 32:13).
When Moses told the people God would send manna, he said, “In the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD” (Ex. 16:7). By seeing the manna, they would see the glory of God. The manna pointed to God and, as Jesus later revealed, it pointed to Christ himself: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
When you walk in the desert and feel on the verge of collapse or death, you may be tempted to doubt or to grumble against God, forgetting the wonders he has done in the past. But God calls us to resist grumbling and despair so we can focus our eyes on the person to whom the manna points: Jesus Christ.
Mere knowledge about God’s ways is not sufficient. The Christian life is about knowing him in a personal and relational way. The wilderness is an opportunity to deepen our relationship and communion with Christ, for he is God’s true and greatest provision for his children.
Are you willing to trust God in the desert? If so, you will see his glory.