The Wilderness Experience in the Bible


Going through the wilderness is never fun or easy, but it’s sometimes necessary.

I’m not talking about camping in the wilds; some people do find that fun.

I’m talking about those times when life is precarious, fraught with danger or uncertainty, when you don’t know what to do or who to turn to.

When the Bible speaks about the wilderness it’s not merely talking about deserted areas void of people or civilization and full of wild animals, including carnivores.

The wilderness is much more evocative than just a place; it’s an experience of life.

The two most common biblical wilderness experiences are the forty years the Hebrews spent in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea, and the forty days Jesus spent being tested by the devil, but there are more.

The wilderness is common to everyone. When we examine the biblical use of the wilderness we learn some things.

The Wilderness is an In-Between Place

The Hebrews left slavery behind in Egypt, which was great, but it was also all they knew. It was familiar, even if it was onerous. The Promised Land was just a promise, and as great as it sounded, it felt far away.

It was foreign, unfamiliar, and perhaps a little ephemeral. Nobody had ever seen it, not even Moses.

So maybe that’s all it was—a dream, a promise.

But promises get broken, and dreams disappear into the ether as soon as we wake up.

Either way, you are left in the wilderness, trying to get water out of a rock.

The Wilderness is a Time of Testing

Jesus went into the wilderness. Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, indicating that it is not a place anybody willingly chooses to go. It was in the wilderness that Jesus was tempted by the devil.

There are those who think that Jesus, being God, couldn’t have sinned, but a test isn’t really a test if you already know all the answers.

No, I rather think that this was a time when Jesus had to deal with and settle once and for all what kind of king he would be. He had to deal with the strong temptations of fame, of riches, and of power—the things that still tempt people.

He had to decide that his would be a kingdom of lessers, not greaters; a kingdom tilted toward the poor, not the rich; and a kingdom of persuasive self-sacrificing love rather than of coercive power backed by a powerful army.

The Wilderness is a Place of Purification

Jesus purged himself of those strong motivations and emerged with pure intentions and single-minded in purpose and direction.

Likewise, the generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt, who found themselves longing for the certainty of the food and shelter they had as slaves rather than the uncertainty of daily bread, even bread from heaven, were not capable of entering the Promised Land.

Israel had to be purified, a new generation arising who, while only knowing the wilderness, at least didn’t know about being slaves.

This was the generation that could envision a land flowing with milk and honey, and were able to occupy it.

The Wilderness Leads to New Life

After the Exodus wilderness came the Promised Land.

After Jesus’ temptation the Kingdom of God emerged, small as a mustard seed, pregnant with possibility and potential.

Pregnant is in fact the operative word, for the significance of forty in both instances—forty years, forty days—comes from the number of weeks a woman is pregnant, counting from her last period to birth.

It’s not an easy time, as I experienced, albeit second-hand, from being with my wife and now my daughter through their pregnancies.

But at the end, there emerges new life.

You may be going through a wilderness experience right now—in your career, in your marriage, in parenting, etc.

You can long for Egypt, to which you can’t return. If you do, you will most likely in the wilderness.

Or you can patiently—and faithfully—endure, and wait for God to bring forth new life in your life.

It’s your choice.

For more on the wilderness experience, see How to Pass the Wilderness Experience.

Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

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