Are You in A Desert?

I wrote this article 14 years ago, but just reread it from old computer archives, and am impressed with how it still speaks to my life.  The deserts of that season are long past and overcome.  Sometimes one’s own testimony regarding the victories of the past becomes refreshing strength for the present.

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The Judean desert

 Copyright 1999, by Sarah G. Pemberton


All of my life, I had heard it taught that being in a spiritual “desert” is analogous to the Israelites’ wandering forty years in the desert of Sinai because of their unbelief, stubborn rebellion, and idolatry.  I was taught that the cure for the desert experience is always repentance.  But while this is often true, (and it is always wise to examine our hearts humbly before the Lord, in case we have a “blind spot” which needs to be addressed) nevertheless, the desert has a much broader symbolism in Scripture than that alone.  Our Lord was tempted for forty days in the desert and there defeated the same Enemy who kept the Israelites wandering for forty years.  His desert experience was hardly one of rebellion or unbelief!  Quite the contrary, His was the desert experience which gives us hope for victory in our trials and temptations.

But the desert experience I wish to address with you is that of Elijah.  Elijah had two desert experiences: One in the middle of his ministry and one at the end.  Elijah’s desert experiences were a direct result of his obedience to the Lord, and his faithfulness to God’s word, which was spoken through him.  He prophesied that the Lord would judge Israel’s faithlessness with a drought, which would only end at Elijah’s word (I Kings 17-18).  And though God made provision for Elijah, leading him first to a brook where the ravens*were sent to feed him daily, nevertheless the prophet suffered the effects of the drought just as much as the people against whom the prophecy was given as a warning for them to repent.

Eventually the brook dried up and Elijah was sent by God to a pagan widow (I Ki. 18) a native of the evil Queen Jezebel’s own homeland, ironically!  For this foreign widow — not for the widows of Israel — God worked miracles because of her faith and kindness to His servant.  There God continued to provide for Elijah, as well as for the widow and her son, until the Lord said, “Go and confront King Ahab.”  The desert season primarily ended with a divine showdown between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah on Mt. Carmel. (I Kings 18)  God answered Elijah by fire, consuming a sacrifice naturally impossible to burn, as it was so drenched with water.  Afterward, the people confessed Jehovah as Lord, and the false prophets, whose idols had failed the test, were put to death.  Only at that point, as Elijah prayed, watching the vision in the heavenly realm more closely than the physical sky above him, did the rains come.

But no sooner had Elijah experienced the greatest victory of his ministry, than he allowed the intimidating threats of Jezebel to drive him to yet another desert (I Kings 19).  The mighty prophet fled in fear for his life, rather than asking the Lord, “How do I deal with her?” or better yet, “Lord, how are You going to deal with her?”  Elijah was tired, depressed, and “ready to die,” but God said, “All right!  I’ll take you home to heaven if you want, but you have one last job to do!”  In the midst of his fear, his distorted perception of his circumstances,** his depression and self-pity, God gave Elijah his last prophetic assignments:  [1] Anoint two kings to succeed those who had been given time to repent, who had not done so, and [2] anoint a prophet to succeed himself, Elisha.  It is crucial that we learn to mentor others in the lessons we have learned in the desert; otherwise our desert journey has truly been in vain.

God also assured him, “I have reserved 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  When we are suffering, we tend to feel alone, even when there are in reality many people caring about us and standing with us.  We tend to blow the opposition’s threats way out of proportion.  Next to the grace and power of a sovereign God, they are nothing!

This desert was not necessarily a punishment for his exhausted faith – indeed, in the end, Elijah (II Kings 2:1-12) was taken up in the most glorious heavenly homecoming of any of the prophets, one of only two people in Scripture [Enoch and Elijah] to have ascended apparently without tasting death. [Jesus ascended only after dying and rising from the dead.]  But clearly, Elijah is nearing the end of his spiritual race, hitting the proverbial “Wall” like a marathon runner.   God has to send an angel to strengthen him for the end of his life’s race (which includes a literal, physical race, as well), as Satan attempts to use physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion to derail Elijah’s faith right before the finish line.

When we are in the “Desert of Obedience,” accompanied by its inevitably painful or difficult consequences, the Enemy of our souls will always try to use insecurity, confusion, or the condemnation and threats of a counterfeit religious spirit, operating through intimidatingly powerful others, to convince us we are in sin, or that God has deserted us.  But now is actually the golden hour of our walk with God, if we will let it be.

Satan has only one weapon:  “Indeed, hath God said…????!”  Always go with the word you received in close communion with God, and never trust that second challenging word, no matter through whom it comes, nor how “pious” the reasons for their challenge may sound.  Scripture is your gauge, not someone else’s personal opinion.

Lastly, when the victory is won and the rains of God’s blessings come again, watch for the opposition!  Expect it!  Ask God for His game plan to deal with it!  And have trustworthy intercession guarding your back from those already familiar with this
Desert.  God never wants to end your ministry because you are discouraged or running in fear from the opposition, but only because you have completed His assignments.  Until then, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Php. 3:14) And never give up.  Tell God, if you must, that you feel like giving up.  But stay in dialog with Him, and let His grace refresh you.

*(The raven is an unclean bird, according to the Law of Moses, as well as a scavenger, which by nature would have never sacrificed its own bread and meat for a human being!)

**(“I alone am left”, despite his earlier conversation with Obadiah, which testified to the contrary)


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