Sometimes it seems as though my whole life has been a wilderness experience. My mother once told me she had never known anyone who had suffered as much as I had. Her statement was made after I had gone through several years of intense tribulation, and I must admit that God certainly gave me some years of respite soon after that. However, the old adage that in this life you’re either in a trial, coming out of one, or going into one seems to be extremely characteristic of my life. No one is exempt. Jesus assured us that in this world we would have trouble, and even came to earth and experienced it firsthand. Thankfully, he does not leave us as orphans to try and muddle through without assistance.
Scripture has much to say about suffering and God. He is our “very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1), he uses trials to mold our character (Rom. 5:3-4), he comforts us in the midst of tribulation (2 Co. 1:4), and he promises to deliver us from all trouble (Ps. 34:19, 50:15). The good news is that no trial on this earth will last forever. Paul calls the troubles of this life “light and momentary” when viewed in the light of eternity, and claims that they have the ability to work “an eternal weight of glory” in us (2 Co. 4:17). While there are many who espouse a gospel that guarantees a trouble-free life of health and wealth, I cannot find biblical grounds for such doctrine. When I read scripture, I see trouble as inevitable and even useful in God’s agenda for our lives. None of us enjoy it, but when I look back on my life I realize that, undeniably, suffering has been a highly effective tutor in my life.
This past year has been yet another wilderness experience for me. I have to say that after all these years, I’ve grown accustomed to it and have learned to look for the lessons in each trial. Still, nobody enjoys the heat of the wilderness, and I have found myself feeling weary beyond words. I stand before God with a willing spirit, but I am a tired and have told him that many times. This morning as I was reading through Numbers, the above passages stood out.
On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire… Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp… Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. (Nu. 9:15, 17-18, 22)
Apparently, the Spirit led the children of Israel to camp out in the wilderness for long periods of time. Last year, I went to Israel, and was able to visit the wilderness where the children of Israel camped. I visited Timna Valley and the replica of the wilderness tabernacle there. As we stood outside the tabernacle, I found myself feeling very uncomfortable in the desert heat, but as soon as we entered the tent there was immediate relief from the unpleasant temperature. For the Israelites, the presence of God hovered over the tabernacle in the form of a cloud by day that provided even more relief from the hot sun. Nighttime temperatures in the desert are usually pretty chilly, because of the lack of humidity, so the Spirit of God hovered over the tent in a cloud of fire at night. Living in the wilderness had to be uncomfortable for many reasons. Yet, God provided relief in the midst of it, especially for the priests who ministered in the temple.
Those of us who have been grafted into God’s family through Messiah (Rom. 11:17) have also been given the privilege of being part of God’s royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). We can come boldly into God’s presence (Heb. 4:16), and that is where we can find relief from the extremes of wilderness life. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11)—even in the midst of trouble. Just imagine what would happen to those who decided to wander away from the tabernacle. It would be very difficult to survive at all. As far as I could see in Timna, there were very few food and water sources for miles on end. Even so, those of us who try to force our way out of the wilderness before God leads, usually find ourselves much worse off than if we had waited patiently. The answer to victorious life, even in the midst of the wilderness, is to wait and to worship. We cannot force circumstances to change, but we can find joy and rest for our weary souls (Mt. 11:29) when we run to him. Eventually, he will lead us out of the wilderness, and the day is coming when we will be free of all earthly pain and sorrow. Until that day, he alone is enough.
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. (Ps. 27:4-5)
Lord, thank you that I am your child! Thank you that I can live victoriously even in the midst of hardship. You are my provider, my peace, and my shelter. I do not have to look frantically about for a way of escape, but I can wait on you and stand under the cloud of your presence. Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10). Forgive me for becoming so impatient about life in the wilderness. I know you are good, and that you have a good plan for my life. Help me to remember that truth always. You are good, and it is so good to be able to come into your presence. I choose to worship you now. Amen