Why the Wilderness Isn’t a Waste

by Ketzia Barron | April 04 2022

a young man hiking

I enjoy hiking. But if the path isn’t clearly marked, if it isn’t a familiar path, or if I’m not with someone I trust, the feeling of being lost sets in. I want to know where I’m going and where I’ll end up. A fun hike can quickly make a turn for the worse once the way forward is no longer clear.

The past two years have felt like a hiking path that I don’t trust. I’ve felt like I’m wandering, waiting, and longing for direction. We’ve collectively faced a lot of trauma—big and small. We’ve lost jobs, missed milestone moments, and grieved loved ones. I’ve felt the loss of the idealized version of my early 20s I had envisioned in my head. Even though it seems like we’re returning to a sense of normalcy, it’s still a lot to process, especially as global crises continue. Maybe you feel the same as me—anxious and a bit aimless.

The wilderness is a season of life where I am feeling particularly lost.

I’ve found that using the metaphor of being in a wilderness to describe our current state is oddly comforting. It’s familiar imagery to us as Jewish people and gives a visual sense of our shared experience. Wilderness is defined as “a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings.”1 To me, the wilderness is a season of life where I am feeling particularly lost, isolated, and overwhelmed. The wilderness is unpleasant and uncomfortable—but I’ve found that it’s in these seasons that I experience personal growth that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Here are six truths I’ve discovered in the wilderness.

1. The Wilderness Isn’t Empty

In the frustration of the past two years, I’ve come to realize that the wilderness isn’t just a means of punishment or imposed pain. There’s a goal. As the late Rachel Held Evans said, “Whenever Scripture takes us into the wilderness, it is usually not the barren wasteland that it at first seems.”2 The wilderness is empty, but it’s not devoid of God’s purpose.

When our forefathers and foremothers escaped Egypt, their relief turned to restlessness (and drama) almost immediately. “They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? … For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:11–12). We tend to want to be anywhere but the wilderness—even if it means romanticizing the past or the future.

After 40 years, I’m sure the Israelites had a hard time believing they’d ever make it to the Promised Land, and sometimes it feels like the pandemic has lasted just as long. But the wilderness isn’t just a journey—it’s a destination in and of itself. There are things to be experienced right there in the midst of the desert.

2. God is Present with His People in the Wilderness

Looking back to the stories of our ancestors, I’m reminded how God’s closeness with them was amplified during seasons of wilderness. Jonathan Stein comments, “In later Jewish consciousness, these years of wandering would be remembered as an ideal time when, despite the struggles for material survival, we were especially close to God.”3

The womb-like experience of the wilderness elevated our intimacy with God. He nurtured us with a hand-feeding closeness. God’s presence was tangibly near in a unique way: “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:21–22).

Sometimes even in the seasons of pain, lack, and fear, I can feel closer to God than ever.

It was in this season that God made a covenant with our ancestors—and with us. In an act of intimacy and show of faithfulness, God seals our relationship with Him on Mount Sinai. It reminds me that sometimes even in the seasons of pain, lack, and fear, I can feel closer to God than ever.

3. God Provides for Us in the Wilderness

When problems arise, the first instinct is to find our own solutions—we like to trust what we can see. It’s why Israel made the golden calf. It’s why we’re tempted to base our confidence and sense of security on stats and headlines. But Moses challenged the people (and us) when he said, “The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent” (Exodus 14:13–14).

That can be hard to do. But God proved His power to our ancestors over and over. In a wilderness where few living things can survive, He miraculously sustained an entire people group. He split the sea and they escaped on dry land. He rained down manna from heaven. He literally brought fresh water out of a rock.

When we’re in the wilderness, we tend to adopt a scarcity mindset (case in point: March 2020 when every roll of toilet paper was sold out). The wilderness strips us down and makes us vulnerable. It forces us to acknowledge our lack of control and our utter dependence on God. And that’s when God does some of His best work. His sustenance isn’t scarce.

In Deuteronomy, Israel reflects on their time in the wilderness. In hindsight, they can see how much they gained in the wilderness instead of what they lost. Moses says to Israel, “In the wilderness, [you saw] how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son” (Deuteronomy 1:31). In the wilderness, God builds a trust in His provision that stays with us even well after we’ve exited the wilderness.

4. The Wilderness Clarifies Our Purpose

Taking the path of least resistance is our natural inclination, but it’s the seasons of wilderness that develop our character. The emptiness of the wilderness can provide the space and emptiness we need to clarify what really matters.

It’s once they depart from Sinai that their relationship with God is tested, strengthened, and solidified.

God had established a relationship with His people at Sinai, but it’s once they depart from Sinai that I believe their relationship with God is tested, strengthened, and solidified. It is in their wandering where they are forced to encounter their own hesitancies to trust and listen to God. Daniel Nevins says the wilderness “bring[s] the people’s character flaws to the surface, but they also discern there the voice of God and their national mission.”4 Bemidbar was the time of Israel’s life where they established their identity and their purpose. In preparing Moses for leading His people, God drew him to a burning bush in the desert, and that’s where He solidified his mission. The difficult circumstances in our lives sharpen our identity and clarify our path. 

The wilderness of the pandemic was frustrating and up-ending for me—in the middle of it all, I finished school, moved to a different country, and then moved across that country alone. At the time, it was lonely and challenging. But looking back, I also see how it shaped my character, revealed what mattered most to me, and helped me to discern my path.

5. The Wilderness Shows Us Our Anchors

The wilderness is challenging. We see mirages that aren’t really there because our familiar landmarks are taken away. Our anxiety stemming from disorientation and isolation can leave us feeble. All said, the wilderness challenges our sense of self.

Yeshua’s wilderness experience was no exception. He faced the most intense version of the wilderness: wandering for 40 days and 40 nights with no food, and he was tempted directly by the devil who offered to him the lures of food, power, and prosperity. Yeshua replies to each of the offers with simple truths from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the wilderness, he held fast to the truths of our ancient texts, and those simple truths carried him through it.

Holding the truths from the Tanakh in our back pocket grounds us when everything else is out of whack. Rabbinical teachings often use the wilderness as an analogy for Torah study: “Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift [mattana]” (Nedarim 55a:9). Growing in our knowledge of God and anchoring ourselves in the truth of who He is sustains us through disorienting times. It’s the most foundational and formative tool we have.

6. The Wilderness Shows Us the Beauty of Community

The wilderness forces us to confront our own weaknesses and, in response, lean into God and community. The Israelites had the community of one another in the wilderness—for better or for worse. The shared experience allowed them to both grieve and rejoice together. In our lives, it can be surprising who comes our way and what relationships are strengthened in the wilderness.

There was life for her in the wilderness because God existed in that place.

But Hagar’s wilderness experience was quite the opposite. She had absolutely nobody. Recap: she was impregnated, kicked out of her house, and exiled into the wilderness. She didn’t have a community to rely on, but God heard her pleas and saw her in her darkest moment. She learned more of the character of God and leaned into Him: “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). There was life for her in the wilderness because God existed in that place. Whether we are in a shared wilderness or facing a wild terrain solo, God is always in community with us.

Hagar and the Israelites present at the Exodus weren’t the only ones who went through the life-altering experience of the wilderness, and this gives us a connection to our ancestors and our people who have gone before. I think of all those in the Tanakh in exile from their homes: Esther, Daniel, Ruth, Abraham, and more. I think of David fleeing the hands of Saul and finding shelter and water in the wilderness at Ein Gedi. I think of the millions of Jews throughout history who have had to flee persecution in their home countries. I think of the hard world of wilderness my peers and I are navigating, yet I know full well that we will grow, learn, and thrive—because God exists in the wilderness, with a hand-feeding closeness, over and over again.

Endnotes

1. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Wilderness Definition & Meaning,” accessed February 14, 2022.

2. Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu, Wholehearted Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2021), 135.

3. Jonathan Stein, “In the Wilderness,” ReformJudaism.org, accessed February 14, 2022.

4. Daniel Nevins, “The Wilderness Speaks,” Jewish Theological Seminary, accessed February 14, 2022.

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