Formed in the Desert

by Sandy Jeong
(coming later this week)


The only way out is through.

Do you remember that children’s song “We’re going on a bear hunt”? It goes:

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

The song imagines obstacle after obstacle on this bear hunt – long wavy grass, a deep cold river, thick oozy mud, a big dark forest, a swirling whirling snowstorm, a narrow gloomy cave – and proclaims:

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We got to go through it!

It’s true what they say about learning all of life’s most important lessons in Kindergarten. Be nice.

Wash your hands. It’s impolite to pass gas in public. And when you’re trying to grab ahold of something grand, like a bear, you can’t ignore or try to shortcut the hard stuff that shows up along the way.

I must have been daydreaming when they taught that last one in Kindergarten, because I find myself having to learn the lesson over and over again. I’m the type of person that hates the process. I just want the prize. I tend to jump right to the end of the story, assuming I know how it’ll all play out. And since I know how the story goes, I don’t need to live through the gory details, right?

Unfortunately for me, that’s not how worthwhile things are attained. In fact, the prize at the end of a journey can feel cheap if there is no waiting, no anticipation, no hard-fought wrestling turned into joy.

In God’s economy, the prize at the end of our journey is guaranteed when you put your faith inJesus. We know we’ll get to rest, eat, laugh, and dance with him for eternity. But that’s not the only prize. Here on earth, God gives us opportunities to build our character and better reflect him, so we can experience him more fully and share his love with others.

Here’s the thing. These God-given, character building opportunities often take us through the desert. The wilderness of life has a way of stripping things away so we have space to grow closer to God. The desert is a gift. It’s God’s way of drawing us out of our self-centered lives and into relationship with him, but we can’t go around the desert. We have to go through it.

Breaking Down the Bible

Moses is one of the most well-known characters in the Bible. His story spans across four books(Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and his 120 years of life contain some of the most exciting stories in the Old Testament. While his personal journey with God is peppered with hits and misses, his faithfulness in the desert had him knowing God face-to-face (Deut. 34:10).

Here’s Moses’ story: Moses was born a Hebrew slave in Egypt, but was rescued from certain death by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as royalty (Exod. 2:10). As a young man, Moses had a temper and a strong sense of justice – he killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew slave(Exod. 2:12) and, fearing for his life, he fled to Midian where he lived as a shepherd for 40 years.

During this time, the Israelite slaves groaned because of their difficult labor. “God saw theIsraelites, and God knew,” (Exod. 2:25) so he called Moses to action. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and though Moses hesitated out of fear and feeling unqualified, he eventually obeyed God’s command to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses went on to free the Israelites and they escaped a pursuing Egyptian army by walking across the floor of the Red Sea, with walls of water surrounding them. Moses then led the Israelites on a 40-year journey in the desert towards the promised land.

In Exodus 24, God used Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites and even though theIsraelites broke their side of the deal within weeks, God showed grace by renewing his promise to them (Exod. 34). This is remarkable because the Mosaic covenant appears to be works-based, but our just God forgave freely. God was able to be so gracious because “he looked forward to the coming of his Son and the sacrifice that repairs all the injury done to God’s honor…there could have been no covenant with Abraham, no covenant with Moses, and no new covenant without the coming of Jesus Christ. What was freely given under Moses was purchased by Christ.”

Moses’ story reads like a screenplay, and most of us have seen that movie (Charlton Heston, anyone?) But we often recall Moses’ more glorious moments and forget that he was already an old man when he freed the Israelites, and he spent the remainder of his life wandering the wilderness.In fact, most of his walk with God was in the desert and he never entered the promised land.

Why would God ask the Israelites to spend 40 years in the desert after 400 years in slavery? Why would God ask Moses, the “most faithful in all my house” (Num. 12:7) to experience such hardship?

The Master Storyteller

When Moses was called to free the Israelites from slavery and bring them into the promised land,I’ll bet he didn’t plan on spending the rest of his life wandering in the desert. Surely there was a shorter route to the land flowing with milk and honey, some sort of expressway that didn’t involve so many years of struggle.

Here’s the thing God knew that the Israelites didn’t – they had to shed some things they had held onto from spending 400 years in another land before they could move into the promised land.While they were slaves, the Israelites belonged to somebody else. God wanted them for himself –to be in relationship with them – and he knew he had to do some work on their hearts first.

The Israelites were quick to grumble, they wanted to go back into slavery because things seemed better (Exod. 16), and they created idols at the first sign of trouble. God knew these things about the Israelites, and that they needed to be in the wilderness where they would be stripped of self-reliance so they would pray, reflect, and repent. And in this process, God revealed that their inheritance was never the land – it was always the Lord.6 Through the Mosaic Covenant, God showed the Israelites that they were special to him (“you shall be my own possession”, Exod.19:5). God gave them access to himself in the desert, he called them to be holy like him, and he showed them grace and forgiveness.

The desert may not seem like it’s part of God’s story for your life, but it’s actually God’s grace for you. As we journey through wilderness on our way to the promised land, we aren’t promised physical comfort (though God provides for us while we are in the desert). We are promised refining fire that will burn off our enslaved parts and form us into God’s likeness (Zech. 13:9). And in the process, we’ll see God face-to-face.

So, what is our primary job while we’re in the desert? Like Moses, we are called to remain faithful and to lean on the Holy Spirit. Our inheritance is the Lord himself and was purchased by the blood of Jesus. This is never as clear as it is in the desert, where God calls us his own, gives us access to himself, makes us holy, and gives us grace.

The desert may be hot, dusty, and hard, but it might also be the most life-giving place you can be.

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We got to go through it!

Study the Story

    Read Exodus 15:23-25, 16:2-4, 16:11-12, and 17:2-7. How does God provide for the Israelites in the desert? What parallels do you see between God’s provision in the desert and what he provides us through Jesus?
    Read Exodus 19:3-9. How can we access the same promises God made to the Israelites?
    Read Exodus 32:7-14. How is God able to so freely forgive the Israelites after they broke their side of the covenant?

Consider the Story

  1. How does the biblical narrative describe Moses? What makes him a unique character?
  2. In what ways do you see similarities in Moses’ story and your own?
  3. Why do you think God chose Moses to free the Israelites and lead them to the promised land?

Recount the Story

  1. Do you ever try to avoid the desert or deny it as God’s storyline for you?
  2. What is your greatest temptation when it comes to trusting God in the desert?
  3. What are some ways you can embrace a desert season and see it as a gift?

Practice the Story

Discuss some ways that God has encouraged you through what seemed like a dry, dusty, desert season. This week, journal some ways that you can embrace a desert season and remain faithful.