Led by the Spirit into the wilderness

Led by the Spirit… into the wilderness?! Really? You can’t be serious?

In any church the range of experience varies, we are all on a journey, but we are not all at the same stage, and we should not be threatened by differing encounters or experiences, but one particular experience we don’t often talk about is when the Spirit leads us into the wilderness – after all we frequently think of encounters with the Holy Spirit in terms of baptism, empowering, gifting, going and doing etc… after all wasn’t he given so that we might get on with the job?

The fact is the work of the Spirit involves far more than going and doing, and one of them involves the wilderness, but we should note there are two types of wilderness we can find ourselves in:

  • one that involves the Spirit’s leading, something God ordained and appointed – more on that in a minute.
  • the other is the result of our own making – and it’s important that we realise this.  It’s a dry place, hard and barren, with no sense of God (though he has not abandoned you), no desire to pray, the Word is unsatisfying, corporate worship a duty, no peace, no joy etc.. It’s not a good place to be. The question is how did you get there. It can be through unbelief, disobedience, wilful sin or the failure to forgive others and the resulting root of bitterness, evidenced in resentment, anger (internal and external), annoyance, irritability, impatience, defensiveness. The writer to the Hebrews speaks to this strongly, “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” (Hebrews 12:15 NLT). Note it’s poisonous, it will trouble you, it will eat at your life, and consume your energies both mental and physical, and it will corrupt others, those around you – you may not realise it but it will.
  • If you are in a wilderness of your own making you can do something about it right away, you don’t have to stay there – recognise the reason, repent, cast yourself back on the mercy and grace of God, trust in God, be obedient, if it’s unforgiveness and bitterness, forgive, now, not tomorrow and do it totally, believe me it’s not worth staying there.

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness?!

We see it specifically in the life of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12,13; Luke 4:1-15) – the gospel writers use different words, “led” (by the hand?), “driven” (pushed?). Whichever way you look at it it was something the Spirit distinctly did.

There are four things to note for starters from the temptation of Jesus:

  1. History. Previous chapter (Luke 3): Genealogy – mixed. Whatever is going on it doesn’t matter what your history is, it is about who God has made you to be today. The devil knew who Jesus was, the Greek is “since you are the Son of God…” The devil knows who we are, but God frequently uses the wilderness to ground us in our identity in Christ.
  2. It was an act of God. The Spirit led Him. That means that God is Sovereign, the devil wasn’t in control, he wasn’t dictating the circumstances/game plan.  It was part of God the Father’s loving purpose. It has to do with God’s purpose – that means it’s not something we should fight against and try to get out of as quick as we can, but rather learn to go with Father in. The Spirit led him there and would ultimately lead him out. God the Father knew the end from the beginning. 
  3. The Spirit was with him. He took him there, was with him there, would lead him out of there. He is also with us.
  4. It was a spiritual conflict, there was and is an enemy around, and we need to know how to deal with him, and that only comes through going into battle.

Note: we should stop and note here that trials can become temptations… if we don’t understand them we’ll become vulnerable to various temptations in order to suppress or alleviate our experiences, thereby seeking to get us out some other way. It’s a trap of the enemy, a snare. Don’t go there, whether it’s drink, drugs, pornography etc.. It doesn’t work.

Jesus went into the wilderness as the Second Adam, the representative Man. For 40 days Jesus was confronted and tempted by the devil, and at the end of them he comes again – he waits, he bides his time, just when you think it’s over, there he is again… will he turn stone to bread to satisfy his hunger, take a short cut to God’s purpose, seek to prove his Father’s care? Over and over again the answer was a big ‘no’ to Satan and a big ‘yes’ to the Father, or perhaps we should put it round the other way it was a big ‘yes’ to the Father and so it became a big ‘no’ to Satan.

What does the wilderness mean for us?

Probably the best way of putting it is that it is the place where God detoxifies and shapes our soul. We live in a world that spends a whole lot of time and money on shaping our bodies, on looking good, but God is interested in who we are on the inside, our souls, and the wilderness seems to be God’s favourite place for working on them!

  • Detoxification – yes, we are new creations, but we are works in progress, there’s much that’s not of God and will be an hindrance to our growth, maturity and usefulness. It’s a place of undoing, of emptying.
  • Shaping – we are predestined to be like Jesus, conformed to Christ, and God does it from the inside out. It’s not about being all religious, it’s about a deep and growing relationship. It’s a place of remaking and filling – it’s a place where we find our satisfaction in Jesus, that Christ is our all in all, a place where we are equipped for service.

Some examples from Scripture:

Joseph had dreams and visions and was keen to know what they were about and see them worked out, but God had to put him in prison and shape his soul before he could let him loose on the world of his day – read Psalm 105:17-19. The NKJV margin says that “his soul came into iron and the word of the Lord tested him until it came to pass”… He had a word, but God was doing something else – in him.

Moses (Exodus 2,3) thought he understood God, his call and his ways, but God had to put him out in the wilderness, looking after sheep for 40 long years in order to detox and shape him for the task he had for him.

Israel – God led them out of slavery into a wilderness/desert. For 40 years they had to learn the ways of God.

David knew the calling and anointing of God but continued to live and serve as a shepherd out in the Judean hills until his time came. Before it arrived he was pursued by Saul and hid in the caves of the Judean wilderness, being molded and made by God.

Elijah – 1 Kings 19. Exhausted from spiritual conflict, fear grips him, he flees to the wilderness. God was there, and renews him, refreshed he goes further into the wilderness, God speaks to him, he pours out his heart – God deals with him and speaks to him in a “still small voice.” Elijah is detoxed and able to go back into ministry.

Paul – (Gal 1:17,18) soon after his conversion enters the Arabian desert where God takes him through a detox of the remains of zealous pharisaism and gives him a glorious revelation of Jesus.

The wilderness is a place of:

  1. Solitude (as opposed to loneliness) – just you and God.
  2. Where we learn who we are.
  3. Where we feel our need, that we are dependent people.
  4. Where questions come – what will we believe? Does God care? He’s not provided, you do it. 
  5. Undoing and remaking.
  6. Battle, of spiritual conflict… It’s not for defeat, but victory (God is on our side!) – God allows the enemy to come at us; yes it will expose our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but it’s not a fair fight – “greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world!” We are meant to win!
  7. Where we learn the ways of God.
  8. Where we learn to live by faith and not our feelings. Genuine faith has nothing to do with feelings, that’s a ploy of the enemy and the dynamic of the flesh, whereas the dynamic of the Spirit is faith.

In Luke’s gospel it tells us that “Jesus returned in power…” God doesn’t take you there to leave you there, or that you might come out of it the worse for wear, but that you might return in power, knowing who you are in Christ, fully satisfied in him, knowing the ways of God, and how to deal with the enemy.

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