The Desert Phase is inevitable and important, but never welcomed. After the Honeymoon Phase and Growth Phase (and sometimes right in the middle of one of these phases that I talked about in the past two posts), God allows the evil, broken world we live in to affect us just like it affects everyone. It’s a time of disequilibrium. God lets us down because he doesn’t do what we wanted or expected. Inevitably, we had a “deal” with God that He didn’t agree to: “If I do good, God will keep me from suffering.” Then we realize that was never the deal God agreed to. Death or disease, betrayals, trials or sufferings enter our lives—just as it entered the life of God demonstrated in Jesus! We don’t “feel” close to God. We “feel” like He’s just not there and we’re stumbling in the dark alone. Jesus himself went through this, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” What we are learning is how God overcomes an evil world, not by removing all evil, but by overcoming it by faith. “And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” (Romans 8:17)
This is probably the most important time of growth in a person’s life, yet if that person doesn’t have the support of spiritually wise friends or enough growth in faith to know that every writer of Scripture went through the Desert and emerged stronger, she might walk away from God for years (usually until the pain and hopelessness of life without God drive us back to Him).
The reason God allows us to go through this phase is it forms us into truly compassionate, loving people if we allow it to work its truth into our lives. This is the painful birth canal through which every spiritually alive person must eventually pass. (Romans 8: 22-23) Instead of seeing only a black and white world of “good people who think and do like I’ve learned to do” and “bad people who don’t,” we learn to grieve a broken, evil world where people created good in God’s image get hurt and deceived and then hurt and deceive each other. We realize that “I’m no different—I need God’s forgiveness and leadership just as much as everyone else.”
Jesus pointed out the difference between the Religious Pharisee who prayed, “God thank you I’m not like that Tax Collector Sinner over there,” and the Tax Collector who prayed, “God have mercy on me, help me.” We realize the line between good and evil isn’t “out there,” it runs right through my heart. That’s why I need what Jesus did to count for me, and it’s why I need God (and usually this realization at a deeper level creates in us compassion and empathy for those who struggle or hurt, and even those trapped doing hurtful, evil things). Jesus told the Religious people stuck in the growth phase, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” As we allow God to change our hearts, we emerge from this Desert Phase with a far deeper experience of God’s love and a far greater capacity to love others. This is a truly maturing faith.
My own experience is on the backside of these Desert times, which I went through an incredibly intense one this year, and two years ago—on the backside there’s an internal joy and depth of life that’s just amazing. It makes no sense, I can’t really even explain it. It’s the experience of that Living Water Jesus talked about that comes from your innermost being—it’s a gift from God that refreshes after the parched dryness of the Desert. Only after experiencing this multiple times have I come to understand a verse that always perplexed me: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5) I now “get this” experientially. I’m convinced God doesn’t cause the sufferings (any more than God caused the sufferings of Jesus). But God allows them for a time and uses them to form willing people into truly compassionate, loving people who can be His Body serving a broken, hurting world. Studies on spiritual growth show that people identify times of trials and suffering as the greatest catalyst to forming who they are today.
Something to reflect on this New Year is the question, “Does my view of spiritual growth include seasons of trials and suffering?” “If not, why not?” “Am I prepared to endure so that God can birth something strong in me through it—or will it all be for nothing?”