If you’ve ever been to the top of a mountain, you know nothing quite beats the experience. Sure, the hike to the top was difficult, but nothing beats the sense of fulfillment of overcoming an obstacle in order to enjoy a beautiful view. Sure, you could probably just Google images from the top of the mountain but everyone knows that’s just not the same. The struggle adds immeasurable value.
There is no denying that our world today tends to want easy access to blessing — without having to endure the harsh lessons of a wilderness. Therefore, it may profit us to discover what a desert experience can offer.
Deserts inspire worship
My first encounter with the enormity of the Sinai desert left a deep impact on me. Standing in the desert, I felt vulnerable and small. Rock and sand stretched for miles around me, and the dry heat was draining and relentless. The barren mountains towered above, prompting me to lift my gaze.
It is no wonder many think monotheism was birthed in the desert. Idolatry flourishes amongst fruitfulness and abundance, as the gods of Canaan demonstrate. Rivers and their creatures provide a natural focus for our adoration. But in the emptiness of the wilderness, there is only one God.
The philosopher, Alain de Botton, describes deserts as ‘sublime places’ that engender awe and teach us our place in the world. He concludes that in the desert, ‘The sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship’.
Perhaps that’s the reason God led Israel through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. It played a significant role in His overall plan, which is revealed in Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh: ‘”Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness”’.
So, why did the Spirit of God lead Jesus Christ into the wilderness before His public ministry began? And why did an angel of the Lord tell Philip to travel the desert road? Deserts inspire worship.
Deserts test hearts
Not only was I overwhelmed by the shocking beauty of the Sinai desert, but I was also impacted by its severity. A desert is not an easy place to remain for a lengthy period of time. As we entered, we were instructed to drink plenty of water, stay together as a group and follow the guide’s directions. These may seem like simple requirements, but some members of the group immediately ignored them—and they paid the price for doing so. Many of them soon became dehydrated.
After that, it became clear that this desert was not a casual tourist spot; breaking the guide’s instructions could lead to serious consequences. He told us, ‘If you don’t do what you are told, we all must return.’
Thankfully, the guide allowed us to continue. But it was obvious we had failed a simple test.
Think about how much greater the consequences were for Israel when they entered the same desert! They, too, failed their test and were not permitted to continue. Deserts test hearts.
Deserts remove distractions
Even though deserts are places of testing, they also play other roles. Let’s take a look at when God led Israel into the desert during the time of Hosea. His purpose for doing this was twofold.
First, God wanted to reignite Israel’s love for Him and remove the idols in her life. The prophet writes, ‘“In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked.”’
For Israel, the desert became a place of both intimacy and surgery. It was a clean and sacred space. A sanctuary.
I found St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai to be a ‘thin place’. This is the term that the monastic community uses to describe the Island of Iona, which is located on the west coast of Scotland. As Ian Adams explains, a ‘thin place’ is a place where the separation ‘between earth and Mystery, between us and Other, between now and Always is somehow diminished.’
While my companions climbed the mountain in the early hours, I was left alone with my thoughts. I had time to reflect on the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, which was the priceless document that had been found in the monastery in the middle of the nineteenth century. This document forms the basis for modern translations of the Bible. In the midst of this place of worship, I was challenged to discard the unimportant and re-examine the urgent. Deserts remove distractions.
Deserts reveal identity
The reason we tend to have these reflections in deserts isn’t just because of the geography, but because of the time we spend in them.
Jesus, for example, spent forty days in the wilderness. Moses had to endure forty years. The significance of the different timeframes is difficult to ascertain—but in both cases, time played a necessary role in the test.
To use Rabbi Heschel’s description of the Sabbath, Israel’s season in the wilderness was a ‘sanctuary in time’. In our increasingly busy world, where the pace is unyielding, we need a similar sanctuary. Deserts provide us with a place of timelessness; city lights are dimmed, and the lights of the heavens become magnified. It is here that truth is somehow revealed—and challenged.
Before Jesus Christ was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for His examination, God announced His identity during His baptism. This was the truth Satan seized on at the end of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. He started his temptations with the words: ‘If you are the Son of God…’. It was an attempt to undermine Jesus’ trust in God as His Father; after all, what father would fail to protect a son or provide food in a time of need?
Despite these temptations, Jesus passed the test of identity. He knew who He was. And because of that, Jesus had the security and humility that was needed to wash the disciples’ feet later in His ministry. Identity is the precursor to effective ministry.
After forty years in the wilderness, Moses had an encounter with God at the burning bush. It was both a revelation of God’s Name and a revelation of his own identity. This prepared Moses for the task ahead, which was the liberation of a nation. In both of these cases, their times in the wilderness had exposed their inner worlds. Deserts reveal identity.