Recently, I have been all but parked in the story of the Israelites’ journey into the Promised Land. Maybe it’s because I feel like I too have been wandering in the wilderness for a long, long time. I’ve often puzzled over what the purpose of it all has been, and though I doubt I will ever fully understand all of the reasons for this part of my own journey, I think much of anyone’s desert season is explained in Moses’ speech to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:2-5.
He tells them, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out, and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.”
This word “discipline” in the original Hebrew is yasar. Yasar does not merely mean “to punish.” It means “to correct, to instruct, or to train.” This is not punitive language; this is purposeful. The heart behind the desert discipline was not one of holy ire over disobedience; it was that of a loving and patient father determined to do what was painful to protect and form his erring, immature child.
Israel was led by God into the desert for a time of testing and training in humility because they simply were not yet ready to be in their Promised Land. They did not yet know the character and power of their God as evidenced by their responses of cowardice and retreat not only during their journey from Egypt, but also when they caught a glimpse of what it would take to conquer the land God had sent them to. They needed to encounter Yahweh in such a way that they would be changed and ready to be in the place to which He was calling them.
In their desert, the Israelites came to trust the consistency of God who provided manna every single day without fail. They experienced the power of God who kept their clothes from falling apart for four decades. They learned about the kindness of God who physically protected their rebellious feet as they roamed the hot desert. The purpose of their desert was to be trained, ready to obey their God. Now they actually trusted their God because they knew Him. Instead of a band of ragged refugees, they entered the Promised Land as warriors equipped to claim the land God had given them.
What is most humbling and beautiful about the training ground of the desert season is that it is designed to take us to a much deeper place of neediness in our relationship with God. We come to realize that we are shortsighted, powerless, and selfish. Against that backdrop, we experience the kindness of Christ that leads us to repentance and holy clingy-ness. We become those who know to the very core of our beings that we cannot live on our own “bread,” but we hold to “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” with a desperation born only in the desert. Then, and only then, are we ready to enter our Promised Lands.