Not all ‘wilderness’ experiences are the same. Some are caused by sin or disobedience, and some are Holy Spirit training exercises. We must know what kind of ‘wilderness’ we are in so we can know how to respond.
Sin can cause our wilderness
Sin can reroute us into a spiritual wasteland. When the Israelites rebelled against the Lord, He multiplied their years in the desert: “You will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have Me against you,” Num 14:34. Most of Israel’s wilderness was a ‘wilderness of opposition’ – God’s opposition to their disobedience and unbelief (Hebrews 3:17-19).
Sin is an evil power that stands contrary to God. When we allow unresolved sin to grow and become habit, not only do we experience a wilderness of separation, but also of Divine resistance. “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?...That is why Scripture says: God opposes the proud...” James 4:4-6.
How do we get out of that place?
Trying to walk against the stiff headwind of God’s resistance is an unnecessary, exhausting and futile activity. It is the wilderness of opposition. How then do we escape?
James continues, “But He gives grace to the humble. Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
“Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” James 4:6-10. In other words, James is saying, “Repent. Forsake your sin and turn fully to God.”
Repent and turn away
Contrary to popular opinion, ‘repentance’ is not a bad word. It is not the voice of spiritual tyranny or the rant of an angry street preacher waving his Bible and spewing insults at passers-by. Repentance is not legalism. It is not the demand of controlling leaders, bad religion, or an irate God. In fact, repentance is a total reshaping of mind and lifestyle that centres on Jesus Christ.
Genuine repentance is not as much a matter of turning from sin as turning to Jesus. “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:22.
If my destination is north, but I am travelling northeast, it does not help to make a complete U-turn. Making a U-turn is a radical response to finding out I was headed in the wrong direction, but it does not send me in the right direction. It sends me southwest, not north. Change according to my own wisdom is not enough, however radical my new direction may seem to be.
Get re-aligned with Christ
If repentance were always about making 180-degree U-turns, then it would only be for people who live in the most flagrant, vicious sins, moving in a direction precisely opposite to Christ.
Such repentance would have no relevance for those who walk with the Lord, aim to please Him, but get slightly off course. But when we realise that repentance is less about turning from sin than turning to Jesus, we learn that repentance is something that we can do any time the Spirit convicts us even of the subtlest sin. So if we’re only a couple degrees off – maybe an attitude, or mindset, gets out of sync with the Spirit – we can recalibrate so that we’re once again aligned with Christ.
Extended wilderness periods
This is a very important principle. Many have prolonged their wilderness by focusing on the wrong thing. They’ve been dwelling on their failures and shortcomings. They beat themselves up, living under a constant barrage of condemnation and shame.
“I will never overcome this issue. I’ll never be able to live like a true Christian...” Time and time again they try to turn away from their sins, but with no victory. The sense of guilt, shame and unworthiness has even caused some to turn away from Christ. Thus they extend their wilderness indefinitely – a far worse situation than their original struggle.
There is hope for breakthrough
When we turn from sin to Jesus Christ everything changes. Jesus is the beauty of holiness (Rev 1:12-20). Jesus is the baptiser in the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11), who empowers us to live victoriously (Rom 8:13). Jesus is the great high priest who sympathises with our weaknesses and helps us when we’re tempted (Heb 4:14-16). Rather than thinking about how much we’ve failed, let’s focus on Jesus Himself. That’s what repentance is.
If you find yourself in a wilderness caused by sin, rebellion or disobedience, put your eyes back on Jesus and turn to Him with your whole heart. Move in the direction of Christ and you will find your way out of the wilderness of opposition.