The first time I saw a desert, I was absolutely captivated by its beauty. In my head, I had built it up to be a wasteland, and I expected it to be completely devoid of life. Instead, I found myself time and again on top of mountains, discovering new plants and being cooled by the arid breeze as I looked out on the horizon.
I was surprised by how much I loved the desert because everything I had heard about it had been less than ideal. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years and begged God to let them go back to Egypt to die. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days to literally be tempted by Satan. So basically, the desert was not a place I wanted to visit.
Of course, in the spiritual life when we talk about going into the desert, we are not referring to the Southwestern United States. No, there is a spiritual desert that all of us are familiar with to some extent. There are parts of our hearts and our lives that are extremely dry. In normal circumstances, we avoid those parts of ourselves and our pasts at all costs.
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The spiritual desert is not a place I would willingly choose to visit either. And yet, God says to you and to me through the prophet Hosea, “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her heart” (2:14, RSV).
Initially when I thought about this beautiful image, I thought about the way that God used difficult times in my life to give grace. After experiencing deeper and more intense suffering, though, the spiritual desert has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
Times of deep suffering are very much like how I imagined the physical desert, seemingly absent of life. Suffering is inherently lonely because there is no one who experiences it exactly like you experience it. You can try to put words to it, but no one ever fully understands the suffering that you are experiencing.
The desert fathers and mothers ventured into the wilderness to encounter God and be with him alone. When we suffer, we have been placed in the desert as well. The question is: Will we find God? Or will our pain and suffering consume us?
When we are in the desert of suffering, there is only one other person who actually knows what we are experiencing, knows our pain and our thoughts and our feelings that we could not possibly put into words. Jesus Christ is right there in our pain and in our suffering.
It is painful and difficult to realize that our doctors or therapists or spouses or friends or our trusted confidants cannot grasp the depth and reality of our suffering. And just like the desert is a place of temptation in Scripture, the spiritual desert is a place of temptation in our lives. The loneliness of suffering creates a situation where we can be easily tempted to think that we are alone, unknown and uncared-for.
But God does not say that he will only lead us into the desert. No, he says that he will speak tenderly to our hearts. God promises not only to see us through the desert and lead us to springs of water, but promises also to make our spiritual deserts beautiful.
The beauty of our spiritual deserts, though, is not observable from the outside. Encountering God in the depths of our being, realizing that he is present, holding our heart and kissing our wounds, is not something that can be easily summarized for others. This intimacy with God is not something that we can create on our own. It is truly a gift of the desert.
Our experience of loneliness when we are hurting places us in a position of solitude before God. This can be downright terrifying as we are stripped of our sense of control and self-sufficiency. But God does not use this desert to chastise us and tell us what we have done wrong. No, he speaks tenderly.
The tender voice of God in a spiritual desert is like the dry breeze that brings sweet relief in the scorching heat. God tells us that we are deeply known in all that we experience. He knows us more than we could ever have imagined. And he loves everything he sees.
God dwells in the human heart. Once everything else is stripped away, no matter how painful it feels, that is our greatest source of hope. That is what gives us the courage to survive in the desert.