“I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot.”
Halfway through the Christain observance of Lent, we join the world in the wilderness of COVID-19. “I hadn’t planned on giving this much up for Lent,” someone wryly posted on social media. None of us had, and the losses, both large and small, continue to mount.
And though we know that Lent ends on Easter Sunday, we have no idea when we’ll be able to leave this COVID-19 wilderness.
The not-knowing is precisely what makes this a real-life wilderness experience.
These are times when we can experience God in ways that sustain our hope and give us courage to persevere and grow. For most of us, this isn’t the first wilderness we’ve experienced, nor it will be the last. We know that a wilderness experience changes us, for good or ill. How we are changed is determined, in large measure, by our response to circumstances beyond our control.
Jesus’ wilderness time harkens back to the 40 years that the ancient Isrealites spent in the wilderness after their escape from slavery. The biblical books of Exodus and Numbers tell their wilderness stories, so wonderfully human and spiritually powerful.
They underscore several wilderness lessons for us all to learn and spiritual tasks to master.
The first wilderness task is acceptance. No matter how we got here, we’re all in the wilderness now and there’s nothing to be gained by complaint or blame. We’re bound to experience a wide range of emotions in response to this new reality, sometimes in a single day. Allowing ourselves to feel that emotional range is part of what acceptance requires, while recognizing that not every emotion needs to be acted upon or taken as the sole interpreter of reality. The sooner we accept our new reality and make our home here, the better off we’ll be.
A second wilderness task is to focus on daily sustenance, distinguishing between wants and needs. God provided wilderness food for the ancient Israelites in the form of manna, a simple substance that fell from the sky each night. It wasn’t fancy fare, but it sustained them. Nor could they hoard manna, for whenever they tried, the food would rot. Likewise for us, simple meals and simple pleasures are what will sustain us as we must let go of so many hoped-for events and celebrations. Nor can we plan very far ahead with any certainty. Focusing on the gifts and tasks of each day helps us experience God’s grace through small things that we might otherwise miss.
A third wilderness task here is learning to share the responsibilities of caring for the wider community. God originally called Moses to lead the people from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness toward their land of promise. But the burden was too much for one person to bear, and Moses cried out to God for help. God instructed Moses to gather 70 others in one place, and God then took some of the spirit of leadership entrusted to Moses and gave it to the 70. For those of us who have resources, energy, and gifts to share, now is the time for us to step into the circle of leadership and provide whatever help we can.
A fourth and most important wilderness task that I’ll mention here is learning to trust that God is present. While stripped of so much, we can experience a depth of spiritual connection to God utterly unique to the wilderness. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and completely honest in our prayers, our relationship with God in Christ becomes more real, a source of daily guidance and abiding love. I personally love the fact that the people of Israel felt completely free to complain and rail against God. “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?” they demanded to know. (Psalm 78:19) As it turned out, God could and still can. It may not be the table we had hoped for, but it will be enough.
More than once, biblical writers describe the ancient Israelites as people who wandered in the wilderness. So if you feel as if you’re wandering these days, rest assured that you’re not alone. We’re all walking more by faith than by sight now. But just because we’re wandering, doesn’t mean we are lost, for we are always walking in God’s sight. Keep following the light that shines in darkness and trusting in the One who promises us to be with us always. We’ll get through this wilderness together.