No one wants to be in the wilderness season of their life or calling in ministry. It’s a place where the crowds don’t see you, it’s a place where your weaknesses are exposed, and it’s in the wilderness that the motivations of your heart are tested and brought to light. The wilderness is the time in your life when your roots are tested to see if God can build upon your life in the way He wants without destroying you or those around you. God didn’t lead you into this place just so you could barley make it out alive, no He brought you there to thrive. Because if your life and relationship with God can thrive in the wilderness then it will be able to survive the chaos and demands of your everyday life and ministry.
Many people don’t make it out of the wilderness. This is a truth we must come to grips with, as it is easy to assume that your life is just on autopilot and you will end up where God wants you to be no matter how you live or react to your situations. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, the wilderness is the place of refinement and while some make it out to the other side there are many who simply die spiritually (or morally) in that place.
Or there are others who become overly comfortable in the wilderness, where no one can see them, and they can do as they please. Some misinterpret the wilderness as the fulfilment of their callings where they go and “suffer for Jesus” for the betterment of unnamed “others.” Then there are the few who perceive the wilderness as being a deserved judgment on their life that they must embrace indefinitely.
We can look to stories about the wilderness such as Jesus’s temptations, Elijah’s refuge, Moses’s escape or the migration of the children of Israel from Egypt. In all of these examples we see a pattern emerge: God calls a person or group and manifests in their life, then they end up outside of the comforts of home and into a place where they have to either prove their dependence upon God or prove that their hearts are in line with God’s.
Jesus resisted the temptation of Satan, Elijah learned the secret of hearing God’s voice, Moses became humble and encountered God in the burning bush while tending Jethro’s sheep and the people of Israel were refined into a nation which could enter the Promised Land. Jesus left the wilderness in power and authority, Elijah had his strength and faith restored, and Moses understood his role in God’s plan. These three men left the wilderness forever changed, they were changed in a deep and profound way and it is because of that change that they were able to leave the wilderness intact.
These three examples not only survived but thrived, unlike many nameless faces who have gone into the wilderness and never returned. We see this with the children of Israel as the majority of them died in their season of wilderness, as only those under the age of twenty along with Joshua and Caleb survived. They rejected their wilderness journey, they rejected God’s goodness, they refused to trust God and they resisted God’s attempts to take Egypt out of their hearts. Who knows how many others have fallen victim to these same failings when they went into their own wilderness experiences? This is what I mean by saying that entering the wilderness is a guarantee, but leaving it is not.
But we have another example of someone with a calling from God on their life who had to enter the wilderness, David.
The Wilderness Is Not To Be Feared
As we’ve seen over the past few months the story of David is one which is rich examples of how someone who is called by God is to live and fulfill that calling. We’ve seen so far the path of David’s life which followed the 4 A’s of Anointing, Apprenticeship, Activation and Announcement. Normally we want God to take us straight from the place of Anointing and initial calling and carry us directly into the place of Announcement where we are recognized as being in the fullness of our calling, just as when David was formally made king of Judah and later Israel.
However, in reality to get to the places of activation and announcement we (and David) must go through the wilderness. In the previous article I spoke of how David entered the wilderness because of Saul’s obsession with killing him. I spoke of the need for the wilderness in our lives but now I want to take you to the next level where we actually thrive and see the true purpose that we were brought into this place.
In some ways the wilderness is like finally arriving at your dream amusement park (be it Disney, Universal, Six Flags or even Walley World) only to find out that it was closed, indefinitely, without warning. What would you do in that situation? How would you react to reaching what you though was the pinnacle of your perceived calling and life purpose only to find the gates shut, the lights off and a bumbling security guard keeping you from your dream?
I know the wilderness of life isn’t a fun place, I’ve been there, more than once, I know what it’s like to go into that season kicking and screaming and finally when I was exhausted from all of that, I saw the wilderness for what it really was. I saw it as the place where my personal failings were brought to the surface, not publicly but privately so they wouldn’t be (or not as much) an issue later on in life. I’ve had three such seasons in my life, with one of them lasting almost a decade, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without that time of hiding and refinement.
Much of what I write about, be it in the articles or my books found their beginnings in those seasons of darkness and wilderness. I can honestly look back at several of those times in my life and say that they were worth it. They were painful, I was gripped by hopelessness, I stood face to face with my own expectation, and I lost my sense of purpose. I grappled with the ideas of God’s goodness, faithfulness and love in not just my own life but the world in general. In that place I was forced to ask the real questions most people in church don’t dare to ask or think about (at least out loud). The questions that go beyond a normal motivational message, the questions that determine ones life.
Despite all that I experienced, lost, learned, forgot, relearned, suffered, tolerated or enjoyed I always saw that distant shimmering light at the edge of the horizon and did all I could to follow it.
At the tail end of my last wilderness season God spoke to me through a picture. One day in prayer after reading A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller, I finally saw what was going on in my life from God’s perspective. I saw myself walking through a desert with rolling dunes which saw their sand being carried off by the wind. It was not long before dawn when the sky was dark but there was enough light to see where you were going.
Among the stars was one which sat right along the horizon which was brighter that the rest and pulsed its inviting light. I watched myself march endlessly over each dune. At times briskly other times I struggled and dragged myself over them with my arms. At one point I gave up from the exhaustion, it tried to reach that light but my body gave out and slowly the winds and sand began to bury me. All I saw around myself was lifeless desert and sand and emptiness.
At that point my perspective shifted as if I was lifted up by as if by a crane and I could see beyond the horizon behind me. I couldn’t recognize it because I didn’t see a barren desert but lush trees and an oasis the size of a forest. The new life was creeping along the sands behind me but just beyond my ability to see it, and when I stopped it stopped as well. Then I saw myself again buried in the sand and I lifted myself out of the dune and continued the march towards the light.
Even in your season of wilderness you can have an effect on people, you can grow, develop and achieve great things when you work with God. That was the lesson I learned that day, the lesson of not needing to see the fulfillment of each of my steps but to trust the God would honor my faithfulness in following Him no matter how much my mind or body begged me to stop and submit to the wilderness, with its darkness and cool breeze. God is always watching and God is always working, even when we think our lives or experiences don’t’ matter or that we have been forgotten the refining process continues. Then when you emerge from that process your heart is ready to be who God called you to be. This is the truth you can’t have a testimony without a test and you can’t be in ministry without a refined heart.
But enough about me let’s look back at David and how he navigated this season in the wilderness.
Now Is The Time Of Activation
After fleeing from Saul we see that David didn’t just go hide off in a cave and wait for Saul to die. Nor did David just stay out of the way of the world during this time of testing and preparation. What we see here is that the season of the wilderness not only helped to refine David but also gave him the opportunity to see his gifts and traits needed to be a good king begin to blossom.
1 Samuel 22:2 And everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him. So he became captain over them. And there were about four hundred men with him.
Even though David was not the king of Israel he was still a leader and a person God had singled out for great things, and many people took notice of that. In the wilderness David began to lead a group of people of his own, unlike the soldiers who had previously been obligated to follow his orders. From all over the wilderness of southern Judah people began to flock to David to be led by him even despite Saul’s persecution.
David began to see what it would be like to be the king, but before David was king over a nation he had to prove to himself, to others and to God that he could lead this small band of followers. Because the same lessons apply to leadership no matter the size of the congregation, if you fail in certain areas with a small group you will surly fail in the same ways with a larger group.
This idea even applies to ministry, often when people feel a calling to be in some form of ministry, they automatically desire to have the biggest platform, the grandest reach and the most influence possible. Many people don’t value the baby steps it actually takes to get to those levels, and they think that they can automatically succeed if they are given the grandest platform first. In reality this is like teaching a teenager to drive by handing them the keys to a racecar instead of something they can handle. It seems that less and less people appreciate the process of incremental promotion and success. Before you can succeed with a congregation you must succeed with at group, and before you can succeed with at group you first have to succeed with an individual.
Even my own life I have been a youth pastor, a Christian wrestling promoter, a home church pastor, a home group leader, a blogger, a teacher, a coffee maker, a chair stacker and a curriculum writer. I didn’t just start with the platform I have, I worked my way through all of these assignments and opportunities and learned along the way so I could handle the greater opportunities which came later. This is the same lesson we see here with David, though he was not the official king he learned how to lead people so that when his kingship manifested he knew what to do and how to do it.
We see this idea play out in places such as 1 Samuel 23:1-13 where David and his 600 men delivered the town of Keliah from the Philistines. David wasn’t a king, he wasn’t apart of Israel’s army, he had no official status but he did what a king would do in that situation, he saved his people from an attack. He didn’t let the city fall because it wasn’t “his turn” to lead Israel or to officially protect the people. In that moment David didn’t tell himself that someone else more qualified would eventually show up, no he acted out the fullness of his calling right then and there and the city was spared.
Did that victory make David king, no, and even that victory wasn’t the end of the story. even after that accomplishment life and troubles continued, soon Saul found out about the battle and send his army to Keliah. It was only through the guidance of God which was revealed through Abiathar and the ephod (Uruim and Thummim possibly) that David fled the city he just saved and went back into the wilderness.
This Is Just The Beginning Of This Story
For David the wilderness was the time of the Activation of his calling, but not the full manifestation of it. It was the time when his gifts and abilities began to mature and strengthen so he was ready for the inevitable day when Saul passed, and the crown would be placed on his head. Next time we will go even deeper into David’s time of activation and see how it carried him out of the wilderness and into the place of Announcement when it was proclaimed it the nation that David was now king.
But before I close I have this question to ask: where are you in this journey? Are you at the beginning where the call on your life has begun to stir? Are you in the place where that fire is being kindled? Are you where David is in this part of the story where God through the wilderness is doing His work of activation and refinement? Understanding where you are in this process will help you succeed in what God has called you to be. You must be honest with yourself and God about what’s happening in your heart and life so that you can survive the place you are in and be effective in not just ministry but you entire life.
From Surviving to Thriving in the Wilderness Pt. 1 Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.