Welcome to the Desert

by LTC Todd Plotner, USA

At the National Training Center in the high desert of California, members of all the Armed Services come to face their most rigorous training challenge: a stark, unforgiving desert, where the elements seem merciless. Summer temperatures routinely exceed 120oF and 30 to 40 mph winds frequently churn stinging and blinding sandstorms. This environment hones combat skills and disciplines minds and bodies for the challenges to come.

We who live and work here have a greeting for new arrivals, "Welcome to the desert!"

The desert can also be a place of spiritual preparation. Most of us yearn for the spiritual mountaintop experience--few ask God for the desert. Yet the desert is exactly where the Lord guides His people to demonstrate His provision, reveal His purpose, and refine their character.

We can find hope and reassurance in considering why God brings His people to the desert:

To Lead Us to a Better Place

God delivered His people from slavery and led them through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, intending to reinforce their dependence, perseverance, and humility (Deuteronomy 8:2). Tragically, the people were not teachable. Despite water, manna, and quail, most refused to accept deliverance and blessing on God's terms. Their bodies fell in the desert, and they never entered the rest that God intended for them.

We cannot dwell in the freedom of His promises until acknowledging that freedom comes wholly and completely from God's hands. Moses himself learned the hard way, in his own humbling forty-year desert sojourn, reduced from prince to shepherd before ready to become deliverer.

A friend once counseled, "Don't take forty years to make an eleven-day journey" (Deuteronomy 1:2). God will invest all the time and effort needed to prepare His people for blessing--the real question is how long we must wander the desert until we are ready to receive God's blessings on God's terms.

To Get Our Attention

Elijah found God in the desert. Only days after the greatest vindication of his ministry--the defeat of the prophets of Baal upon Mount Carmel--Elijah was on the run from the murderous threats of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 18:16-19:3). Crushed by self-pity, Elijah could go no further in his own strength (1 Kings 19:4). How many of us have reached that point? Are you exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually-overcome by the burden of personal and professional responsibilities and a lifetime of spiritual opposition?

God first granted Elijah the physical strength for his solitary journey into the desert: "Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you" (1 Kings 19:6-7). How many lives God has changed through a welcome meal and much-needed rest! Then the Lord brought Elijah into the desert. The desert is quiet--so quiet that we can hear the still, small voice that our culture screams to conquer. God strengthened Elijah's body at an oasis, but He strengthened Elijah's soul in the desert.

"What are you doing here, Elijah?" God asked in 1 Kings 19:9. Many of us need the same confrontation. Remarkably, God did not rebuke or discipline Elijah--He offered a firm but loving reminder that even when we are desperate, the Lord of all creation is firmly in control of our lives and circumstances. Regardless of how lonely the desert may seem, we are never alone.

To Prepare Us for His Service

Both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist entered the rigorous isolation of the desert prior to the public unveiling of their ministries (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 1:80). God tested their spirits, proving them fully prepared for the challenges to come. At the low point of Christ's hunger and fatigue, the enemy confronted Him with temptations common to all who dare serve in Christian leadership: using power to meet personal needs and wants, position and authority for personal glory and the acclaim of men, and compromise in order to gain power and build a kingdom of this world. Christ did not compromise! He was armed with His Father's Word.

The desert can be a place of powerful temptation. At times, we may feel ready to do anything within our power to escape that place. But the God who calls us to the desert is the only One who can deliver us. And He will only do this once His purpose has been accomplished. When in the desert, follow Christ's victorious example and rely earnestly--desperately--upon God's Word. The enemy will flee, and the Lord Himself will minister to our exhausted but overcoming spirits.

Are you in the desert now?

Take heart. The Lord has brought you to this place for His purpose, and He will not rest until you are fully prepared. He can humble us until we abandon any self-deceiving worthiness and acknowledge His provision. He can isolate us until we are ready to hear the still, small voice of His Spirit and actually listen--ready to find reassurance and fellowship among His people. He can lovingly set us apart, trying us in the desert until we are "tested and approved in Christ" (Romans 16:10).

Man was not made for the desert. But perhaps the desert was made for man. Remember, you are never alone, regardless of how lonely and desperate your personal circumstances seem. Your loving Father is there for you.

Welcome to the desert.

Todd is currently serving as ROTC Professor of Military Science at Washington State University.
Adapted from the August 2009 issue of Command magazine.