There are those who dwell in the desert, not as yearly discipline, or as the unlooked for invitation when life becomes a dust bowl, or even as a place of refuge from whatever or whoever is nipping at our heels.
The actual experience in the desert is nearly always hidden from observation. Others perceive, instead, the transforming results.
Consider Moses, an impetuous, privileged young man turned nomadic shepherd. When, forty years later, God called him as the vehicle of redemption for an oppressed people, he had been formed into the leader of a desert people. His passion had been tempered gradually into compassion, his pride into humility. Even his shepherd’s staff was turned into an instrument of God.
Or think of John the Baptist who “grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). His mind and heart was, from the beginning of his life, formed by something very different than the culture around him, and He spoke with the bold abandon of one who has been shaped in hiddenness for a particular mission.
And then there is Paul, who tells us, “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone…but I went away into Arabia” (Galatian 1:17). The insights he gleaned there in solitude with his Lord laid the trajectory for the rest of his life.
Moses became a desert dweller because there was no other place at that point to go, John the Baptist remained nearly a lifetime in the wilderness before his brief, but essential moment in redemption in history came into being. Paul went willingly to the desert to listen to his newly revealed Lord for the length it took to be prepared to embrace his life reflecting Christ’s light, power and love to the Gentiles.
Not one of these stories are alike except for this observation: God was in the desert with them. In the aloneness of solitude, in the aridity of little water, in the relentlessness of the mundane, they came out different men than when they went in.
Sometimes we can be desert dwellers without the presence of any sand. We are alone, often thirsty, with nothing to occupy our time but our thoughts and the mundane life we live.
And right here lies the secret of desert dwelling. If we will trust God in our deserts, he will not waste any time in this transformative furnace, however long we are dwelling there. Listen in the silence with an open heart. Trust God to provide sufficient spiritual water so that we will not die of thirst. Do the next simple thing in front of us. And believe that we are not desert dwellers any longer than we need to be—for the redemption of our souls and the blessing of our neighbors.