Finding joy in the desert—in the trials of life—is possible if I focus on the purpose of my trip through the desert of life.
When I was in the Marine Corps we used to have maneuvers in the Mojave Desert once a year or so. I don’t recall how often they were because getting chosen to “play” the war games was a hit-or-miss proposition. Once one could go, another time one could not go. It was uneven selection to say the least. We (the peons) gave these “games” a derisive title to demonstrate our displeasure. We chose that sarcastic term to note our displeasure with being in the desert. If selected for these war games, one could count on living with snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlers as well as 100+ temperatures during the day and really chilly temps at night. The food—well, let’s just say the enemy didn’t always carry a rifle! One year I got to “volunteer” to participate. It was…well I was there.
During the games I had occasion to speak with some real whiners. I mean, these guys whined about everything. At one point I got so annoyed with the whining about everything that I asked them “Why did you enlist in the Marine Corps if you didn’t want to do stuff like this?” Their answer? “We didn’t have anything else to do so we joined. But we didn’t think they (the Marines) were really serious about the war stuff.” And yes, they were serious!
I looked at these guys and shared a bit of wisdom I had gleaned through my intense (but short) Marine Corps career: “Since you’re here and you’re not going anywhere else for the near future, why not make the best of your experience?” That fell on deaf ears since they kept whining. But the neat thing (for me) was that I out ranked them. So I got to tell them to go do the menial tasks that no one else wanted to do. That is what happens to whiners in the desert (or anywhere else). If one whines, one will be sent away again to an even more unpleasant place. This made their journey in the desert more distasteful. Instead of finding something positive in their desert experience—and there were some fun things that happened—they chose to look only at the negative. They chose to learn nothing, enjoy nothing, and really to take steps backwards in their respective careers. Isn’t that sad?
I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians sometimes do the same thing as these two Marines. Sometimes we whine in the desert of testing when we should be dancing in that desert. I know I have done this. Hopefully I’m learning to enjoy the time wandering, knowing that God is still leading me. But it can be tough.
When Israel was led out of Egypt, they wandered for forty years in the desert. Looking at a map one will discover that the Promised Land was not really that far from Egypt. So what happened? They decided not to trust God to give them the land that He had promised them. They were afraid of the inhabitants. So God said “Fine, out to the desert you go!” And they wandered. And wandered. And wandered. But they didn’t just wander. God fed them. He provided for them. Oh yeah, they whined about this too.
Now I know that wandering in the desert isn’t fun or really all that pleasant. But whining about it does not serve any purpose. God had taken them to the desert for a purpose. And He was going to achieve His purpose. So whining and complaining about it wasn’t going to shorten the journey, only lengthen it. So why did they complain and whine? More importantly, when God has taken me through these desert experiences, why have I complained and whined? Ouch! It always stings when things get personal!
The battle is with selfishness
I’ve come to the conclusion that one of my biggest battles—if not my biggest battles—is with selfishness. I want my way when I want it. God, being the heavenly parent that He is, decides when (and if) I should have something or go somewhere. I, on the other hand, am His whiny little brat wanting my way. Will complaining about the desert get me out of there quickly? Or, will learning my lesson and moving forward get me out of there quickly? Well, I think there is third, better option. And I’ve just learned this recently. Perhaps I’ve learned this lesson through just the amount of time I’ve spent in the desert of life. Maybe it just took longer to get through my thick skull. I don’t know why this lesson took so long to sink in, but it has finally sunk in. And it is a good one. At least I think it is a good. What’s the lesson you ask? What have I learned? I’ve learned not to whine in the desert. But that isn’t all there is.
Don’t just endure – EMBRACE! – the desert
I’ve also learned not to simply endure the desert. Sometimes when we don’t want to whine, we hunker down and simply endure what is happening. Simply enduring is a good, but not the best, attitude I should have. So what kind of attitude should I have now?
How about enjoying the desert experience? I mean, hey, I’m in the desert. It is hot, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. It is difficult to walk in sand. Why should I find joy in this?
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 NASB
It seems so simple. The purpose of the desert is to perfect me. Why has this simple truth eluded me until now? It is because I’m a selfish person. I want my way when I want it and how I want it to happen. God has been burning that out of me all these years. Now it isn’t all gone and I’m not sure if it will ever be all gone in this life. But I’m less selfish now than I used to be. But I’m more selfish than I should be. But let’s return to finding joy in the middle of the desert.
The desert where I have existed really revolves around where I live and how I minister. I used to think that I needed to live in a “Red State” to be really happy. (a red state is considered more conservative politically) I live in a very “Blue State” (quite liberal politically and socially) But I’ve learned that living in a “Blue State” can be quite fulfilling. There are innumerable opportunities to share Christ and His gospel rather than the gospel of political conservatism. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still a very conservative person politically, socially, economically, and theologically. But only one of those subjects is really important to me. Only one affects me for eternity. The rest are just temporary.
I also used to think that being a Pastor was the best thing for me. In fact, I felt it was the ONLY thing for me. Boy, was I wrong! Now I still think I fit as a Pastor. I still believe my gifts and abilities fit well with being a Pastor. But I don’t need the title. I’ve learned that the title is nice but not absolutely necessary for me to exercise my gifts. I’ve seen the destructive power of lusting and demanding a title in men I’ve known for years. It isn’t pretty. And I don’t want to be like that.
So finding joy in the desert—in the trials of life—is possible if I focus on the purpose of my trip through the desert of life. There are snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlers in the desert. It is hot, difficult to get traction sometimes, lonely, and desolate. And an absolute joy to visit so that I may be more like my Savior.
Learning to enjoy the desert experience is difficult but oh so rewarding. It takes time to learn tis truth but once learned it is never forgotten.
I look forward to the desert now. I look forward to the difficulties. I look forward to the heat. Yeah, I enjoy the desert now. Not for the experience, but for the result. Instead of whining and complaining about the desert experiences of life, I’ve learned to dance in the desert.