All of us, at one time or another, experience the wilderness. I remember just such a season back in 2002. I called it a season for ‘burying my face in the dust’. As I tried to articulate my thoughts, I wrote at the time that I was ‘easily broken, like a twig in a gale…. The world sits heavy on my shoulders; even gifts are burdens that weigh like boulders.’
Eventually I pulled through. My spirits lifted, not least with the arrival of a beautiful daughter, and a new calling as a father. Years later I was drawn back to today’s passage, and spotted something I hadn’t before. Jesus was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the desert (v1). In other words, his wilderness season was not a defeat or a mistake, it was part of his spiritual journey, one which God used to equip him for what lay ahead.
I too came to realise that what God had done in me was also significant in that season. It was undeniably painful, but also purifying. I learned my limits, but also my strengths. I had a greater capacity to empathise with others’ troubles. I was truly grateful at how strong and patient my wonderful wife was. And through it all, God had fathered me, and led me out the other side. Although, unlike Jesus, some of my wilderness season had been of my own making, nevertheless I could affirm that I too had been ‘led by the Spirit’ through the desert.
Desert seasons are horrible. Nobody asks for them. Few of us see the point of them until much later. And yet, God is in them. As Elijah found out all those years ago, God does some of his best work in remote places. He is found not just in the wind and fire but in the gentle whisper, the sound of drawn-out silence.
And after Jesus had undergone his own testing, he returned ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (v14). Note the change of language – before he was led by the Spirit; now he was empowered. That is often the outcome of a fruitful desert time. We may carry wounds: but these very wounds become our source of authority and gifting. The pain of loss turns into a capacity to counsel others. Our new-found humility enables us to carry responsibility better. Our learning of spiritual disciplines to counteract the desert experience become the practices which fuel our lives from now on. In other words: our weakness, surrendered to God, becomes our strength. We no longer live on bread alone – our physical capacities – but on God’s sustaining word.
Maybe this is a desert time for you. Take heart – God is in it. It may not feel like that now: but you will bounce back, in the power of the Spirit. ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’