The Bible is written in the language of ordinary people, not scholars. It is chock full of pictures and metaphors, not technical jargon. Shepherds and sheep, trees and fruit, soldiers and weapons, bread and wine – all these images resonate with us in far more fundamental ways than complex, unembellished prose ever could. One such image, reoccurring often in the Bible, is that of a desert.
The metaphor of a desert is easy to understand. It is dry and hot, showing few signs of life. Survival is difficult. Everything looks empty.
Mentions of deserts in the Bible often hearken back to the forty years that primitive Israel spent wandering in the Arabian Desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt but before entering Canaan, the land God promised to give them. For four decades, a nation of people lived in tents, without farms, without stability or knowing what to expect from the next day. They lived off of food called manna, provided directly by God, and with particular rules: each day, they could only gather enough manna to feed themselves that day. If they tried to gather food for the next day (except on the day before the Sabbath), all of it would rot and stink (Exodus 16).
When Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread, I suspect he had this story in mind.
Individual human life has its own “desert periods” too, the life of faith not excluded. Our emotions and imaginations go up and down continually. It’s part of being human, part of existing in time. Sometimes in the Christian life, God feels close and life makes sense. Faith and obedience still may not be easy, but love for God, people, and life feels right and comes spontaneously. These times are blessings from God and ought to be relished. They do not last forever, however.
“Wandering in the desert” is just as much a part of the life of faith as “flourishing in the promised land” is. Many Psalms testify to this, two of my favorites being Psalms 42 and 43, which may be read as one continuous prayer.
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?” Psalm 42:1-3
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:8
In this [in being born again to a living hope; in receiving an imperishable inheritance] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:3-7
It is in the desert, in trials and persecution, in suffering and loneliness, that a faith “more precious than gold” results, all to the glory of God – which, amazingly, believers will participate in – when Jesus returns. In one of my favorite C. S. Lewis books, “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis says this, in the voice of a devil instructing his junior apprentice in the fiendish ways of leading humanity astray: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
That’s when the Christian becomes dangerous to evil, dangerous to distrust, dangerous to self-reliance. That’s when our prayer for daily bread, for the day by day physical and spiritual sustenance from God, becomes real. That’s when our joy becomes “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) because it is founded on nothing else than the amazing sufficiency of God to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.
When all that’s within me feels dry
This is my prayer in my hunger and need
My God is the God who provides