"I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer" (Song 5:6). Of all the painful experiences that the loved of God endure, the most unexpected, the most confusing, and therefore perhaps the most painful, is that of the desert. For the majority of Christians, unfortunately, the desert experience is an endless circular wandering in the repetitive cycle of renewal, followed by failure, then a retreat to Egypt, if only in heart and appetite. For them, though they surely have been removed from Egypt, just as surely, Egypt has never been removed from them. Their hearts run to the things of this world when God hides his face.
However, for those whose hearts have been completely won at the cross, the desert is just a part of that path that grows ever brighter till the full light of day. Though necessary, it is, however, never a cherished part of the journey when God hides from the love-sick pilgrim. On one day, the abiding presence of the Lord is the usual and familiar companion, and the next, He cannot be found. As the days roll on, confidence gives way to perplexity, then desperation as the lover searches for her Beloved.
The desert is where God hides from the one to whom He will join Himself in intimate union. It's the place where He tests, and proves eternal and lasting, the work of grace in the heart of His beloved. It's the place where He humbles and tries the heart of the one with a high calling. It's where we lose our most valued and sacred possession: our own righteousness and strength. It's where we discover our weakness and humanity, because what once came so easily, now doesn't come at all.
Ah, the desert. It's a ruthless and barren landscape where the pilgrim trudges through endless and invariable drudgery, just putting one foot in front of the other, just daily going through life in faithful obedience to the previous command of God. The desperate traveler even questions that fading memory. Was it really God's direction, or just the musings of a heat-crazed and desperate Bedouin? It's where Abraham lied, David drooled, and Peter denied Christ. It's where we do what we swore we would never do in order save our hides. It's where we, who once knew only victory and confidence in a supernatural God, come to know the fear and perplexity of facing our enemies with only our own strength. The desert takes a man or woman who has known only victory, and destroys the self-confidence that masquerades as faith in God by allowing us to discover and flee from our deepest fears. The desert allows us to fail in the area where we believe ourselves to be the strongest.
The desert breaks, humbles, purges, and exchanges. It is necessary. It is highly effective. It is temporary. The pilgrim who has encountered the cross and who truly loves Christ will continue to pray when they can't feel God. They will continue to read the scriptures when He is silent. They will continue to serve, love, and obey Christ when there is no joy in doing so, and they will not turn to the world to satisfy or satiate the deep hunger and thirst within. They will simply go on hungering and thirsting for the One they love. They will continue searching for the One who refuses to be found.
The desert is a place of very few springs. There are no rivers flowing, no snow fed mountain streams. Only heat, drought, hunger and thirst, day in and day out for as long as the process must last. Although Jesus hides His face, He never leaves nor forsakes. He remains near, but inaccessible. In order to survive the desert, the pilgrim must learn to dig wells. In times of desperation, desperate means are appropriate. Perhaps taking several days off from work to fast and pray is the tool used to dig for water. Whatever the tool, he must dig a well. She must find water. Then, after quenching one's thirst and with renewed strength and the faith that comes from touching heaven... once again, weary travel.
The desert teaches many a lesson, but it's the inward work that is of utmost value. The humbling and breaking is what is necessary and the desert is perfectly suited for just such a task. "Why is the humbling so important? What could possibly await me that would be worth such deprivation, such heartache?" Don't worry, my friend, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. In time, you will look back from lofty and fertile mountain heights at the vista far below and the difficult path you have trod. You will see all the way your Savior has led you, and you will sing with me, with joy unspeakable and full of glory, "He doeth all things well."