The tears were unpredictable and disconcerting. I’d be sitting at the breakfast table with my kids or lying in bed trying to fall asleep and suddenly I’d find myself sobbing uncontrollably. It had been a hard year and although I’d been clinging to the Psalms and praying constantly, the emotional heaviness wouldn’t lift. I was wandering in a wilderness of pain and confusion, much like Priscilla Shirer describes in One in a Million. In her study, she says God “often chooses a wilderness journey for us to give us an opportunity to experience Him in a way we might miss in a place of ease and convenience…we have to decide if we will follow where He is leading and trust that He knows what he is doing” (p. 34-35).
For me, that wilderness time came unexpectedly. Over the span of a few months, three significant relationships in my life changed course without warning, leaving me wondering what I’d done wrong. Each person had withdrawn from me for different reasons. My safe and comfortable world suddenly felt cold and lonely. Worse still, one of the relationships was within my circle of friends at church. So I struggled silently, not wanting to gossip or call attention to the ways our close community was being quietly torn apart. Attending Sunday worship, Bible study and small group became triggers for anxiety and discouragement. I often left feeling worse than when I arrived.
I’d been living in this wilderness for eight months when the tears started flowing inexplicably. Without warning, a flood of emotion would overwhelm me, with no clear explanation for what had caused it. Despite my efforts to lean into God, to pray and find comfort in His Word, the deep sadness seemed to be pulling me under little by little. It was a difficult time in my life, but few people knew about it. I was a master at putting up a façade and appearing to have everything under control.
Finally, when my angst seemed to consume every moment of our time at home, my husband said the dreaded words I needed to hear. “I’m here for you and I want to help you, but I think it’s time for you to go to counseling too.” After some weak protesting, I admitted he was right. Making the phone call to schedule the first appointment was one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. Maybe that’s why Priscilla Shirer’s words resonate with me so much: “You and I must boldly ask the Lord to let us see Him, even if the light of his presence is best seen against the veil of darkness.” (p.37)
With the help of my godly counselor, I began to peel back the layers of pain. I was able to understand myself and to see how the fractured relationships I’d been grieving were indicators of deeper issues that needed to be confronted. I’d been wandering on my own, trying to find relief, now I had a fellow traveler on my wilderness journey. She had a map and the tools I needed to find emotional healing and health. The things that caused me pain became catalysts for growth.
Although that was a dark time in my life, I look back on it now with gratitude. I learned about my assumptions and how they affected the way I saw myself. My identity was wrapped up in my relationships with people and my desire to be valued by them. That season in the wilderness was refining the parts of me that needed to be changed before God could use my gifts to bless others. I doubt I would be writing this or any other blog if I hadn’t gone through that time or done the hard work to get healthy with the help of my counselor.
Taking that journey through the wilderness enabled me to be more honest with myself. It allowed me to be authentic and to identify with others in their struggles. Instead of trying to hide the parts of me that were messy and complicated, I started using them to connect with others and to help them on their own journeys. My wilderness experience made it possible for me to do what Scripture describes:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV)
My desert wandering led me to become healthier emotionally, spiritually and relationally. I was never lost because God was right beside me the whole time, gently guiding and teaching me through my struggles.
Similarly, God never left the Israelites in their wanderings. He was there leading them each step of the way: “Now the Lord was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them in the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel day or night. He did not remove the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22, NIV)
Each stop along their route had a specific purpose. They were not aimlessly wandering–God was guiding them intentionally throughout their journey. Let this be an encouragement if you are in a season of wandering. God is right there beside you, waiting for you to learn the valuable things He has to teach.
Not every wilderness experience requires the help of a trained counselor like mine did (but don’t rule it out if you think it might help). No matter what we’re facing, our difficulties can always be used for greater good when we trust God, stay engaged in His Word and enlist the support of wise and godly people.
I love the message of Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Glorious Unfolding.” It reminds me never to put a period where God intends a comma. God sees so much farther than our limited view of life. Our wilderness journeys are temporary experiences designed to take us to places better than we can imagine. We can stand firm, trusting He’ll walk beside us through the wilderness and all the way to the Promised Land.
Click on the link to enjoy “Glorious Unfolding” and to watch the inspiring story the video tells.
Shirer, Priscialla; One in a Million, Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press, 2009