Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Tested in the Desert

Leslie Basham: Nancy Leigh DeMoss says times of testing help you answer these questions about your relationship with God:

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Will you trust Him when you cannot see Him, when your emotions tell you He’s not there, when your circumstances are painful? Will you trust God when you’re in impossible situations, where you have no human resources to meet your needs?

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Tuesday, September 20.

Here's Nancy continuing the series, Walking through Life’s Deserts.

Nancy: I got a phone call last night from a friend that I hadn’t talked to in a while, and she illustrated what we’d been saying in this series on the desert. She told me about an experience she just had where God had really used her. She’s been teaching on modesty to the young women in her area, and she’s been doing these modesty fashion shows. It’s really a neat idea, bringing moms and daughters together to show them what modesty looks like and to promote the concept of modesty.

She was so excited over this last experience they just had. Then she told me that—I think it was the next day or within a couple of days after this experience—she got a letter that just kind of blew her out of the water. It wasn’t what she was expecting. It was critical. It was somebody who didn’t understand what she was trying to do, and she said, “I spent 10 days in the dumps over this whole thing, from the mountaintop down to the pits.”

I said to her, “I’ve been teaching the series on the desert, and you just illustrated what we’ve been saying: that sometimes these desert experiences in our lives come right on the heels of the times of greatest victory and blessing and abundance.

So I want to remind you: Be prepared. Don’t be surprised when you find God really working in your life, you find a real breakthrough in your life, you have a great time of fruitful ministry—and then you turn around and you get sideswiped. You weren’t expecting it, and it can come from a lot of different sources. I want to remind you that there’s purpose in all of this. There’s value in this. There’s a reason for it.

As you look back over your life, when have you grown the most? When everything was going well? When you had money in the bank, and the sun was shining, and your husband was wildly in love with you, and you weren’t having any arguments, and your kids were all compliant and obedient? You’re saying, “When was that?”

During the easy times of life, do you find yourself desperately seeking after God? Or as you look back, would you say—as I would—that the times of greatest growth, and even the times of greatest intimacy with the Lord, have been in the midst of some of those desert experiences—when you couldn’t feel God’s presence, when you couldn’t see what He was doing, when you couldn’t see the end of the desert in sight?

I look back on some of those experiences, and I say, “That is when I really got to know God. That’s when I really grew.”

We’ve been talking about the fact that sometimes God sends us into the desert because we deserve to go into the desert. He’s just chastening us. He loves us, and as a good Father, He disciplines us. We experience the consequences of our own wrong choices.

But we said that is not always the case. Sometimes we end up in the desert by God’s design. In God’s inscrutable, mysterious ways, some purpose He has in mind. It’s not because we’ve sinned. It’s not because we’ve done something wrong. It’s not because He’s mad at us, but God has a purpose.

I want to talk today about some of the purposes of God for sending us into the desert. We’ve seen in the gospel of Mark, chapter 1, that after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness (vv. 9-13). He was led by God into this desert place where, for 40 days, relentlessly, He was tempted by Satan.

He fasted. He had no food. He was hungry. He was with the wild animals. He was alone. He was isolated. You picture these circumstances, and there are times you imagine your emotions could just go crazy. That’s when you can start to wonder, “Has God abandoned me? Why in the world would God lead me into this kind of desert experience?”

I want to share with you several reasons from the Scripture that God might lead us into the wilderness. The first purpose of God, I think, is to test us. Some of you can remember back to your school days. Some of you are still in your school days. When you go through a unit of material in biology, math, geography, or whatever, how does the teacher determine if you’ve learned the material? Friday morning, pop quiz: “Take out a piece of paper.”

You wonder why anyone would be surprised, because every Friday morning, you have the same exercise. Right? Pop quiz or midterms or final exams. What’s the point? To find out if the student learned the material—so we know if we know it, and so the teacher knows if we know it. God sends us sometimes into the desert to test us.

Let me illustrate that for you. We looked earlier in this series in the book of Exodus. If you have your Bible, let me ask you to open again to the book of Exodus, chapter 15. We saw how God led the Children of Israel out of Egypt miraculously, and across the Red Sea miraculously. We saw the incredible, redemptive, powerful hand of God doing all these miracles on behalf of His people. And then we saw that the very next place God led His people was into the wilderness.

Not one wilderness, but three different ones. One right after the other, within three months of coming out of Egypt. The Children of Israel had three different desert experiences—places where they had no water, or they had water but it was bitter, or they had no food. We’ll see what their responses were to all of this. But God told the Children of Israel why He took them into the desert.

In Exodus 15, verse 22, the Children of Israel are in the desert of Shur. The Scripture says, “Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur.” And then in verse 25, “There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule”—He gave them His Law—“and there he tested them.” He tested them.

Move to chapter 16, verse 1: “They set out from Elim”—which was the oasis after the previous desert—“and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin.” Then skip down to verse 4: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day.’” Why? “That I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.”

Now turn over a few pages to chapter 20. This is the desert of Sinai. What do you remember about Sinai? That’s where God gave His people the Law, at Mount Sinai. And Moses said to the people, in verse 20 of Exodus 20, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”

In each of those desert experiences, God said, “I want to test you. I’m trying to teach you something, and I want to see if you’ve learned it.” Don’t turn there, but let me just read you a verse from Deuteronomy.

In Deuteronomy 8, verse 2, Moses is rehearsing those years, reminding the Children of Israel what it was like in those wilderness experiences, and he says, “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”—this is now looking back on the experience—“that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.”

What does God test us about in the desert? What is He trying to see if we’ve learned? What does He want to know? What’s He trying to show us about ourselves? Well, He tests us, Moses says in Deuteronomy, to reveal what’s in our hearts, to show us what’s in our hearts.

You know, who and what we really are comes out many times in the desert, in that testing experience.

  • We find out what we really love. 
  • We find out what really matters to us. 
  • We find out what our real character is. 
  • We find out what we’re really trusting. 

To reveal what’s in our hearts—it’s in the desert experiences that that comes out.

And then God tests us to find if we will be obedient. God gave the Children of Israel a Law, and He sent them into the desert to find out if they would keep the Law. The test is:

  • Will we be obedient when we can’t see the outcome? 
  • Will we be obedient when we can’t see what’s ahead? 
  • When God’s ways don’t make sense to us, will we still be obedient? 
  • Will we be obedient when God’s ways don’t seem to be working?

I hear women say, “I tried to love my husband. I tried to respect him. I tried to do all the things you told me to do on Revive Our Hearts, but it’s not working.” God’s testing you. He wants to know if you will be obedient even when it doesn’t seem like it’s working, even when you’re not getting the results you had hoped for.

And God wants to know, will you trust Him? Will you trust Him when you cannot see Him, when your emotions tell you He’s not there, when your circumstances are painful? When it looks like your needs aren’t being met—your emotional needs, maybe, in your marriage? Will you trust God to meet your needs even when you don’t feel that they’re being met? Will you trust God when you’re in impossible situations, where you have no human resources to meet your needs?

When the money runs out, when your husband loses his job, when the income isn’t there, when your investments go belly-up, will you trust God? When you can’t see how you’re going to provide for your kids’ education? When you can’t see how your family’s financial needs are going to be met? That’s a desert. Will you trust God? It’s a test. God sends us into the desert to test us.

And then—we read this in Deuteronomy 8—God sends us into the desert to humble us. “God led you all the way into the desert 40 years,” Moses said, “to humble you. He humbled you, causing you to hunger” (v. 3 paraphrased). Do you know, sometimes God creates those circumstances that you think are somebody else’s fault?

You think it’s your boss’ fault, it’s your husband’s fault, it’s your kids’ fault, and Moses is saying, “No. God is the ultimate person behind your circumstances. He humbled you, causing you to hunger, but He didn’t leave you there. He fed you with manna.” God humbles us in the desert.

In the desert, where we don’t have any crutches, anything to lean on, God strips us. He strips us of pride; He strips us of self-sufficiency. We see ourselves for what we really are, and sometimes it’s pretty ugly. What we really are comes out, and we’re humbled, and we realize, “O God, apart from You I’m a mess. I can’t keep my life together. I can’t respond right to these people. I can’t handle this situation.” We’re humbled.

Our pride wants to keep us in a circumstance where we can manage everything, but God sends us into the desert, where we can’t manage. We can’t make it on our own. The worst comes out. We’re humbled. He humbles us.

And then—and we’ve seen this alluded to already in these passages—God send us into the desert to teach us. “He humbled you,” Deuteronomy 8, verse 3, says, “causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna . . . to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (NIV). God had something He wanted to teach His people, and it took the desert for them to learn it.

You see, it’s in the desert that we learn what really matters. We learn what’s really necessary. That’s where the Children of Israel learned that they needed more than physical bread to sustain their lives. They needed the Word of God to sustain their hearts, to sustain their souls and their spirits. There was an inner part of them that had a need that was even more crucial than their physical needs.

We’re so driven by our physical needs. I mean, if we’re hungry, that is the ultimate need, right? We’re so driven by what we can see and touch and taste—our natural physical senses—but God sends us into the desert, where sometimes those needs may not be met. Even a period of fasting voluntarily can be so healthy for the soul because we find out, “I need more than physical food to live. I need God. I need Him more than I need air to breathe.” We find out what really matters.

A friend wrote me recently and told me about a three-year period where God had taken him through a desert experience. He’s in full-time Christian work, and he was still continuing to serve the Lord, but he says, “During that three-year period, there was an amazing absence of the emotional sense of God’s presence. Day after day, over three years, of feeling like God was nowhere near.”

He went on to say, “Here are some lessons I’ve learned.” That’s the point. Through those three years, he experienced day after day of feeling, “I can’t see God. I can’t sense Him. I’m not experiencing Him in ways that I have at other times.” And then he says, “Here’s what I learned.” That’s the point. God sends us into the desert to teach us.

Another friend, the wife of a staff member in our ministry, wrote me recently. She talked about some desert experiences she’d had and some of the things God had taught her. Let me share with you what God taught her. She said,

I’ve learned that life on earth really isn’t perfect and probably will never flow along in the perfect storybook ways we often imagine. But God is very real, and He gives grace and energy to deal with those daily things.

In the desert, you really do learn to treasure the life that is in Christ, because it’s very real, and He is very powerful. You learn that even if God doesn’t answer specific prayers for things you thought were genuine needs, He powerfully provides the still-cans.

[Here’s what she means by that.] Even if my kids don’t have a vibrant youth group experience as teenagers”—[maybe you’re in a church where the youth group isn’t quite what we would have hoped it would have been]—God can still mold them into adults with a heart for Him.

[God’s still-cans.] Even if our financial income is never quite what we think we need, God can still provide what we need in other ways. Even if my husband can’t take time off so we can take a family vacation, God can still help us to enjoy what’s around us in this place and help us be content and happy. You find that God still can meet your needs, even when He isn’t answering or responding in the way that you thought He should have or the way that you asked.

So God sends us into the desert to teach us.

And then He sends us into the desert to strengthen our faith and to make us dependent on Him. He wants to teach us total reliance upon Him. He wants to strip us of reliance on ourselves or reliance on others. The Children of Israel, when they were back in Egypt, were totally reliant on Pharaoh. Now, it wasn’t much of a life, because Pharaoh didn’t have a heart for these Israelites, but when they ended up in the desert, they looked back wistfully on Egypt at points.

They said, “Oh, how wonderful it was in Egypt.” What short memories they had! But they were dependent on Pharaoh, and they had food to eat, and Pharaoh was their provider. But God wanted them to come to the place where they depended totally on Him.

How does God put us in that place where we have no props, we have no substitutes, we have nothing or no one else we can depend on? Your friends move away, or they die, or they fall out of your life in some way, or your financial support falls away in some sense. The “things”—the visible means of support that you had looked to—are removed.

And what happens? Then you find God really is enough. You’ll never know that Christ is all you need, really, until He’s all you have. And when He is all that you have, you will find out that Christ really is all that you need. So God, in the deserts, makes us dependent on Him.

The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1, talked about the hardships he had endured while ministering in Asia. He said, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure” (v. 8 NIV). I cannot tell you how often I go to this passage, and I find what my own heart needs in my moments when I feel so stretched, when I feel like I can’t be stretched any more.

The apostle Paul experienced that. He said, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9 NIV).

If we’re going to die, then we know we’re relying on God, who does resurrections. So what’s the worst that can happen to me in this experience? I die. Well, what’s so bad about that? God raises the dead. Paul said, “No matter what the extremity, how far it goes, it’s okay, because I’m relying on God.”

We tend to rely on things and people that we can see. God wants to teach us to depend on what we cannot see. That’s faith: to rely on His character, His Word. “Man does not live on bread alone”—and that’s the visible—“but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3 NIV).

I read earlier in this series a lengthy excerpt from Charles Colson’s article “My Soul’s Dark Night,” where he talked about a year-long experience of desert in his own life. He concluded that piece by saying, “Faith becomes strongest when we are without consolation and must walk into the darkness with complete abandon. Faith isn’t really faith,” he said, “if we can always rely on a still, small voice of God cheering us on.”

So when you can’t hear, when you can’t see, when you don’t know—when you can’t see the outcome and you feel like you’re in this blind, dark night of the soul, this desert experience, with no end in sight—what do you do? You walk by faith. You walk by faith, and that’s where you learn to walk by faith.

As I was studying for this session, a verse came to mind that I hadn’t thought about in some time. It’s from the Song of Solomon, chapter 8 verse 5, and it’s just this one short verse that I think describes so well what happens in our deserts. It’s talking about the bride and her bridegroom—the bride and her lover—their intimate relationship, and how that relationship is built, how it becomes strengthened. It says in Song of Solomon, chapter 8, verse 5, “Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?”

When you have walked through the wilderness, through the desert, when you come out of the desert, you know what your posture will be? Leaning on your Beloved. Leaning on Jesus. Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leslie: Nancy Leigh DeMoss will be right back to pray. She describes the desert as someone who’s been there. She knows what it is to cling to God when you have nothing else. Nancy’s received incredible hope from the promises of God in Scripture, and these promises will give you hope, too.

You can read a list of them when you get a copy of her booklet, “Promises to Live By.” All you have to do is ask for it, and we’ll send the booklet—along with the CDs of Nancy’s current series, Walking though Life’s Deserts, for a donation of any amount. The CDs include more material than we were able to air this week. The bonus material will show you how to apply Nancy's teaching in some practical ways.

If you’re not in a desert now, you will be at some point in your life, and it’s worth it to make a quick phone call and pick up these encouraging CDs and the hope-filled booklet. Ask for “Promises to Live By” and Walking through Life’s Deserts when you call 1-800-569-5959, or look for this offer at ReviveOurHearts.com.

That’s also where you can read transcripts of Nancy’s teaching, listen to archived broadcasts, or sign up for the Revive Our Hearts Daily Connection. It’s an email with key quotes from each day’s program. Basically, on the website, you can find the content you need, and you have a lot of flexibility on how you receive it. See for yourself at ReviveOurHearts.com.

When you’re in a desert, you’re being trained. It may not feel like it, but you’ll come out with more insight and ability than when you entered. Find out why tomorrow. Now, Nancy’s back to pray with us.

Nancy: Father, I can’t count the number of times in my own deserts that I have wished that it were different. I have longed for relief—I have even demanded relief—but I also can’t count the number of times that You have taught me. You have tested me, humbled me, and manifested Yourself to me in precious ways in the desert that I might not have seen any other way.

So, Lord, I want to thank You for the deserts. I want to thank You that they’ve been times of growth, times of being strengthened in faith, times of learning to lean on the everlasting arms. I pray for some woman today who is listening to this session who is in a desert. I pray that You give her the vision and the hope that when she comes through this desert, it will be in a place of reliance, a place of leaning on her beloved. And so, by faith, we give You thanks for that. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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