I think there is a part of the human brain that doesnt fully develop until we reach our mid twenties. Its that part of the brain that has to do with common sense and reality. Therein, lies the reason that in our teenage years, for some strange reason, we tend to think that we are invincible and that nothing will ever happen to us.
It was around my junior year in high school, way before that part of my brain had begun to mature, that I remember thinking I was Superman and I could defy the laws of nature. My buddy from high school Brandon and I had gone to the beach for the week of Spring Break. Both of us thought we were super studs back then. We were both into weight training and working out, and we had this inflated sense of reality when it came to the limits of our human bodies.
We had been laying out on the beach, swimming in the surf and scoping out the girls when around lunch time, we got bored. Keep in mind, we were no different than most teens in the fact that we both had the attention span of a gnat. Needless to say boredom came very easily. To cure our boredom, I came up with an awesome idea. I spotted a huge building way down the beach. I said to Brandon, “Im sure if we run down there to that big resort, there will be lots more people and things to do!” Another folly of being a teenager is that we had no understanding of the term, “Depth perception.” Unlike a rear view mirror in a car, objects on the beach appear closer at first glance than they really are.
So being the über studs were thought we were, we decided to run with all our might towards this resort we had spotted off in the distance. Running full speed on the beach….at high noon….in the heat of the day. Are you getting the picture of our brilliance now? The first fifteen minutes we felt great. I thought we’d be there in no time. Around the thirty minute mark, our steady stride morphed into more of a speed walk. As we closed in on sixty minutes, we were walking at the pace of a tortoise. We were at a stretch of the beach where there were no hotels and no civilization around us. As we gazed straight ahead at the resort that we were heading towards, even after an hour, it still looked almost as far off as it had when we had begun our journey.
When we turned around, the hotels that were where we started from looked like tiny little specks on the beach. We were hot, tired, hungry, and extremely thirsty. It was literally like being in the desert and searching for the closest oasis. We finally stopped. We looked forward at the tiny little resort and then we looked behind us at the tiny little hotels in the distance. So it was time to pick the lesser of the two evils. Did we press forward or turn around and go back the way we came from? We knew that it had taken us about an hour to get to where we presently were standing. However, we had no idea how much farther it would be until we reached the resort. It was at that moment, our adolescent brains gave birth to a brand new concept named common sense.
This was well before the days of kids having cell phones, and no one was around for miles….and again, it was blazing hot. So we decided to begin the trek back towards our starting point. “Just dont think about being thirsty.” Brandon said. He began to jog a steady jog and started to encourage me to do the same. “Breath in through your nose, and out through you mouth.” Keep your head up.” “Good, strong, breaths.” Brandon was saying all the correct things to encourage me. And his advice was good. But it still didnt help me in the matter of still being thirsty, still being hot, and still being tired. He could say all the correct things to me and it still didnt change the fact that I was exhausted and at the end of myself in this miniature desert.
Many years back, I found myself in the same desert situation theologically in my relationship with God. I was teaching a Sunday School class and leading a small group. I felt like I was communicating the truths of God clearly, and people in my class were beginning to come to an awakening due to the stirring of the Holy Spirit. And somewhere in the middle of my constant studying and teaching, I realized that my faith had become incredibly intellectual, yet I felt like God was so far from me. I could actually counsel people in my class who felt far from God and give them the correct scriptures and tell them to look at certain passages to help. I could prescribe the correct medicine so to speak, but that same medicine I held no relief for me. What do you do when the faith you possess seems so far from you? What do you do when you know the right biblical answer, but that’s not enough to save you from the desert you’re currently walking through?
So the incident my junior year of high school on the beach is more or less symbolic of the spiritual deserts that I have at times walked through in my own life. We can know all the Sunday School answers at times, and still feel so disconnected from God. And when we begin to feel disconnected from God….when we find ourselves in the desert…..its easy for the enemy to convince us that God doesnt care about what we are going through. And then we just give up on pursuing God and instead fall prey sinful drought.
In Ecclesiastes 5, King Solomon gives us some insight as to how to survive in the deserts of life. He tells us how to avoid falling away when God feels distant.
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God….” Ecclesiastes 5:1.
The phrase “Guard your steps” literally means to pay attention to your steps in Hebrew. And here is why Solomon says this. The direction of your feet literally dictates the direction of your life. Look at your feet. Are you constantly chasing and pursuing Christ? Even in the hard times of life? Or when things get hard, do you shake a fist at God and just give up? In giving up, we begin to shift our focus off of the pursuit of Christ and on to other things. We begin to take let our heads drop, and we stop looking ahead towards to destination and begin to focus on our unquenched thirsts. Namely, our own misery and self pity.
And Solomon is telling us, when we are in that desert, to keep focus on the goal. To keep walking towards the Christ, even when he seems so far off into the distance. Are your steps constantly pointed towards the house of God? Are you complaining that due to circumstances in your life, God has abandoned you? Take a look at your feet. Could it be that you are still in the desert because you’ve stopped walking towards him?
Look again at what Solomon says next in verse 1.
“Go near to listen rather than offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know they do wrong.” Ecclesiastes 5:1.
Solomon is saying when times get difficult, and we feel far from God, we dont want to hear anything from anyone. We become consumed in our misery. And Solomon is reminding us that we need to continue to seek and listen for God in these times. But again, how do we do this? The first thing we will eventually have to do in trying times is to determine whether on not the scriptures are true or if God was just kidding in all of them. To draw near to God means that we dont attempt to strike deals with him.
And we do this so often.
“Hey God, if you get me out of this situation, I promise to tithe more.”
“God if you save me from this desert, I promise that Ill give my life to you.”
And on and on the bartering goes. My six year old son tries this at times with me, but he doesnt have anything to barter with. He thinks he does with his toys and such. But at the end of the day, he doesnt have a job. He didnt pay for anything he has. Ultimately its all mine. Ive given him everything he has in life. In like manner, we have nothing to barter with when it comes to God. Everything we have in life has been given to us by him. We would not even have breath if it hadn’t been first given to us by Him!
And in the midst of this bartering, God says to us, “How about you stop talking and focusing on yourself so much….and just listen.”
In these desert times, cover yourself in the scriptures. One noted pastor said that in his darker moments in life, he would just read the book of Psalm out loud to God. As if reminding him of his promises over and over. Look at what Solomon says next in verse 2.
“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God. For God is in Heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fools voice with many words.” Ecclesiastes 5:2.
When God seems distant, we tend to go off at the mouth at times. We either feel we have to eloquently pray to God in a certain way or ask him rhetorical questions about our situation. King David did this when he was in a spiritual desert and felt far from God. In the Psalms, David writes, “How long will you forget me Lord?” What a crazy question to ask God! Im sure God was thinking, “Forget you??? Do you remember Goliath when I empowered you to slay the Giant? Or how about the little incident with Bathsheba and how I got you out of that mess?” Pastor Paul Washer said there was a time in his life where he felt God was no where near him. So he would go into the woods and angrily toss stones up into the sky saying, “Did that hit the door to Heaven? Do you hear me knocking now God?”Where are you?”
Jesus says in Matthew 6:5-8, that we should not pray to him with eloquent words. We should be real with him. Its ok to cry out to God. But in the desert, in the times when Jesus feels so far from you, he does expect you to keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking steps continually towards him.
Look at what Solomon says next….
“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools, fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow, than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Ecclesiastes 5:4-6.
Lets unpack this verse. Many times when to word of God is being spoken like in a church setting, things will be mentioned that are outside of scripture. Heres what I mean. You may hear a friend at church mention getting plugged into a new small group. Or you may have a family member encouraging you to go get involved in church. Or someone may ask you to start coming to a weekly Bible study. Or you might even read a book or blog post that opens your eyes to new truths. Regardless, these things are not happening by coincidence. Thats the voice of God. Thats the Holy Spirit leading you out of the desert. For you, water may be going to that new Bible study, or actually starting to go to church, or taking a family members advice to really begin to study your Bible.
But more times than not we remain focused on our misery. More times than not we make vows to people.
“Yeah, Ill think about going to that new bible Study.”
“Yeah, Ill probably start coming to church.'”
“Yeah, Ill try to read more of my bible.
We refuse to take these steps and fail to realize that God hasnt abandon us….he’s actually trying to lead us to the oasis. But either pride or idolatry stops us from committing, and we basically say “No thanks.” And God says as Solomon points out, “How about you stop making false vows and stop asking, “Which way out of the desert”, and you begin listening to me.” Remember, God works through people. Other people that are right now in your life. And he sometimes points the way out of the pain others. The question is not, “God are you hearing me?” The question is, “Are you listening?”
Finally, lets look at how Solomon closes out chapter 5.
“Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore, fear God.” Ecclesiastes 5:7.
Solomon is saying that a dream is not reality. Just because we know a few Bible verses and Sunday school answers is but a dream. Without a personal relationship with God…one where you are constantly seeking his face, even in the hard times, words are just meaningless. And look at how Solomon closes. He says to fear God. Solomon says, “Maybe you will get out of your desert quickly…but may be you wont. But no matter what our circumstances, we should always have reverence for God.”
What I am about to say will be hard for some to swallow. Sometimes in our lives, God ordains the desert. Sometimes, hardships in life are not punishment because you have sinned or been disobedient. Sometimes, God deliberately puts you out there, because the outcome of that desert experience will bring us closer to Him, if we can learn to listen. The book of Hosea in the Bible is the perfect example of this.
A quick summary of Hosea. God comes to Hosea and tells him that Hosea must marry a prostitute. And God tells Hosea that she is going to be unfaithful to you, and she is going to hurt you, and she is going to break your heart into a million pieces. And God says to Hosea, “Each time she hurts you, Im going to increase your love for her so that you cannot walk away from her.” God tells Hosea that he wants him to walk through this painful desert.” God tells Hosea this upfront. If you remember, Job walked through his own desert, but God didnt tell him why until he had gotten to the other side.
But here is the beauty of Hosea. God didnt leave him in the desert. God had a purpose for the pain, and it was to transform his cheating wife Gomer. In Hosea chapter 2, God basically says to Hosea, “Here is what I am going to do with your unfaithful wife Gomer. Im going to take her out into the desert. And through the pain of finding no satisfaction in her adulterous lifestyle, she will finally come to the end of herself.” And then we see the true character of God. God doesnt say next that he lures her to the end of herself to beraid her or chastise her or punish her for her sins.
God says when she has finally reached the end of herself, and the pain of the desert is too much to bear….God says,…
“Therefore, I am going to alure her. I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards…”Hosea 2:14-15.
God says he is going to take Gomer out into the desert, and when she is gasping for water, when she is exhausted of herself, it is there that he will begin to speak tenderly to her. In the old testament, wine and vineyards are associated with joy. God says he is going to return to her the joy she once had in her innocence. And the next verse in Hosea is so heartbreaking and encouraging at the same time. God will go on to say its out in that desert, where its dry and painful….that she’ll learn to stop calling Him master……and begin calling him husband.
Simply put, Gomer will begin to stop seeing God as some far off being, and in the struggles of the desert, she’ll enter into a real, intimate relationship with him! Thats our God. Thats how much he loves you. God ordains the hardships of life not to hurt you. But that so like Gomer, you may begin to stop seeing him as this far off boss of the universe, and being seeing God as intimately as you would your spouse. Sometimes, the deserts are needed in order to bring us closer to Him.
Sometimes, there are things in our lives that we may not even be aware of that are hindering our relationship with God. It may be wealth, it may be a relationship. And God loves us too much to leave us separated from him. So sometimes, God has to say to you, “Lets go to the desert.” Not because he wants to harm you. But because he wants you to really know him. In your desert times…when God seems distant….dont stop running to him. Rather, run harder. Listen more intently to fellow believers in your life. God wont let your thirst consume you. He is waiting to return to you your vineyards. But you must press in. Your oasis could be much closer than you think.