I know a girl who aspired to become a classical pianist. She had natural talent. She spent hours in practice. Then one night a man broke into her house and attacked her with a knife, badly disfiguring her hands. Today her piano sits silent.
I know a man who had a promising career in publishing. He had a gift for words. He was rising through the ranks. Then a religious cult persuaded him to quit his job to preach in the streets because the world would soon end. The world didn't end. And the publishing world never opened to him again.
I know men and women who dream of marrying but remain single. A friend of mine dreamed of her brother's recovery from cancer, but that dream was laid to rest last August. To dream is to be human, but to be human in this world is to experience a dream broken. And as the years stretch on with our dreams unfulfilled, it can feel like we're lost in the wilderness.
Broken Dreams in the Wilderness
During this season of Lent we remember Jesus' 40 days in the desert – itself a re-enactment of the Jews' 40 years in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-7; Deuteronomy 8:1-9). Both experiences hold a profound lesson about recovering from broken dreams with God.
To the Jews the wilderness was a place of trial – a wasteland of confusion where one walked in circles, a desert of frustration where one's dream was denied.
After their momentous liberation from Egyptian slavery and their divine encounter on Mount Sinai, the Jews had set out for a Promised Land of plenty. But what started as adventure soon became adversity, with an 11-day trek becoming 40 years of wandering (Exodus 12:31-20:21; Numbers 10-36).
The Jews felt vulnerable in the wilderness. It was a place of dry stones and fruitless ground, blazing sun and weariness. It was a place of wild animals, circling vultures and shadowy forces that whispered in the winds. It was a place of seeking and searching, ever on the move and never content. The wilderness was a place of restlessness.
The Jews felt tempted in the wilderness – tempted to renounce their God, or at least question his goodness; tempted to scuttle back to the world that enslaved them. When Jesus the Jew had his own wilderness experience he too heard the Tempter's voice – to turn the stones around him into tasty bread, misusing his power to fulfil hunger; to leap from the temple and be caught by angels, proving his 'specialness' to others, and to bow to the Devil and gain worldly power, avoiding the pain of his future.
But the Wilderness is a Place of New Beginnings
The wilderness feels like a place of desertion. Our souls are dry, there's sand in our eyes and we feel vulnerable, tempted and restless. But as the Jews reflected on their wilderness wanderings they saw more in the experience than suffering:
As much as the wilderness was a place of vulnerability, it was also a place of provision – with manna and quail and clothes that didn't wear out coming from God's hand for their need (Deuteronomy 8:3-4).
As much as it was a place of temptation, it was also a place of testing – God testing their hearts to reveal their devotion and teaching their hearts to trust him (Deuteronomy 8:2).
And while they felt restless and insecure in the desert place, they end up becoming someone new – God revealing himself as a 'father' to them there for the very first time, and describing them as his 'children' (Deuteronomy 1:31; 8:5).
For as much as the wilderness is a place of trial, it is also a place of transition (Deuteronomy 8:7-9) – where slavery becomes freedom and immaturity becomes wisdom, where our proud demands are humbled and our insecure selves become children of God. In the wilderness we become people we could never have become, and move into the next phase of our lives.
After 40 years in the wilderness, the Jews entered their Promised Land.
After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus launched his world-changing mission.
An Easter Reflection
So, what if this wilderness season of ours – with its silent pianos and lost careers, with its sadness, singleness and loneliness; with its crushing diagnoses and hospital wards and its doubts and tears and brokenness – was leading us to become someone we couldn't become without its trials and testings? What if God was using it to test our faithfulness to him, and through it affirm us as his 'child'? What if it was the transition point to a new Promised Land, a new phase of life, a new mission?
God has a habit of making the wilderness a place of new beginnings.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programmes on BBC Radio 2. His books include Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings and Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and get his free ebook Five Practices for a Resilient Life.