I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time. It seems so many people need to hear it. I know I did. What I write about today is not completely original, but I’ve explored and experienced enough to share it from my deepest heart.
First off, let me give credit to Frank Viola, who wrote a blog post a few years ago that opened this subject up to me. In his post, which is no longer available online but has become part of the content for one of his books, he talked about God’s day beginning with night. Let me explain.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” …8 God called the vault “sky.” And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so… And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
Check out the bold text. What do you notice? God’s day begins with night. Evening marks the beginning of a new day with God. We always think in terms of the dawn as a new day. When the sun begins to shine we know we are in a new day. But that’s not how God seems to see things. Evening, darkness descending, is the new beginning for God. You know what is even more mind blowing? That phrase about evening descending always follows this one: “And God saw that it was good.”
When the darkness comes in our lives, we automatically assume we’ve lost the way, or missed God’s blessing, or somehow fallen out of favor. The “dark night of the soul” is how we view this, and most often experience it as a time of loneliness and desolation. When you don’t know the truth about the start of the new day– which seems so dark– its bound to cause some major freak out. But the truth is, quite often when God is pleased with us and wants to bring us into a new day, darkness descends on our lives. For a time.
All throughout scripture we read of God’s chosen individuals– friends– finding favor with Him, but then suddenly finding themselves in strange, scary, or somehow confusing circumstances. Not the way we predict happy New Chapters to begin. But there you go– that’s God for you. For lack of time I will skip the long list of names and dates, and just highlight the ultimate example, Jesus.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
When God himself speaks publicly from heaven, praising his son and showing his pleasure, the last thing we’d expect is what comes next. Jesus, God’s very own, starts his new chapters like we often do– in “darkness”. Why? Because that’s how it works with God. The new day begin with the sun setting– not rising.
Hold that thought. Now I want to bring another similar metaphor to the table. The Desert. After I explain about the desert, I’ll bring the two together and we’ll see what that does for our perspective.
Like the “Dark Night of the Soul”, the desert is another way often used in referring to periods of dry, confusing “wandering”.
The most famous wandering desert experience is chronicled in Exodus. Bring this story up with anyone who is familiar with it and the lesson is always about how hard-headed the Israelites were, how an eleven day journey lasted forty years because they were so stubborn. The message then to us who might seek to learn from the story is, when you are in the dry, desolate time, be obedient and learn whatever God wants you to, so that he will take you quickly on to your Promised Land.
I don’t believe that is the point of the desert experience at all.
Scroll back in time a bit further. When the “Israelites” entered Egypt they were just a big family. They were the chosen descendants of Abraham, yes, but they weren’t a nation or even a proper “people group” yet. In Egypt they lived and grew in numbers, so when they eventually made their exit, they were finally a people group– a nation. And not just any nation, but God’s people. The desert journey was to be their first steps all alone, free from the influence and interference of other cultures and mindsets. It was the lonely place where no one would bother them as God unfolded his plan.
Like a groom finally marrying his bride, taking her from her former home, and bringing her into the secret place where he can show himself fully to her and consummate their union, these are more along the lines of God’s desert intentions. Why a barren desert? Because there is nothing to distract from intimacy there. No scenery to steal their gaze, no foreigners to get in the way, no distractions whatsoever. When God himself, their “very great reward”, wants to step into plain view and show all his glory, its only natural he would choose a place where their is nothing to compete with his affection. Over and over he tried to draw their attention up to him, “I am your God. You are my people,” wooing and asking for their hearts. Miracle after miracle of revelation and provision. Over and over though, they kept their eyes on the ground.
Its human nature. We like comfort and we prefer immediate, tangible objects. Spiritual flourishing and the mystery involved is romantic, but ultimately not practical enough for us to really appreciate. Let the leader (professional) deal with that and tell us all about it. We’ll stick to making lunch. And that is the story of the Isrealites time in the desert. Rather than be amazed and delighted with the overtures of a God who loved them and wanted to establish something special with them– not just contractually, but relationally– they looked at their “loss” and couldn’t get passed it. This is the danger of the desert.
It wasn’t obedience he wanted, it was affection. And he was willing to earn it. He was willing to pull out all the stops and win their love– if He could just get them to look up. In the end, he settled for obedience, but we all know that it wouldn’t have been an issue if deep love was truly established.
Check out a similar theme in God’s intentions in the desert, metaphorically speaking of the unfaithful nation as a woman hundreds of years later:
14 “But then I will win her back once again.
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.
15 I will return her vineyards to her
and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope.
She will give herself to me there,
as she did long ago when she was young,
when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
In this instance, it was disobedience that precipitated, but the point is still the same: God’s plan is not discipline, it’s intimacy. If relationship is restored, you don’t have to worry about rules and punishment.
The desert is not a bad place. It’s not punishment. To be in the desert is not equal to being temporarily forsaken. The desert is a necessary place. It is the place of intimacy.
And now, back to the night time. I said earlier that I would bring these two metaphors together.
Let me ask you something. What is the only thing that differentiates a husband and wife from all kinds of other relationships they participate in? It’s what happens at night. It’s the private communication and intimacy they share when no one else is around, when all other activity ceases, when darkness descends to protect their privacy.
What happens at nighttime dictates what happens during the daytime. If a husband and wife share intimacy and deep communication in the dark, their public, daytime, life is strong and vibrant even when they are in different places and interacting with all kinds of elements. But if the nighttime holds no depth, their daytime life is easily interfered with. This was the purpose of the desert connection God sought with Israel before they entered the Promised Land. He knew the distractions and diversions of prosperity. His hope was that the wealth and success to come would not be the undoing of them. Only His devotion to them, and their reciprocated devotion to Him could prevent eventual ruin.
The same goes for those of us who seek to learn from the stories of scripture. We cannot look only on the details of circumstances, we must understand the heart of God that transcends circumstances. God’s heart is always love. It’s not being forsaken by Him that makes us feel lost and upset in the desert, it’s the loss of other diversions and comforts we are used to. Often in the “desert” or “dark night of the soul” we feel like God is distant or unreachable, but in truth it is just a different experience. It is not the easy banter of the daytime, it is the focussed communication of intense relationship. It is often work. But God works to gain your gaze as much or more than any human hunts to find His face.
Here is what we must remember, often, when God is especially pleased and wants to bring us in to a new day, darkness first descends. And, on our way to our Promised Land, the desert intimacy is what first establishes our future success.