December 3, 2020

Grace Grows in the Barren Land

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Grace Grows in the Barren Land: Why God leads us into the wilderness (Rev. Daniel Jepsen)

• • •

God’s sometimes has a strange way of showing His love.

Consider the ministry of Jesus. All three synoptic gospels record the same unsettling start to the ministry of Jesus. First, Jesus is baptized. Second, a voice from heaven utters this phrase (in Matthew’s wording):

This is my Son
Whom I love
With Him I am well pleased.

And then, immediately, God leads this same Son into the wilderness. Sending someone on a wilderness wandering seems an odd way of showing someone love and approval. The wilderness is the last place on earth most people would want to be sent. It is lonely, barren, hot, uncomfortable, and, as Mark reminds us in his gospel, full of wild animals.

Yet God sends His Son into the wilderness. Just as He had done before with another son, Israel; and just as He continues to do with His children today.

It would be helpful, before we go on, to define what the wilderness is in the Bible, and what it symbolizes. The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar. The etymology is uncertain, but the word denotes several different types of land, from the sandy and almost lifeless land of the Negev in the south of Israel to the rocky and uninhabited hills of the Judean countryside. The word describes not so much the terrain of the land, but function of the land: empty and barren.

The New Testament uses the word eremos, which has the idea of desolation and isolation. Again, the emphasis is not on the type of land, but on the fact that it is apart from normal human society. Both words describe land that is barren of human life and activity because it is not conducive to human pleasures. [Note: the NIV translates both these words as desert].

Symbolically, besides the idea of barrenness and isolation, the wilderness symbolizes two main ideas.

The first is the idea of suffering. This suffering comes primarily from four things associated with the wilderness:

  • Danger. Hunger and thirst haunt those in the wilderness just as much as wild animals do. To be in the wilderness is to be where our normal signs of security and stability are missing.
  • Privation: The wilderness symbolizes the opposite of Eden; the normal things that delight us as humans are absent. Few and austere are the pleasures in the wilderness.
  • Isolation. Most who are drawn into the barren land find the absence of human companionship perhaps the hardest part to bear. This is not always physical isolation. Often it simply but sadly means that we have no-one who understands, no-one walking through the barren valley with us.
  • Temptation. Just as Israel was tempted in the wilderness (and failed) so the tempter approached the One who is the True Israel in the wilderness. The privation and lack of security in the wild places make us all more vulnerable to refusing to trust God’s ways.

The second idea associated with the wilderness may surprise us: it is grace: the unmerited favor and kindness of God. Grace grows in the dessert, and some types of it bloom nowhere else. It beckons the weary wanderer to leave off complaining, and rejoice in its beauty.

This grace is seen in four things, each one standing in opposition to the danger, privation, isolation, and temptation of the wilderness suffering.

  • Protection. Israel learned (though it took them 40 years) the truth that David would verbalize some years later: “The Lord is my Shepherd…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The experience of Israel, David, Elijah, and Jesus all confirm: God is able to protect those He leads into the wilderness.
  • Provision. The model here, of course, is the manna and quail God provided to Israel. Truly Moses could say at the end of Israel’s wandering: “You have lacked nothing” (Deut. 2:7). Though it was not, perhaps, what they wanted to eat, God graciously provided it as a temporary sufficiency until they reached a more fertile land. The water from the rock, the ravens that fed Elijah, the ministry of the angels to Jesus, all are symbols of the ability of God to provide “a table in the wilderness” (Ps. 78:19).

  • Revelation. It is no accident that God reveals Himself more in the wilderness than anywhere else. It was in the wilderness of Sinai He revealed his laws and ways to Moses and Israel. It was also in that wilderness that Israel saw the most dramatic revelations, not only of God’s words, but of His power, as he blessed them with miracles of manna from the sky, water from the rock, and fire over the tabernacle. Their experience is not unique: Hagar saw God in the wilderness (Gen. 16) the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), Paul spent three years in Arabia before he began his ministry and Jesus Himself would often go into the wilderness to pray.
  • Wisdom. Though the temptations of the wilderness are many, it is there that men and women have found wisdom. It is there, in the dangerous place, they discover their true security. It is there, in the barren place, they learn that man indeed does not live by bread alone. It is there, in the lonely place, they find the quiet to hear God. There is an ancient wisdom haunting the wilderness, a spirit that refuses to inhabit our world of plastic amusements.

We begin to see, then, why God calls His sons and daughters to the wilderness. It is not a curse; it is a blessing given to those strong enough to bear it. It is a crucible that refines, not a furnace that destroys.

Yes, a strange love that God shows to His Son (and to all His children). But a love that goes deeper than simply increasing our comfort and easing our pain. He desires nothing less than that the perfecting of His children. Of Jesus Himself it is said that, “He suffered when He was tempted” and that “He learned obedience from what He suffered” for his perfection (Heb. 2:18, 5:8). We, who call ourselves Christ followers, can expect also to find seasons of wilderness wanderings. And we can learn, as He did, that wisdom takes root in the wild place, and Grace blooms in the barren.

This is my son,
Whom I love
With him I am well pleased.


  1. The cold, hard, steel of the law (the wilderness)…and the soft, warm, comfort of the velvet that is the gospel (the promised land).

    Great things to remember (to have DONE to us) during this Lent.

    Thank you.

  2. Awesome. Now I can say “thank you Lord” for taking me into the wilderness.

  3. The hardest sort of “wilderness” for me is not the loss of physical comforts or security or even human companionship, but the loss of God. That is, so often I find that I’ve constructed for myself an image of God or a set of rules for relating to God. The wilderness times bring all that crashing down and leave me with no idea who God is, no way to predict or control God, and no reason to expect that there’s anything I can do to guarantee whatever outcomes I hope for in my life.

    Then, in the midst of that barrenness, I find myself aware of a Presence that can’t be named or defined or controlled – that’s God, shaking free from every structure I construct so that I can once again return to the childlike place of awe, encountering God as infinite and wild and inscrutable. Every wilderness time in my life has, in retrospect, felt like walking through a door from a tiny room into a much larger space – growing into a broader and broader vision of who God is. And when even that big space is too small to contain God, I find myself in another wilderness and another transition. Each time it feels like losing God in order to meet God all over again in a deeper way.

    • Beautiful……I have been there, too.

      Why do I, a creature about as important to cosmic history as an tadpole in pond, think that I have the brains or the right to define the Mysterious “Other” and put Him into a nice, Pattie-sized box and think I understand?

    • So true, when we truly begin to hear the voice of God, then we go through a brief season of silence, it can truly be testing…

  4. David Cornwell says

    Two of the overarching and prevalent themes of the bible and two that are ultimately bound are wilderness and grace. In the last few days I’ve been trying to think out, in my own mind, just what the term “wilderness” really means. Thanks for tying it all together here, and linking it in the end to grace.

  5. I never understood why, and still don’t, mostly, when I surrended it all back to Him in late 2007 He took me, immediately, into the wilderness. Probably because He had been on my trail long before that time, obviously. He’d been on my trail since I bailed as a young teen in the early 80’s.

    I have seen everything I defined myself by leave or be taken from me.
    I have seen Him do nothing about it, except offer Himself as the replacement for all those things.
    I have seen provision in small, simple, yet profound ways.
    I have seen my eyes slowly but surely look away from some and towards others.
    I have seen transformation that proves He is alive.
    I have seen unemployment for 5 years on March 7th.
    I have seen grace poured out in ways I never knew existed.

    I now live to pour that grace out to anyone He chooses. And He has chosen some doozies these last few weeks. It’s kind of awesome not being my own. In this wilderness that has both scared the pants off me and changed my life.

  6. petrushka1611 says

    I needed this to soften my heart today. Thank you.

    Also, I miss the line of icons under the article that enabled me to easily share it on Facebook. Will the icons be returning?

  7. Since we’re on the subject of the wilderness, I’m reminded of the Hiker’s Motto – good for both spiritual and literal wildernesses.

    Eyes front. Feet forward. Keep going.

    Don’t worry about how far it is, don’t worry about how much faster others might be able to go, don’t worry about the weather. We’re going to the mountains and none of those things matter. It might be a long way, but it’s worth the trip. Others might make more rapid progress, but it’s not like there’ll be a shortage of time once we’re there. It might rain, but all the towels and fires are in the Inn.

    Eyes front. Feet forward. Keep going.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And then, immediately, God leads this same Son into the wilderness.

    It eliminates the Curse of Unbroken Immediate Success. Makes sure “this same Son” won’t be an Entitled Indigo Child.

    Christianity spent its first 300 years as an underground outlaw religion.

    Islam spent its first 300 years as an unbroken string of spectacular success after success after success.

    Look which one is better able to handle hardship when it comes.

  9. I found this post immensely helpful – thank you.

  10. Are you saying there is hope CM? To be frank…I often don’t feel like there is much hope. These last nearly 3+ years have been dark. I mean they have been the darkest time in my life.

    I can identify with the isolation part. Some of that was my own choosing…others were spooked by what I was saying. But I feel as if life has to start over someway…and I don’t know how.

    • David Cornwell says

      Sometimes hope comes in the strangest of ways, the most unlikely circumstances, and the most unsuspecting persons.

    • petrushka1611 says

      Eagle, after going through about 10 years of depression, with the last two being horrific (after a year of mild respite),I can tell you that there is hope. In the process, Christ led me to his person and work, and away from all the extra stuff I thought I had to believe in order to believe in him. It was killing my faith in him trying to prop up YEC and all the rest. I knew there was something better than legalism, but I didn’t know what. There is rest in him.

  11. Like a carpenter…… 🙂

  12. I am constantly in awe of God’s grace on my life. I have turned from him and ran toward my own wicked ways, he is so incredibly slow to anger, all I have to do is glance back at Him and He welcomes me into His loving arms with complete forgiveness and a renewed mind.

    God is sooooooo good!!!!

  13. One more Mike says

    This is such a great post. I have been very acquainted with the “suffering” of the wilderness, but haven’t realized the amount of “grace” there is in the wilderness until recently, when a lot of truly “sucky” life events all culminated in January. Now I’m seeing the grace and ancient wisdom in this barrenness, and trying to create springs here in my own personal Valley of Baca (Ps. 84)

    How does Daniel Jepson stay employed in the non-denominational/community church movement writing these types of essays?

    • Hi Mike

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I’m not sure what you mean by your question. The notion that suffering is a normal part of the Christian life is a given in my circles.

      I love your allusion to psalm 84, and wish I had remembered it when I was writing this.

      • One more Mike says

        Hi Daniel,

        In my 40+ years in ND/CC churches the only acceptable suffering was death and it’s attendant questioning, but any other suffering was brought on by not adhering to law (sin, both “seen & unseen”), reading the Bible “incorrectly”(?), not tithing or volunteering in church enough, etc. I’ve been some time in the wilderness trying to make it a place of springs, but I have to find new sources of water. Psalm 84:5-7 is my “life verse” for this part of the journey…

        I enjoy reading your contributions to this site. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  14. Thank you.