What’s the point of the wilderness anyway? I’ve asked that question numerous times when I’ve been lost in the desert, wondering if I’d ever find a way out. People told me that God was working, but since I didn’t know what he was doing, I secretly wondered if he was doing anything at all.
I didn’t choose the wilderness. No one does. It’s a dark place of loneliness, rejection and despair. But it also cultivates the most life-giving fruit because there God shapes and molds us, teaching us to trust him alone.
In Genesis 41 Joseph named his second son Ephraim, saying “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Joseph became fruitful in Egypt – the land where he was sold as a slave, where he was falsely accused, where he was imprisoned and seemingly forgotten. These were the ugliest, leanest years of Joseph’s life, yet they may paradoxically have been the most beautiful because they taught Joseph to trust God.
I understand the beauty of Ephraim myself. The most difficult places in my life have produced the greatest fruit. Lilias Trotter, a missionary to Algeria in the late 1800’s said this: “Take the very hardest thing in your life – the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there he can bring your soul into blossom!”
God triumphs in our place of struggle. The hardest things in our lives become the basis of our ministry. Our faith is often forged in the desert. But we can’t produce fruit ourselves or bring our own souls into blossom – God produces good fruit from an outpouring of what’s inside of us. Life-giving fruit comes organically from within when we are attached to the vine and are abiding in Christ. This happens naturally in the wilderness because we must depend on him daily. There we understand that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Before entering the wilderness, I trusted God, but I didn’t need him for everything, or even for most things. Most of life I could handle on my own and God was more of a back-up plan. The Bible assured me that God would provide for all my needs, but I wasn’t sure that God would be enough if everything was taken from me. I worried about the future, hoping a disaster wouldn’t land on my doorstep.
But when catastrophe hit, God provided beyond my expectations. He protected me from heat and drought. He taught me to tap into his word. He nourished me with springs of living water. As Jeremiah 17:7-8 says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Learning to trust God in the wilderness bore lasting fruit. I read the Bible more attentively than ever before and learned to love God for who he is and not for what he could do for me. I knew that the Lord would never leave me and would always provide for my needs. People sometimes wander from faith, wondering if God even exists, but those whose faith is forged in the wilderness know that he is real. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8)
In addition to grounding my faith and teaching me to trust, the wilderness became the basis for my ministry. As we have seen through the lives of Moses, John the Baptist, and even Jesus, entering the wilderness to suffer or be tempted often precedes thriving ministry. Suffering and affliction make us fruitful. DA Carson says, “One of the blessings given to suffering believers is the prospect of being more fruitful than they could have ever imagined.”
One of my struggles with the prosperity gospel is that it contradicts this deeply biblical principle. Proponents imply that affliction is a sign of unfaithfulness and disfavor, citing that Jesus healed everyone, so we just need to pray believing and we will be healed. They contend that God wants us to be rich and prosperous, which are the blessings of faithfulness. But as we see in the Bible, the people with the strongest faith spent years in the wilderness. Even those who were ultimately prosperous, like Joseph, Job and David, all learned faithfulness through their affliction and despair. It was their clinging to God in desperation that produced the richest fruit.
The affliction of the saints produces overflowing fruit that nourishes everyone around them. While they may be unaware of their impact on others, their inspiring example encourages others to press on. Joni Eareckson Tada has been one of those saints for me as watching her life has changed me. God uses saints like Joni in extraordinary ways because his life flows through them. Their character has been molded by their trials and they are loving, patient and faithful, demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in every season.
God may have already brought you out of your wilderness into a place of abundance and fruitfulness. If that’s the case, you understand what I’m talking about. But if you are in the desert now, don’t give up. Keep leaning into God. Don’t assume that because you haven’t seen fruit yet, that you won’t see it. God is working and is using your loneliness and suffering in ways that you cannot see but will one day understand fully.
So, as you wait for God to bring fruit from your desert, remember that he is able. As Isaiah 41:17-18 says, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.”
Trust him as you wait. He will give make your wilderness an oasis that will one day produce exquisite fruit.