“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, Will bring her into the wilderness, And speak comfort to her. (Hosea 2:14)
The love story between the prophet Hosea and his harlot wife is a famous and much-loved illustration of God’s love for Israel. But it provides a fascinating perspective on the concept of ‘wilderness’ and its implications for us as believers. We very quickly equate ‘wilderness’ with tribulations and Paul’s list in Romans 5:3-5. What immediately comes to mind is patience, endurance, perserverance, and ultimately – or is that hopefully – character and hope. When we think wilderness we logically think barren, dry, fruitless, harsh…all negative, all difficult, all some kind of suffering.
Admittedly, these are all very likely. The very essence of ‘wilderness’ is that of the wild, ‘out there,’ a place of dark and desperate struggles. Wilderness trails are created, these days, to test endurance, stamina, problem solving abilities, and the ability to cope with difficulties and challenges. They’re designed with the ‘separate the men from the boys’ mentality. They’re designed to push human beings to the limits and bring them out stronger. The spiritual wilderness is no different.
Our place of spiritual wilderness reflects everything we understand from the actual natural wilderness experience.
The truth is, man does nothing that God hasn’t done before. Consider Moses with the goats, and then another forty years in the desert with a few million grumbling and reluctant people. Consider Elijah beside the Kidron river as he waited for God’s instructions. Consider David, forced to skulk in caves and flee to the wilderness despite his kingly annointing. There is absolutely no doubt that God’s ‘wilderness camp’ is very much a place of extreme challenge. Before we throw in the Hosea/Gomer perspective, let’s dig a little deeper into the more familiar wilderness characteristics and how they apply to the place of spiritual wilderness
Firstly, it’s ‘out there’ as opposed to ‘in here.’ That makes it unfamiliar territory. Our experience and preconceptions have no relevance. We’re outside of what is familiar, understandable, and manageable. Our comfortable frame of reference no longer applies. We have no idea what lies ahead, around the next corner, or how long it will take to find our way through.
Secondly, it’s not a place for excess baggage. Everything we previously relied on will be jettisoned along the way. The things we thought we needed for comfort or security will become meaningless, their worth diminished as we are slowly stripped down to only those things that are essential. We have to identify the real priorities, the real relevance, and the real value of everything we are and have. In the wilderness, luxuries can actually be deadly. Comfort can be the place of pretence, but the wilderness is the place of brutal honesty.
Thirdly, it’s the place of completely alone. Although many of our popular ‘wilderness experience’ ventures happen in groups and are designed for team building, members experience an interesting phenomenon. Most of them discover a sense of intense ‘aloneness,’ a sense of the vast, immeasurable solitude and with it, their own vulnerability and mortality. Out in the wilderness, none of our comfortable relationships, easy friendships, and convenient fellowships apply. It’s the place of ‘me and the wildnerness,’ the place of ultimate personal confrontation.
From a spiritual perspective, the nature of ‘wilderness’ is the place of testing, growth, and transformation. No one who has ever entered a spiritual wilderness period has ever emerged unchanged. Our response will, of course, help to determine the nature and depth of the change, but it’s generally momentous, one of those spiritual landmarks that stand out as a milestone of memories that are both intensely harrowing and intensely sweet.
Sweet? Really? I’m certain that anyone who has experienced a spiritual wilderness will agree that it contains a sweetness that is more poignant and vibrant than any other. That is because it’s the place of face to face with ourselves and with God. Remember Jacob who wrestled with God alone in the wilderness? It was a place of dark desperation, a hanging on, skin on skin, until daylight. He emerged with a forever limp as a reminder of the agony and struggle, but he emerged transformed, and with a blessing beyond imagining.
Our relationship with God is so often cluttered with the things of life. Big or small, they distract us, get in the way, and divert our attention to the physical, material, or emotional world – which is essentially away from God. We feel pressured to perform, to deliver, to meet perceived expectations. We have responsibilities, desires, dreams, and loved ones. But in the spiritual wilderness those things are systematically stripped away or set aside. We see them in a wholly different light, because we see God that much more clearly. Hindrances are easily discarded when survival depends on it.
But why would God choose the stark and harrowing spiritual wilderness to teach us what we could learn so much more comfortably ‘at home?’ The answer lies in today’s verse, the context of which is Hosea’s unfaithful wife. Gomer represents an Israel who had turned away from her ‘husband’ and gone after idols and spiritual immorality. She is the type of self, embodying our own pursuit of pleasure and things that distract us from God. Gomer’s wilderness was the slave market, the place of captivity and desolation into which Hosea, the type of God as husband, steps in as redeemer.
Theirs is a beautiful love story, and today’s verse is a poignant revelation of God’s love and the truth of the wilderness experience. This truth is that, like Gomer, the wildnerness may be the only place where we stop and face both ourselves and God in absolute honesty. It may be the only place where we have the time and space to listen. It may well be that we will only jettison the things and pursuits of the world that intrude and divert our attention from God. Survival is a powerful instinct. It may be that this is the only thing that will shake us up enough to realise that God alone is our husband, the source of all and everything we need.
Notice that today’s verse uses words of love, like allure. It’s well worth reading the passage through to verse 16 which says: And it shall be, in that day,” Says the Lord, “That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ And no longer call Me ‘My Master.’ What follows is a wonderful promise of restoration, but today’s verse focuses on relationship. The wilderness is the revelation of the extreme love of God. This is the encouragement. Wilderness times are never accidental. Just as Christ was led there by the Spirit, so God will lead us there with the single purpose of wooing us, and bringing us to the place of a union with Him that transcends everything else we have or will experience.
The sad reality is that many, if not most, of us need the extreme exerience of the spiritual wilderness to enter into that new, transforming relationship of God as husband rather than only as master. But the abiding truth is that His love for us is so extreme that He is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. Instead of kicking and screaming, instead of resenting and resisting, this is the truth we should take hold of. God searches us out, He leads us to a place of ‘only Him and me,’ and then He comforts, strengthens, teaches, and transforms.
Verses 18 and 19 say this: I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me
In righteousness and justice, In lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the Lord.
This is God’s desire, and He’s willing to do whatever it takes, including using the spiritualwilderness to achieve it. I can testify to the truth of it, and I’m certain many others can as well. In all honesty, the spiritual wilderness is place I never want to experience again. I acknowledge that ‘me’ made it essential, but I am eternally grateful that He loved me enough to so patiently allure me, encourage and comfort me, challenge me, and change me. God never gives up on us. An extreme experience will always bring extreme results if we are willing to trust Him, to endure, and to see it through to completion.
Lord, help us to know You as husband as well as master. Teach us and guide us by Your Holy Spirit working within to change us. Grant us the courage to face ourselve in complete honestly, to cast aside anything that stands between perfect union with You. And help us to know, completely, that wherever we find ourselves, You are there with us and You have a perfect purpose.