Wilderness seasons are bewildering and lonely. Sometimes it’s easy to identify how you arrived in a desolate place—down paths with names like Diagnosis, or Loss, or Depression. Other times you find yourself in a malaise or a spiritual wasteland seemingly out of nowhere. You were making progress, arranging your life appropriately, and then you took a left turn at Albuquerque and the landscape became fiercely inhospitable.

It’s natural to want to avoid wilderness experiences. Yet the biblical writers suggest that the wilderness is an expected and even necessary part of walking with God. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the life of Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel lays out for us a vivid depiction of Jesus’ most prolonged wilderness season. First, Jesus’ public ministry is launched with a dramatic moment of affirmation: 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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’”(Matthew 3:16–17, NIV).

If I were scripting the story, I’d move Jesus from that profound confirmation of his identity directly into his mission. But, instead, the plot takes a sharp twist: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).

Theology professor Ross Hastings says the phrase “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” reminds him of the day his parents led him by the hand into a hospital ward for a tonsillectomy. The kind of love that wants us to be well is not the kind of love that always leads us somewhere easy.

So why would the Spirit lead Jesus to the wilderness? And why might the Spirit lead us there as well?

The Boot Camp Theory

Pastor Mark Clark loves to picture Jesus’ time in the wilderness as Navy Seals training. Like an elite soldier, Jesus had to endure the most extreme regimen imaginable to prepare him for his mission. The mandates and methods of the Kingdom of God needed to be so deeply ingrained that he could stay true to them under any degree of pressure.

Clark jokingly imagines implementing a radical discipleship program in which recent converts are put through the wringer like marine recruits until they can recite Scripture under highly stressful conditions. It’s a silly—and scary—proposal. But there is something to this theory of the wilderness.

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Is it possible that, when we find ourselves in a desolate place, we are actually being invited into intensive training for whatever mission lies ahead? James, Jesus’ own brother, offers this same interpretation of wilderness experiences, arguing that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:3).

The Formational Furnace Theory

Closely related to the Boot Camp Theory is the suggestion that the heat of the desert and the severe pressures of loneliness, hunger, and temptation operated as a furnace that further forged Jesus’ character. The writer of the Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Perhaps our own character—like fibreglass or gold or cake batter—needs to be molded in a formative furnace. Might that be one of the gifts of an arid wilderness season? The apostle Paul agrees with James that suffering produces perseverance, and he builds upon this idea, noting that perseverance produces character (Romans 5:3-5).

The Voice Recognition Theory

Jesus hears two voices in the wilderness. The voice of the Father says: You are my beloved Son. The voice of the enemy counters: If you are the Son of God, prove it.

In his book Prototype, Jonathan Martin argues:

The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of His identity in God’s eyes, and allowed Him to step away from His day-to-day life until the noise and hurry of the world around Him was stripped down to the point where He could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us.

Is it possible that wilderness-loneliness offers us the gift of distraction-free listening? Might we discover that our need to distinguish our Father’s voice from all others’ is so great that we begin, like Jesus, to voluntarily withdraw to lonely places to pray? (Luke 5:16)

The Know Thyself Theory

Not only did the wilderness allow Jesus to better learn his Father’s voice, it gave him a chance to cement his own self-understanding. Faced with repeated temptations to exploit the power structures of an earthly kingdom, Jesus chose the way of sacrifice and love, sealing his identity in the process.

Perhaps there is a related gift of self-understanding in the wilderness for us. Typically, it’s almost impossible to resist defining ourselves in terms of how we measure up to others. Might the isolation of the wilderness be an invitation to extract ourselves from our elaborate networks of comparison?

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Henri Nouwen contrasts the “relevant self” (the self that can do and earn things) with the “unadorned self” (who we are when we are not proving anything—the self that is “open to give and receive love regardless of any accomplishments.”) It often takes an experience that strips us bare of our usual armor (and our résumés) to get us in touch with our unadorned selves. The process can be terribly painful. But the Spirit is with us, working to move us towards wholeness.

Is it possible that this healing and integration of ourselves might happen only in the wilderness?

The Life Happens Theory

Sometimes, we may have wilderness experiences simply because we live on a broken planet. People get sick, hormones go awry, relationships sour, and in some cases we make poor choices and exile ourselves. As multidimensional beings, our desert experiences may require complex care on physical, psychological, and spiritual levels.

But whether or not the Spirit has orchestrated any given journey into the wilderness, God is still there with us. Regardless of the source of the trouble, God can redeem our wilderness experiences to train us, shape us, teach us to recognize his voice, and seal our identities in his love.

Whatever theories we might hold, there is no wilderness so isolated that the Spirit is not there. There is no terrain so barren that it cannot yield the Father’s gifts. With God, it turns out that time in the wasteland is never wasted.