Does God lead us into the wilderness?

By Dr. Steve Witmer

I spent most of my teen years living on a family ranch in northern British Columbia. We were literally at the end of the road, and our closest neighbors were eight kilometres away. Situated in the foothills of the Rockies, the ranch was surrounded by thousands of acres of Canadian wilderness. Among my favourite memories are the summer Saturdays, when we would saddle up our horses, stow a simple lunch in the saddle bags and ride into unexplored territory for another wilderness adventure. For me, the word “wilderness” revives pleasant memories.

When you think of Christian leaders experiencing the austerity of a figurative wilderness, what emotions surface? Would it be dread, anxiety, panic or perhaps peaceful rest and renewal? Does God lead us into divinely orchestrated wilderness seasons? If so, what would be the purpose of these unsettling circumstances? Let’s briefly explore these questions and gain guidance from the Scriptures.

Firstly, we can confidently affirm that God does indeed lead us into the wilderness and utilizes the simplicity and austerity found these solitary places to prepare his people. Matthew 4:1 boldly communicates, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” before the launching of his public ministry. We discover that God used the Judean wilderness as a preparation place for John the Baptist, whose diet and garments reflected the desert in which he lived. The Bible also describes in significant detail the many lessons learned by the Israelites during their wilderness exodus from Egypt. Elijah the prophet found the wilderness as a place of recovery after his epic encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. For David, the wilderness was a place of protection from the relentless pursuit of the mad King Saul. And the list of wilderness sojourners goes on and on and on.

So then, what is the purpose of the wilderness? What good could come from such a place of austerity and deprivation? Here are few scriptural glimpses at God’s possible purposes:

  1. The wilderness is a place of testing and the growth of trust.

To the Israelites God said: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these 40 years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)

  1. The wilderness is a place of growth and spiritual preparation.

Speaking of John the Baptist, Luke tells us: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)

  1. The wilderness is a place of revelation and fresh encounter with God.

We see this exhibited in the call of Moses. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the Bush was on fire it did not burn up . . . When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” (Exodus 3:1-4)

  1. The wilderness invites us to reflect on God’s provision.

For the children of Israel, the journey from Egypt to the promised land included a 40-year extended stay in the wilderness! Moses spoke to the people to remind them of God’s faithfulness and provision throughout those difficult years: “The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These 40 years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.” (Deuteronomy 2:7)

  1. The wilderness is a place of refuge and protection.

In 1 Kings 19:1-9, we find the remarkable story of God’s care for the exhausted prophet Elijah, after the Mount Carmel encounter with the prophets of Baal. God answered by fire and the nation of Israel repented and returned to the worship of the only true God. But wicked Queen Jezebel, the promoter of idolatrous Baal worship, violently threatened Elijah’s life. After this intense ministry assignment, Elijah needed the safe refuge that God provided for his physical and emotional recovery.

“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, set down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he laid down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat for the journey is too much for you.’ So, he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb the mountain of God.” (1 Kings 19:3-8)

  1. The wilderness is a place of personal renewal and restoration.

Wilderness times, and their forced seasons of simplicity, often help to refocus us on our primary purpose and God’s goodness. In the stillness our hearts are renewed by his presence. To every weary soul the words of the prophet Isaiah provide hope and encouragement: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” (Isaiah 41:18)

Do you find yourself in a bewildering wilderness? Don’t despair, God frequents these remote places with his provision, protection, guidance, rest, renewal and most importantly, his presence. The wilderness invites us into deeper fellowship and intimacy with the Lord. We can say with confident hope that the same God who leads us into the wilderness, walks with us through the wilderness and will lovingly lead us out of the wilderness, and into a new season. May others see us and say: “Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved?” (Song of Solomon 8:5)

Do you feel isolated, lonely or feel like you’ve lost your way? Our Clergy Care counsellors would love to speak with you. Call our toll-free phone line at 1.888.5.CLERGY (1.888.525.3749) to connect with one of our Master’s level, registered Christian counsellors. This counselling line is exclusively for pastors, ministry leaders and their immediate family members, and your call is free of charge.

Or maybe you would benefit from attending one of our Kerith Retreats. These seven-day ministry leaders renewal retreats are held at our three luxury retreat centres in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.  Visit KerithRetreats.ca to learn more and register.


Dr. Steve and Becky Witmer have served together for more than 35 years in a variety of ministry roles. After five years with YWAM, they served in roles such as senior pastor, missionary director, and pastoral care coordinator for their associated network of churches. Sensing that they were entering a new season of life after 14 years as senior pastors in their church, Steve and Becky transitioned to the role of associate pastors for the same congregation. This new role enables them to invest time and energy into both missions and the care of pastors and emerging leaders. They serve as contract retreat leaders with Kerith Retreats, a ministry of Focus on the Family Canada.