Everyone has experienced a “wilderness season” before, perhaps more than once. A wilderness season is when you feel stuck or lost in a difficult situation, and your only options are to endure patiently and wait with the expectation that the situation will eventually pass or be resolved. For some people, this period may last a few days, for others it may last years—or for so long that it feels like it will never end.
We all encountered a wilderness season at the same time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses closed their doors—some for good. Anticipated events were cancelled. Schools closed with awkward transitions into remote learning. Jobs were lost, hours were cut. Those who lost loved ones were unable to gather to mourn their dead. Church services became virtual, and some may remain that way until next year.
Like all others affected by the pandemic, I entered this season of wilderness abruptly. I had begun the internship of my dreams in February of this year. I had never worked in an office with my own desk before. I also haven’t seen a live basketball game since I was in elementary school, so imagine my excitement when I received tickets for a game that was being played on my birthday in mid-March. The year had just begun, and everything was going well so far.
Then, within less than a week’s time, everything changed. First, basketball games were cancelled. My birthday game tickets were now null in void. News reports began to pour in on closures and cancellations happening everywhere, making me realize I wouldn’t be able to celebrate my birthday anywhere anytime soon. The next workday, I learned that I could no longer have the office experience I had been fantasizing about; I had to work from home. Because of the cancellations everywhere, much of the work I had created as an intern was postponed until further notice or completely went to waste.
Nevertheless, I was thankful to still be employed and healthy. But I felt like I was stuck in the middle of nowhere without any guidance. It was this feeling of stagnation that caused me worry. Here in the United States, information regarding the economy and the threat of the COVID-19 virus has not been consistent or clear, making it difficult to make plans for the near future. I felt like I couldn’t sit idly by, even as the entire country was being halted to a standstill. I had to figure out what steps I could take to move forward. I spent the first couple of months of the pandemic surfing through dozens of news reports, expert opinions, graphs, and theories—none offered a clear, concise answer on what life could be like post-COVID. I could not figure it out. I, like many people across the country, have to wait and see what happens.
And that’s not something people like to do. Our culture values hard work and busyness. To sit back and wait gives off the appearance of laziness or resignation. But sometimes waiting is a good thing—especially when waiting on God.
As famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV), “there is nothing new under the sun.” The problems in humanity we see today have reoccurred throughout history, even since the biblical times. After God freed the Israelites from slavery, he promised to bring them to the Promised Land—a region designated for them to live in peace and prosperity. All they had to do was trust his planning and obey his commands. This kind of trust was exemplified by the Israelites willingness to only travel through the wilderness as God physically led them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Whenever and wherever the cloud or pillar settled, the Israelites would set up camp in the wilderness and wait until God reappeared to lead them again. They did not know when he was coming back or how long they had to wait for him, but whenever he did return his cloud or fire, they immediately followed (Exodus 40:36). Despite his commitment to them, the Israelites feared moving into the Promise Land because those who occupied the region at the time appeared to be strong, intimidating opponents. They became overwhelmed with doubt and worry because they could not figure out how to defeat their adversaries and obtain the Promised Land on their own (Numbers 13:26-31). The Israelites completely disregarded God’s leadership and protection that he offered them. God responded to the Israelite’s disbelief by saying, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?” (Numbers 14:11).
Finding solutions by ourselves when faced with great difficulties seems like a natural inclination, but what is natural is not always what is right. We see in Numbers 14 how offensive it is to God to trust our own abilities over his. We should rely on God’s sovereignty while we are in the wilderness.
What is God’s sovereignty?
God is sovereign, meaning that every person and every action is under his judgement. The typical response to this truth is to blame God for every bad thing that happens. If everything is under God’s discernment, why doesn’t he prevent things like poverty and war? It is a logical and natural conclusion to make, but that does not make it correct. As the sovereign God, both wicked and just acts are under his judgment, but he doesn’t always prevent wicked acts because he is not a dictator. Instead, he uses wicked acts to bring glory to his kingdom and purpose to his believers. God is not selfish for using wicked acts in this way. Selfishness would be leaving the universe to chance and chaos. I’m not saying that God caused COVID-19, but I do believe he can use the pandemic to draw closer to his believers by helping us understand his sovereignty over this situation.
The concept of God’s sovereignty during calamity is best explained in the Book of Job (“Job” rhymes with “robe”). In this Old Testament account, God allows Job to enter a wilderness period. Similar to how many of us are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, Job experienced several setbacks and tragedies all at once. His farm animals and servants were destroyed, his children were killed in a freak accident, and then he developed a severe skin disease that left him covered in boils (Job 1:13-18). Job’s account shows the importance of trusting God’s wisdom over our human knowledge and how doing so is integral to trusting his sovereignty.
It’s All Bigger Than Us
Job debates among his friends why these incidents occurred. Each of his friends conclude that he must have done something wrong to lose his prestige and wealth and can only earn his fortunes back by apologizing to God. However, Job is more concerned about his standing with God than his losses. He believes that righteousness—being morally upstanding by remaining committed to God’s way of doing things—is more important than anything he has lost.
What Job and his friends do not know is that there is more going on behind the scenes.
God wants to show Satan that Job is indeed a morally upright person and is worthy of the blessings he has received in life for his unwavering commitment to God. Satan causes calamity in Job’s life to test this unwavering commitment. Satan wants Job to betray God to prove his point, “A man will give all he has for his own life” (Job 2:4), meaning that Job will disavow his faith because he lost everything he had. God allowed Job to suffer for a while because he wanted Satan to see Job’s trust in him over material possessions and loss.
But Job and his friends did not know anything about God’s plans or Satan’s accusations. All they knew is what they could see right in front of them: Job was suffering and had lost everything. Job’s friends rely on their own worldly knowledge to find a solution, but Job remains faithful to God by trusting his sovereignty—his sense of judgement. Job says in Job 12:13, “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.” In each response to his friend’s plea for him to blame himself, Job reminds his friends that God’s knowledge is higher than theirs, so only God has the answer to his problems. He did not disavow God’s abilities or his faith in him. He knew God was in control despite his troubles, and eventually God restored his fortunes and health for his continuous trust in him (Job 42:7-16).
The Book of Job shows us that because God sees what is going on beyond our struggles, we can trust his sovereignty and timing. Our point of view is limited and so is our ability to save ourselves. God’s view is limitless and all encompassing, so he knows what is best for us even if we cannot see or understand his view. Job waited in the wilderness and trusted God’s sovereignty until God rescued him. Believers today can do the same.
While We Wait
Looking at God’s responses to Job and the Israelites in the Book of Numbers, what should we do while we are stuck waiting in a season of wilderness? We should trust him and be ready and willing to obey him when the time comes to move forward. The timeline of a believer’s life is set by God’s judgements. When there comes a time when God wants us to wait on him in the wilderness with trust in our hearts, we endure that time by keeping our eyes on him—relying on his deliverance rather than our own efforts or understandings. Believers can also ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit to understand what specific steps they should take, if any, while they are experiencing a wilderness season.
God’s care for his people outlasts any period of difficulty, including pandemics. Our trust in his sense of judgement should outlast the pandemic. In fact, it should not only outlast it, but grow in strength because of it. I no longer feel stuck as I did at the beginning of the pandemic. I have accepted the fact that it’s not my job to figure out everything right now. Right now, I have no shame in setting up camp in this wilderness and wait for God’s direction.