The Tolkien quote that is often seen on bumper stickers affixed to Jeep Wranglers is profound. One views “a wandering soul” as unfocused, undisciplined and without purpose. Biblically, I think of the Israelites spending far more time in the desert than they had to simply because that is how God arranged it.
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Deut. 8:3-5
Edmund Clowney in his book, The Unfolding Mystery, commented on the desert wanderings of Israel observing that the Israelites did not realize that God’s purpose for leading them in what turned out to be a longer journey than required by a map, “was not rapid transportation. It was education.” In the desert, God wanted them to learn who He was and in response, who they were. For the Master Teacher, it is not enough for His people to just have this information, it needs to become part of them.
I don’t tend to really learn something until I it becomes a necessity. I was never a strong foreign language student in school, but I quickly grabbed hold of important phrases and expressions when immersed in settings where I needed the language to survive. Until I see my urgent need, my motivation is not all that strong. And often it is in those times of dissonance, disorientation and disconnect that I feel that need. It is then that I realize my former framework for understanding needs to be replaced or that the content of what I understand is anemic at best. And this is what God reveals to me about my relationship with Him through my desert wandering.
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:19-20
The Israelites felt utterly abandoned and lost. They actually pined for the days of slavery in Egypt because at least there they knew their identity and had some predictability about life. But it was in the desert that God showed them they had been seen and found and that though they were in no way inherently “choice”, they were chosen.
For forty days Noah floated on endless water, never spotting land or a place to anchor. For forty years his descendants, the Israelites, wandered in the desert without permanent residence.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-2
The first wilderness was wild but not alienating because it was where God dwelled with man in the Garden. Even so, man turned inward to make meaning of existence and to take control of his surroundings. Noah turned inward as documented immediately upon his exiting the boat onto dry land. The Israelites have a well chronicled 40 years of making idols, storing up manna and looking to themselves more faithfully than God. It was only in the One who each of these sons of God merely shadowed that the wilderness perfectly revealed a whole-hearted trust and dependence on God the Father, Maker, Sustainer and Ruler of all creation. Because His testing produced a fuller realization of God’s dwelling with man, our desert wanderings are guaranteed to do so.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Job 42:3-5
I think I have a grip on God, His ways and my role in His Body until I find myself drifting at sea or wandering in the desert. But in His kindness, He sends me wandering to pull from my curled fingers the false images of Him to which I cling and the short-sighted hopes for myself in which I mistakenly trust. He uses the desert wandering to convince my heart that it is not my grip on Him or anything else but rather His grip on me which guarantees that I am not lost.