Desert Series Reflections I

“Thirst”, watercolor and gold pigment on paper, 2021 and “The Humbling”, watercolor and gold pigment on paper, 2021. These paintings, “Thirst” and “The Humbling” are the first two of my Desert Series, which conveys the experience of walking with God through the “desert” and learning to live by His Word through trials and temptations. These pieces reflect my spiritual journey which is still ongoing (as is the series). 

The idea of “desert” first came to me in the fall of 2020 when I was going through a period of spiritual depression. For me, this experience felt like a spiritual desert, where I was physically and emotionally drained but spiritually thirsty. I felt like God was far from me, but I also sensed more than usual my desperate need and thirst for Him through this period of darkness and despair. My heart echoed the Psalmist’s cries, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2) and “You, God are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). The Hebrew word in this piece, meaning “Thirst,” comes from these psalms. I continued to pray these words to Him even when I felt embroiled in darkness and confusion. It was in the dryness and dehydration of the desert that I felt my soul’s longing and thirst for Him the most, like a void in my soul that needed to be filled. Although I couldn’t feel His presence, I could feel my thirst and my need, and that was real. 

The second piece, “The Humbling,” also reflects my experience through that time, which in some ways is still ongoing. The Hebrew word in my second piece, meaning, “to be humbled,” can also mean “to be bowed down or afflicted”. It comes from Deuteronomy 8, which has been my key scripture for this series. The process of being humbled by God is not a one-time experience.In those many times when He humbles us, it feels very painful and difficult to walk through. In the Hebrew understanding, humility is tied to affliction. Though it is painful now, it is not purposeless. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful, later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11) In my piece, “The Humbling,” the setting is the petrified sand dunes at  Snow Canyon State Park in Utah. These formations were once shifting sand dunes, but now, after years of weathering and wind, are solid rock. The signs of the process are still there, echoing how God uses difficult trials to shape and solidify us in Christ. 

Deuteronomy 8:4, quoted by Jesus in the wilderness, inspired this series and came to my mind during this very dark time, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (from Matthew 4:4 and Deuteronomy 8:4). Even in such uncertainty, God was speaking His truth to my heart. The context is when Jesus is being tempted by Satan after being baptized by John the Baptist. He quotes this verse from the Law in response to Satan’s baiting Him to use His power to satisfy His physical hunger (after fasting for 40 days). I had heard this verse many times, but I think the meaning rang home to me in a new way that applied directly to my situation. 

I recalled the beginning of the passage, where it reads, “And Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). It really stood out to me that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. This desert experience for Jesus wasn’t random or coincidental, it happened according to God’s will and for His purposes, even though it must have been severely trying for Him  as a human being emotionally, physically and spiritually. I thought about how after Satan left, “the angels came and attended Him” (Matthew 4:11) and how depleted Jesus must have been after the ordeal. The only other place we see something similar mentioned is while He suffered agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and an angel came to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43). But after this time in the desert (in Matthew 4), multiple angels came to Him, suggesting a deeply distressing experience. It was a comfort to me that Jesus Himself had experienced His own time in the desert of spiritual (and physical) hunger and thirst, which the Holy Spirit led Him into. “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Though I didn’t understand what I was experiencing, I knew it wasn’t coincidental and that God had led me there, as difficult as it was. And not only that, but Jesus Himself had experienced temptation and spiritual warfare in the desert on my behalf and stood firm. 

I looked up the original context of Deuteronomy 8:4 (which Jesus quotes) and this too spoke to my experience as well. In his last sermon, Moses had reminded the new generation of Israelites preparing to enter the promised land of why the Lord had led them through the wilderness for 40 years. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 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.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5) 

What was God’s primary motivation for taking them through this desert experience? To humble, to test and to teach. He humbled them by allowing them to experience the hunger and thirst and desperation of the desert to teach them to live by His Word, not bread alone. It was His truth and His promises spoken to their forefathers that would sustain them when they couldn’t see the way ahead, when they battled thirst, hunger and fear. They had to live by His Word and not by their own feelings and thoughts, even when the two seemed contradictory for the moment. And as difficult as the experience was, God never left them, even when it may have felt like it. Rather, He led them “all the way”. In love, He patiently disciplined them and taught them to trust Him. Of course, they did not live by His Word perfectly. They stumbled and faltered and sinned many times, just like I have (and we all do). I too am still learning, growing, and being humbled by God. These first two pieces in the series express two experiential stages in this journey. The process is complex, multi-faceted and cyclical, and it won’t end in this life. I still struggle and stumble and fall into sin. I don’t have all the answers. I experience weakness and fear. My faith falters at times and I do not not walk through this desert perfectly. 

But there is One who did walk through it perfectly. One who was tested and tried severely in the desert like the Israelites but did not give into temptation. He felt all the pangs of affliction and suffering in His human experience, yet never sinned. He truly lived “by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and this very word sustained Him through hunger and thirst and temptation in the desert. In my own desert experience, He is the One in whom I hope for He has stood in my stead. He walked through the toughest deserts of life in perfect righteousness and obeyed God even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). His perfect record of obedience is credited to me as righteousness by faith in Him even though I don’t deserve it (Romans 3:22). Though I cannot walk through this desert perfectly, and I still struggle with sin, temptation, fear and doubt, He is my hope through it all: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)

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