Question: "What does it mean to have a wilderness experience?"
Answer: A “wilderness experience” is usually thought of as a tough time in which a believer endures discomfort and trials. The pleasant things of life are unable to be enjoyed, or they may be absent altogether, and one feels a lack of encouragement. A “wilderness experience” is often a time of intensified temptation and spiritual attack. It can involve a spiritual, financial, or emotional drought. Having a “wilderness experience” is not necessarily a sign that a believer is sinning; rather, it is a time of God-ordained testing.
A “wilderness experience” is often linked to a “mountaintop experience”; that is, the struggle follows a success of some kind. The period of trial comes on the heels of a period of accomplishment or achievement.
There are several biblical examples of people enduring a “wilderness experience.” The people of Israel, in leaving Egypt, experienced a miraculous deliverance through the Red Sea. The triumph of finally being free from slavery was their “mountaintop experience.” Yet what followed was a journey through the desert. They were tried in an actual wilderness, and they failed the test. As a result, their “wilderness experience” stretched to forty years.
Others who can be said to have had a “wilderness experience” include the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:1–9); the apostle Paul (Galatians 1:17–18); and, of course, the patriarch Job.
Jesus also had a “wilderness experience.” After Jesus’ baptism, “at once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12–13). Jesus’ experience teaches us some important facts: 1) it is not a sin to be tempted; 2) it is God’s will that times of testing come our way—Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” when He went into the wilderness (Luke 4:1); and 3) we are never without God’s grace—Jesus may have been “with the wild animals,” but “angels attended him,” too (Mark 1:13).
In a “wilderness experience,” a believer may struggle simply to survive from day to day. Financial, material, physical, or emotional burdens may press on him. The flesh cries out for relief. The believer is forced to wait on the Lord, find God’s peace and joy in the midst of trouble, and through it all mature in his walk with Christ. Paul offers this encouragement for those who “have this treasure in jars of clay”: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:7–10). The reason for these trials, Paul says, is “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (verse 7).
The wilderness is an unpleasant place, fleshly speaking. We naturally want prosperity, health, and easy going. But the same God who created the garden also created the wilderness. There will be times of trial and pressure. Our faith will be tested. But the God of grace will meet us even in the wilderness. Missionary Amy Carmichael knew this truth: “Bare heights of loneliness . . . a wilderness whose burning winds sweep over glowing sands, what are they to HIM? Even there He can refresh us, even there He can renew us.”