On the Back Side of the Desert

Is your soul parched? Has your ministry drained you dry? Don't give up--God doesn't forsake you when you're in the desert.

Ever ministered so long and hard that you find yourself completely exhausted? Slumped down in your favorite chair, nothing is left in you but a past, distant memory of God's presence.

Your bread from God has been devoured by others. The Spirit's water in your well has gone dry. As you look ahead at ministry's endless landscape, all you see for miles ahead is desert.

I have been there and have met many others trudging through the desert. My life has been peppered with the privilege of circling the lives, homes and hearts of many Christian leaders. These have been men and women whose callings have taken them around the world sporting their colorful charismatic approaches to spreading the gospel.

Whether it is their prophetic insights, dramatic presentation, great wisdom, practical application or pastoral preaching, most leaders are driven by their true desire to fulfill what they believe God has called them to do. However, I have seen that being driven simply by a calling in our lives can cause some problems down the ministry highway.

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In times of success--or perhaps popularity--we, as ministry leaders, push intensely to be all things to all people, pouring out our resources into empty cups that stand in endless lines before us. The more we are depended upon, the more dependable we try to become. Too often we are tempted to create new ways of packaging the gospel to ensure the fickle crowd remains our loyal audience.

When our journey takes us through curves in the path we weren't prepared for--such as disapproval, criticism, unfair decisions, health problems or relationship woes--our calling may be challenged. We may find ourselves sweeping from our mental closet the nagging feelings of weariness and growing resentment of the lack of God's concern.

Natural gifts and abilities no longer seem strong enough to keep us going. The emptiness we have witnessed in the eyes of others is suddenly reflected in our own. We are in the desert!

Emptiness and weariness push us into self-evaluation. It is during these times that we sit and evaluate our calling. We ask ourselves:

Did I miss God's leading?

Did I veer from the path of blessing because of bad decisions, poor judgment or secret sin?

Is it because of the incompetence, selfishness or lack of character in the people I have tried to serve? Often, this is the one we assume to be true, even if it's not.

When we are faced with disappointment, we must probe for a deeper reason for our predicament. Leaders may find themselves camping in a place of loneliness, barrenness and weariness, which we might call the "back side of the desert." Here we may find ourselves questioning God, ourselves and others about our calling and ministry.

Perhaps you feel as if you are wandering in the back side of the desert. If so, don't give up. In fact, take heart--this may be the very place God will bring His revelation to you in order to empower your ministry beyond the goals and dreams you had set for your life.

Learn from Moses' desert experience with God. Moses was a great example of a true leader. For 40 years Moses was spared from the pain and mistreatment his people were experiencing. Raised in the pharaoh's home, he received all the honor, ease and rights of a pharaoh's grandchild.

Yet at some point, Moses saw the condition of his people and made a determination to bring hope back to the Israelites. This decision was costly. In pursuing his calling to help the Israelites, his position, power and passion were dissipated, and he quickly realized he had to flee for his life. The success and recognition he once enjoyed was no longer his.

Ripped from his comfort zone, Moses retreated to a desolate place and humbly accepted a position far below his capability: watching over his father's flocks. Can you imagine the questions Moses must have been asking himself as the days of sheep watching droned on? He must have re-evaluated his decision a thousand times, asking:

Why God?

Wasn't I meant to serve You? What was Your purpose in having me at the pharaoh's house?

What have I missed?

What do I do next?

The paradox of the desert is that in the quiet dryness of the moment, thoughts often are unscrambled while priorities are reassembled. In the desert, God's voice can be clearly heard.

There in the stillness, in the most illogical place, a miracle happened for Moses. It was not in the pharaoh's house but on the back side of the desert that Moses met God. It was there that God revealed Moses' personal assignment.

Moses made a personal choice. As the bush began to burn with the Spirit of God, Moses chose to leave what he was doing and turn toward God. "'I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.' So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush" (Ex. 3:3-4, NKJV). Not until Moses decided to turn toward the presence of God did God reveal Himself.

Is your calling keeping you from drawing near to God? In our pursuit of being a good leader and following our calling, we may neglect to draw near to God. Many times, our calling drives us, instead of us being drawn to God's revelation of what He has planned for us. I wonder how many leaders who find themselves in the back side of the desert have chosen to ignore God's restoration fire only to hold on to burning resentment and disappointment?

Moses received his assignment to go to pharaoh with God's word of liberation. He was called to proclaim God's word--not to rely only on his own talent, ability to communicate, strategy or logic. God's word was all that was needed to bring hope and life back to God's people.

As Moses pursued his assignment, this revelation brought a new sense of direction and determination to his heart. Through pestilence and hardship, Moses never wavered from what God had told him. Again and again he brought God's word obediently before the people, speaking the truth God had revealed to him. That truth and his commitment to accomplishing his assignment brought freedom to the people of Israel. Eventually truth prevailed and the journey to freedom began.

Knowing God happens in the desert. Moses' assignment did not end when the Israelites started their trek to the promised land. His leadership had to remain constant, strong and endure heartbreak and disappointment as he witnessed the weak faith and wavering hearts of the people whom he was leading.

Where was it Moses was leading the people? Scripture tells us God's words to pharaoh were, "'Let my people go, so that they may worship Me in the desert'" (Ex. 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, NIV). In the desert--not the promised land--Moses and Israel would know God.

God knew the people needed time to get to know Him personally, to learn to believe in Him, to strengthen their faith and to understand His character and nature. If they were to go directly to the promised land they would know only of His provision and promise.

They could easily become a shallow, self-serving people who chose to ignore the foundational knowledge of who God is. Without the desert, their experience of God would end up being a false charade instead of an authentic intimacy.

In their pursuit of the great provisions of God, the people would be tempted to forget the intimacy that makes our Christian experience a relationship, not a religion. Every human heart craves this intimacy. Paul experienced it when he said, "I also count all things as rubbish that I might know Him" (see Phil. 3:8, NKJV). God wanted Moses to lead the people into a place where they could know Him. That place was the desert.

Moses' assignment was challenged when the people whom He was supposed to lead refused to follow. They refused to go meet God on the mountain. Here were people who had survived the journey by miracles, signs and wonders. God had given His provision. They were a healed people; their physical needs were met while signs and wonders showed them the direction they were to go.

In spite of seeing firsthand God's power and signs, Israel began to grumble and complain. When their character was put into question, it came up short. They were impatient, critical, disloyal and resentful against the leadership--a sure sign that their relationship with God was not rooted or based on intimacy, but rather on God providing their needs.

God told Moses to sanctify the people, to prepare themselves for two days, for on the third day the Lord would come down from Mount Sinai in the sight of everyone. The Israelites had experienced God. Why would they need to prepare? Had they not seen His power?

On the third day they realized something startling. When the glory of God began to present itself, the people became terrified. They drew back and told Moses, "'You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die'" (Ex. 20:19). The glory of God was about to reveal the hearts of the people. His glory, which was for every man, woman and child in the Israelite camp, was not allowed to be revealed to them. They chose to withdraw so that their hidden sin would not be revealed.

Moses chose to walk in God's glory. The people chose to hold on to their sinful lifestyle, wanting only God's provision, not His glory. Moses response was, "'Do not fear'" (v. 20). He wanted the people to experience God's love and intimacy in the desert.

Cherish the intimacy with God found in the desert. The church today is filled with well-meaning people who are trying to live in God's provision and promise, but they have lost their intimacy with Him. If they feel the provision is not enough or the promise is elusive, they trade true intimacy in the love of God for false flattery and empty promises conjured up by the enemy. With hopes dashed and lives broken, their belief in church, Christian leaders and God is destroyed, and they wander the desert forever. Many people today, including leaders, are no different than the children of Israel.

As Christian leaders, our hearts must be like Moses' heart. He hungered for intimacy with the Father. In leadership we have the responsibility to lead others to this place of intimacy while in the desert. We can never lead anyone where we haven't been ourselves. In our quest to minister, it is His presence that keeps our perspective clear and pure.

When our hearts are shattered by criticism by those who are supposed to follow our lead, or when we are tempted to choose a path that leads away from popular approval, it is imperative to know God intimately. We must stand firm in faith. In the desert of spiritual dryness, we visit the mountain of His dwelling and sit in His glory even when we have to be there alone. This is true leadership. True ministry is not based on our performance, but on our ability to allow God to work through us when we are empty and dry.

Does your church seek intimacy or comfort? Many churches across our country are filled with worshipers eschewing intimacy and seeking to remain in their comfort zones. So they choose leaders who will direct them in the easy paths they wish to follow. While they may sing, dance and bang their tambourines, like Israel of old they worship before an idol instead of meeting God in the desert. If God's glory did appear, they would gather up their belongings and head across town to another church.

This is exactly what the children of Israel did. When the people withdrew from the mountain where Moses was, God appointed another leader, Aaron. God told Moses, "'Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you'" (Ex.19:24). Aaron's leadership differed from Moses'. Aaron decided not to go to the mountain but to remain with the people. He was more comfortable there, as seen in his continually retreating back to the camp. The people saw in Aaron a leadership that would not pressure them into pursuing a faith walk to the mountain.

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered with Aaron and said to him, "'Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him'" (Ex.32:1). Sounds like a committee meeting held in the back room of many churches, doesn't it?

They gravitated to Aaron because they could manipulate his thinking and get what they wanted--a pursuit of their comfort zone. Aaron must have had a gift of leadership, for people followed him. But his gift led them to a place of destruction. Why? Because his gift was not accompanied by a character of commitment and integrity. Aaron succumbed to the pressures of the people. To please them, he built idols. In the desert we are forced to choose to please God or to please men.

Today too many in the church still worship idols. They are shaped in the image of self and selfish desires. As the church we flirt dangerously close to the edge of destruction, dabbling until many are enveloped in sin. We look for leaders who let us stay in our playground of comfort.

Let your calling be consecrated in the desert. God's word for every leader is still the same as it was for Moses and Aaron: "'Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people'" (Ex.19:10-11).

Just as with the children of Israel, God will minister healing to us when we are on the back side of the desert. "'Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight'" (Hos. 6:1-2). God is soon returning for His sanctified people. We are to help others to set themselves apart, clean themselves up and prepare for His coming.

As Christian leaders we can follow in Moses' footsteps, receiving a revelation from God for our personal assignment. This revelation along with God's calling to spread the gospel will help us along the ministry pathway.

Moses made a firm commitment, deciding that the things of this world paled in comparison to knowing the intimacy of God. He tasted of God and nothing else mattered--not the approval of people and not fleeting pleasures. What he knew about God sustained him and carried him successfully toward his goal.

When God told Moses to take the people on to the promised land, Moses quickly replied, "'If your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here'" (Ex. 33:15). Moses did not want anything that was not of God.

Our decision to follow a calling or pursue true ministry will affect the lives of countless others. Through intimacy with the Father, we allow Him to fill our empty cups so that we have the vision and strength to carry out His mandate to reach our world. There are many who are comfortable in seeing signs and wonders and are prospering in His promises, but have yet to taste of the glory and intimacy He so graciously wants to share.

The morning is approaching. There is nothing we can do to change God's appointed time of return. Discover intimacy with God as you pass through your desert. Should you find yourself feeling as if your time for ministry has passed, been stolen or remains elusive, remember that it was in the barren desert that Moses was touched with new fire. That fire changed the course of his life.

Like Moses, you can be empowered, renewed and reminded of God's ability to do great and mighty things through you when you turn in the desert to experience His fire and hear His voice.

Joyce Simmons is a free-lance writer and speaker for Women of Destiny. She resides with her family in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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