I once lived in the desert. With relatively few leisure options, I became skilled at creating my own fun. Our fourth floor apartment with its cherry-red hardwood floors was impossible to keep clean. Despite our best efforts, a thin layer of sand always blanketed the floor. During sandstorm season, every bicycle commute was a race against the gusty scythe-wielding beast, watching his approach and his victims, peddling yet going nowhere, across the way.
Such were my concerns in the desert.
Years after moving away, I found myself in another desert—or, as St. John of the Cross would say, a dark night of the soul—lifting hoarse and wearied prayers for deliverance to a God who seemed absent. My concerns now were different.
Like the Israelites, I lobbed distrustful accusations against Him: “You have brought me into this desert to starve me to death,” (Exodus 16:3) and “Why did you bring me up out of Egypt to make me die of thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). I wandered in and out of my own Massah and Meribah, lands of complaining and strife, wondering, “Is the Lord with me or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
As silence stretched on, I descended into bitter misery. A journal entry from the time read, “Why do you continue to give me life without giving me yourself?”
Those three years in the wilderness paled in comparison with the forty the Israelites endured. But they were a great teacher: the humility, the lesson. As God had revealed his end game with the great Israelite detour— “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2) —so was his plan for me.
I didn’t know that on the front end, I just knew that my absolute need for a savior and my natural unfitness to produce love for God on my own were laid painfully bare to me in that desert. Those are years I do not forget.
Sukkot is one of the three major sacred festivals of Judaism. It commemorates Israel’s wandering in the desert or, from a different perspective, the time of their humbling. Following five days after Yom Kippur, a solemn celebration of atonement, Sukkot, also known as z’man simchateinu “The Season of our Rejoicing”, is a festival of unbridled joy. What joy, though, is to be found in wandering?
First, in God’s provision and second, in the glory of the promise.
Here is a summary of how God provided for the Israelites in the desert:
“Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.” (Nehemiah 9:19–21)
In the wilderness, the Lord provided: they ate the bread of angels (Psalm 78:25) and their sandals did not wear out (Deuteronomy 29:5). From the smallest to the largest detail, the Lord was faithful.
Sukkot (literally Feast of Booths) was ordained in Leviticus 23:34. “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.’” During the festival, families build and live in temporary shelters called sukkah. The structure is intentionally bare: three undecorated walls and a covering made of unaffixed branches with space left in between to let in sunlight and rain.
This practice symbolizes that their wandering was but temporary and though they felt vulnerable they were protected. It reminds that however real things may seem they do not last. It bids us to detach from the material. It focuses our gaze on what is to come – the glory of the coming promise. And for the Christian, what is to come is Christ.
In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, a 15th century Dutch monk, contrasts the temporal and carnal with the eternal.
“O my God, thou sweetness ineffable, make bitter for me all carnal comfort, which draws me away from the love of eternal things, and in evil manner allures me to itself by setting before me some present delightful good.
“Let me not be overcome, O Lord, let me not be overcome by flesh and blood; let not the world and the short glory thereof deceive me; let not the devil and his subtle craftiness supplant me. Give me strength to resist, patience to endure, and constancy to persevere.
“Give me, instead of all the comforts of the world, the most sweet balm of thy Spirit, and instead of carnal love, influence with the love of thy name.”
The phrase ‘short glory’ recalls 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us a glory that far outweighs them all.” Short glory comes from the comforts of the world but eternal glory comes through perseverance while relying on the unseen.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:6-9)
I wandered through my own wilderness for three years, struggling to see God’s hand, struggling to know and feel His presence. Psalm 77:19 says, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” I needed to be better at seeing God where I didn’t see God. Joy hid in the ability to see the unseen.
Chuck DeGroat, Professor of Counseling and Pastoral Care at Western Theological Seminary, talks about the goals of the dark night and these deserts we face:
“In our North American context, failure and struggle are often viewed as problems, jagged detours on what is supposed to be the smooth, straight road of life. It’s a distinctly Western phenomenon, but one that subtly impacts our Christian perceptions. Thus many pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it…The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms and awaken us to a much simpler desire for intimacy with God…you’re being invited into the glorious purging of the dark night where the old self and its old loves are shed and replaced by a new and deeper love for Jesus, for others, and even for you—a beloved son or daughter of a heavenly Father who longs to see you whole.”
These times of wandering humble us, make us dependent on God, divorce us from the comforts of the world, prove God’s unseen hand, and set our hearts on eternity and the promised glory to come. As the Israelites dwelt in temporary sukkah to celebrate Sukkot, we can, in our earthly tents, groan and long for our heavenly dwelling and seek shelter in the Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing Christ’s return (2 Corinthians 5:4-5). What greater reasons for joy could there be?