The Despair of the Wilderness — Vaneetha Risner

I went kicking and screaming into the wilderness ten years ago. When I first arrived, I was sure this was just a temporary detour. This couldn’t be where God wanted me. It must’ve been a mistake, so I kept looking for the way out.

But when days turned into weeks which turned into months and then years, I realized I had to figure out how to live in this bleak place. When I first entered the wilderness, my definition of the good life had very little to do with God and much more to do with pleasant circumstances. The good life that I longed for included a happy marriage, obedient children, a prosperous life and a thriving ministry. God was an extra bonus and was there to deliver all that I wanted and felt I deserved.

In the wilderness, God dismantled my comfortable life. In that dismantling, I grumbled, grew weary and discouraged and fought this forced dependence on God. But in the end, I learned that the wilderness gave me much more than it took away. 

My wilderness came when I was feeling confident about my life and ministry. This is not unusual; Elijah went into the wilderness right after his stunning defeat of the prophets of Baal. Moses led Israel into the wilderness after God parted the Red Sea and delivered them out of slavery. Because of the contrast, it’s hard to notice anything good in the wilderness. We wonder what we’ve done wrong that God would take us from a place of abundance to a place of desolation.


It’s no surprise that a major sin of the wilderness is grumbling. The children of Israel exaggerated everything that was good about Egypt and claimed they’d rather go back to slavery. (Numbers 11: 1-6). At least they knew what to expect there. I do that too. I may have been unhappy in the situation I was in, but when I’m in the wilderness, I look back on the past with longing and I wish I could return. I may have thought it was bad then, but now it seems worse.

I complain about my life. I decide God doesn’t care. I compare my life to other people who are prospering. This complaining and comparing is different from lamenting, which is when we pour our hearts out to God. Lament is turning towards God, honestly voicing our pain. Grumbling is turning away from God, not talking to him but rather criticizing and speaking negatively about him. 


The wilderness was the lowest emotional point of my life. I was weary and discouraged, looking for security and assurance, while Satan kept whispering that God had abandoned me. At times, I wanted to die. After boldly killing the prophets of Baal, Elijah ran to the wilderness, alone and afraid, where he asked the Lord to let him die. (1 Kings 19: 3-4)

In the wilderness I no longer had pat answers for anyone. I had no answers at all. Just questions. Life felt uncertain. Tenuous. Lonely. No one admired me or wanted to know my secret for victorious living. Instead they pitied me and wondered what I had done wrong to be where I was. I too wondered why God had brought me there, and if he was going to leave me there. It was terrifying.

The wilderness is a place of despair and discouragement, where everything looks dry and empty and our once-fruitful lives feel barren. Like the Israelites, we may be wandering in circles, going nowhere and producing nothing. Our dreams may be so buried that we’re sure life won’t be good again. We may feel distant from the Lord, wondering if he even cares because we feel hidden, judged and forgotten. To survive we need to start talking to him, learning to lament.

Temptation to provide for ourselves

In the wilderness we are tempted to figure out how to provide for ourselves rather than rely on daily provision from God. We want to meet our own needs, be self-sufficient, to plan for our future. Satan’s first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was to provide for himself, to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But Jesus responded to Satan’s temptation saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Matt 4: 1-2) Jesus needed God’s Word more than he needed food. God alone would supply his needs.

As our struggles mount, we sometimes look to idols to give us temporary satisfaction, numbing our pain rather than taking it to God. Addictions like alcohol, drugs, pornography, overspending and overeating can be a quick, immediate fix for our emptiness; it’s easy to ignore their destructive consequences.

The wilderness is a time of waiting. We don’t know what God is doing and must simply wait for his timing. We live day to day, dependent on him, with no control over our future. We can only safely move as God directs, just like the Israelites who could only move when the pillar of cloud or fire moved. (Exodus 13: 21-22). Our lives feel like they are on hold.

What should we do?

What do we do when we’re struggling in the wilderness? We persevere. We trust God when we can’t see anything good. We wait for his timing. We rely on God’s promises. We search for meaning and fellowship in his Word. This wilderness is a temporary place; we’re just passing through, even though it may stretch on for years. God will bring us out of the wilderness when it’s time, and then we’ll see what God has done in us and through us. 

So if you are in the wilderness right now, don’t give up. Understand the temptations of the wilderness to grumble, turn away from God and provide for yourself. Instead choose to press into God with your discouragement and disillusionment. Ask him to provide for your daily needs – just as the angel of the Lord provided food for Elijah and gave him strength for 40 days. (1 Kings 19: 8) God has brought you to the wilderness because here he is molding and shaping you, teaching you things that you cannot learn elsewhere. The wilderness can tether your heart to Jesus in ways that nothing else can. 

God isn’t done with you. Lean into him, listen for his voice, spend time in his Word and hardest of all, wait for his timing. He just may be preparing you for a time of unprecedented fruitfulness.

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This post is the second of a three part series on the wilderness. The first one is on the gift of the wilderness.