Discerning in the desert


Discerning out of something is different than discerning into something—or, at least, it feels different. At the moment of decision, both can feel tremendous—either the knowledge that one has found a place in which to fulfill God’s will and work in His vineyard, or else the knowledge that He has rescued us from a path along which we were not meant to travel, by shining a light upon the way and gently leading us elsewhere. There have been several times in my life when, upon finding that God was not calling me where I’d originally thought, I was filled with joy and gratitude to Him for turning me in the right direction and opening my eyes. As He once rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so has He saved me from the snares before my feet and shown me the way.

But the Israelites expected to go immediately from Egypt into the Promised Land, and they were called instead into the desert. They had seen God’s power demonstrated through their rescue, they knew that He was choosing them for a greater purpose, but they didn’t understand that they were not yet ready to fulfill it. It must have seemed to them that after all their years of suffering, the Lord was rewarding them with more suffering. But we, who have a fuller picture of the history of God’s plan, can understand a little better the purpose of those sufferings. The Israelites were indeed God’s chosen people, but they were still a sinful people in need of purification. God had demonstrated His strength to them, and still they doubted it. In the Promised Land, they would be required to live up to a higher standard and to make even more sacrifices for God. This might have seemed unfair, but it was in fact a great gift—to be refined in a way that was pleasing to God, to make preparations for our redemption, and to be invited to take part in His sacrificial love.

In the desert, the Israelites were forced to depend on God for everything; they were compelled to follow a daily rhythm of work, worship, and sacrifice. They relied on the sustenance of manna alone. They were inundated with the truth of their own littleness and helplessness before God. Slowly, they learned that God had bigger plans than they had imagined. They had expected an instant delivery of milk and honey. Instead, God cleansed them and gave them the chance to cooperate in their own redemption; He helped them, as a people through many generations, to grow radically in trust and virtue. He gave specific instructions for how they should live, and then, recognizing their tendency to be distracted by worldly things, He gave them forty years set apart from the world in which to make those commandments and traditions become solid habits. He was setting the foundation for the community in which His Son would enter the world. If the Israelites could learn to keep God’s commandments in the desert, if they could obey His feasts and penances in their time of despair, these habits would become ingrained in them, and they would remember their reliance on the Lord for generations to come.

Indeed, through the many centuries to follow, the Jewish people retained their traditions and continued to obey the Lord. Their remarkable faith was formed in the desert, when they cried out to God in the wilderness and recognized their need for Him. When Jesus entered the world, He was able to fulfill the Scriptures because of the way they had been handed down. God trained the Israelites in the desert to celebrate the Passover feast as He was preparing His own Son to be the Passover Lamb.

When we discern out of something—when we leave a situation that we have determined is not where we are called—we are often left in an in-between stage. We have been rescued from slavery in Egypt, but we have not yet reached the Promised Land. But God is calling us to be present in the desert. He has not abandoned us. We are here to fulfill a specific purpose, even if we can’t see or understand it right now. Even if we feel as though we have nothing else to gain from our current situation, we likely still have a lot to give. We are laying the groundwork for those who will come after us, and we have to believe that our small works have meaning. The first step toward discerning where we are called next is to live fully wherever we are right now, even if we find ourselves in the midst of the wilderness.

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