To what might we compare this unexpected and unsettling coronavirus season? We might think of it like “Groundhog Day”: a repeating monotony of locked-down life.
We might think of it like the holding pattern of an aircraft coming in to land: an interminable period of waiting—like that of refugees waiting for a safe place to call home.
A related question to ask is, where the current pandemic fits into each of our life stories? It’s a question worth pondering, for, as Alistair McGrath puts it, “the story we believe we are in determines what we think about ourselves and consequently how we live.”
The Bible throws up an intriguing answer to both questions: the coronavirus crisis is a wilderness experience.
The biblical theme of wilderness is widespread:
- Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden;
- Cain was sent into the land of Nod;
- Abram wandered from his father’s household;
- Moses fled to Midian;
- David was an outlaw on the run living in caves;
- John the Baptist was a voice of one calling in the wilderness.
Each of these experienced dislocation, isolation and deprivation. And the Bible recognizes the hardship of such experiences. The wilderness is “barren, a land of deserts and ravines, of drought and utter darkness” (Jer. 2:6). It’s the habitation of demons (Matt. 12:43) and a place of alienation and wandering (Luke 8:29; 15:4).
The paradigmatic wilderness experience was the forty-year meandering of the people of Israel in that “great and terrible wilderness” (Deut 1:19)—the wandering that delayed their arrival in the Promised Land after their miraculous escape from Egypt. In the New Testament, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness following his forty-day fast recapitulates that experience.
All of God’s people effectively live in the wilderness, in between the times of our past redemption and our final rest. Today, with so many restrictions and privations in place, we might feel that this comparison rings especially true.
Yet all of God’s people effectively live in the wilderness, in between the times of our past redemption and our final rest. Indeed, First Corinthians and Hebrews directly address believers in Christ as wilderness Christians (1Cor. 10:1–13; Heb. 3:16–19). Today, with so many restrictions and privations in place, we might feel that this comparison rings especially true.
What, then, is God doing when we find ourselves in the wilderness? Moses, in a text that Jesus turns to in his own wilderness experience, answers the question:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2-5)
God does three things for those stuck in the wilderness.
1. God Tests Us
God uses the wilderness to determine “what is in our hearts” and discover the limits of our obedience. Sadly, Israel failed the test, instead testing him ten times (Num 14:22) in return, by grumbling (Exod. 14–17; Num. 11) and committing idolatry (Exod. 32; Num. 25; Deut. 9:7).
Times of difficulty lay bare the condition of our hearts. In our present wilderness we do well to be vigilant against the sins of sloth, selfishness and self-indulgence, along with grumbling and idolatry. This is a time when the false gods of nationalism and greed enlist new worshippers. It is a time to take stock and to rediscover what really matters , for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).
2. God Provides for Us
The good news in Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness was that God provided manna, quail, and water from the rock. He continued to lead them, despite their disobedience. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.
Troubling times can cause us to doubt the goodness of God. The key thing is to notice and celebrate the evidence of God’s kindness and continued care—even amidst the hardship and adversity. We might remember to be thankful for the necessities of life, modern medicine and health professionals, continued contact with family, friends and colleagues in new ways, more time to notice birds and lilies , online church , and so on. In the wilderness, it is natural to lament what God has taken away; we should also thank God for what he gives us.
3. God Forms Us as His Children
God used Israel’s time in the wilderness to humble the nation, “as a man disciplines his son.” God turned the various tribes of former Egyptian slaves into a nation. At the end of their wilderness experience they had become one people, under one God, with one national goal: the conquest of Canaan. God can use the discomfort and privations of the wilderness for our good. His ultimate purpose is to conform us to the image of his Son.
Problems arise for our life stories when something unexpected—we might even say, unscripted—comes along. This COVID-19 crisis is such a time. No one saw it coming, and the upheaval is so enormous that many people feel like they have lost the plot and are acting out of character. One thing’s for sure, we’re all keen to start a new chapter of our lives!
Nevertheless, it is good to remember that extended periods of restriction, isolation and deprivation appear regularly in the story of the people of God. What is God doing in such times? He is revealing our hearts. He is providing for us and reassuring us of his goodness. He is forming us as his children.
 I think here of my father’s challenging decade in Shanghai that enveloped his teenage years. Dad and his parents were Jewish refugees who fled to China in 1938, along with thousands of others from Vienna, Austria, to escape Nazi terror. It was “Life in the Waiting Room,” to cite a book title that covers that torturous and extended period of restriction and scarcity.
 McGrath, Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice, 947.