Trusting God in the Wilderness: Living in Light of the Book of Numbers

The Wilderness is a tough place to be. But this is where we are. So what happens now?

A Place of Transition

The Wilderness is a place of transition. We have come from somewhere known and navigable and stability seems to be on the horizon. And in between is this unknown place. Yet through the unknown comes change.

After God delivered the Israelites from the land of slavery, he led them toward the edge of the promised land. They left behind what they knew and where they felt safe and moved toward a new place. One generation shifted to the next, and the new generation learned from the mistakes of the old.

The Church is transitioning … Our communities are shifting and our ministries will never be the same.

Right now we are experiencing a rapid transition. Wider society is seeing people move from cities to the regions and from one career to another. We are learning the value of personal connection and a slower pace.

The Church is transitioning too. Our communities are shifting and our ministries will never be the same. Hopefully, we are learning the same lessons as the wider society, but the challenge is that we trust God more heartily and care for one another more deeply through continued change.

A Place of Judgement

The Wilderness is also a place of judgement. When the Israelites moved through the wilderness, thousands of bodies fell in the desert. While there were specific reasons for many of those losses, it was not always clear why or for what the judgement came.

The plague is surely an expression of the creation corrupted by our sin. Yet it is not clear if anything in particular set this particular expression off. (Nor should we expect it to be clear—just ask Job.)

A Place of Testing

The Wilderness is a place of testing too. It tests our resolve to keep pressing on; our resilience under pressure.

The Wilderness tests our resolve to keep pressing on

The Israelites saw the walled cities and giant enemies and decided that God was not to be trusted. ‘Will he really get us through that?’ They grew sick of the bread God provided for them and wanted more. ‘We were better off without him in Egypt!’ They grew tired of their leadership. And their leadership grew tired of them.

What was at stake in the Wilderness was whether the Israelites could really trust God. They weren’t just moaning about misfortune. In the way a child moans about a dinner they dislike. They long for the old regime. They wanted to cast off God’s oversight and his leader (Moses) and return to what they had in Egypt. Like a child who doesn’t like the dinner so files for divorce.

The Israelites’ cries in the Wilderness were different from healthy lament. When Job and the Psalmists cried out, they did so knowing that God is just and good but still struggling to make sense of their situation. They remembered God’s promises and yearned for his deliverance. The wilderness generation, however, thought that their situation was insurmountable. Instead of crying for deliverance, they wanted to walk away from the Lord.

Will We Trust God?

The Wilderness tests us too. It tests whether we will trust God.

When things are especially difficult the wilderness calls the veracity of God’s promises into question: life to the full? Really?

God makes great promises. Jesus has promised that he gives life and life to the full. And yet the creation groans and we follow Jesus to the cross. When things are especially difficult the wilderness calls the veracity of God’s promises into question: life to the full? Really?

What the Israelites needed, and what we need, is to remember that our circumstances are not hostile to God’s promises.[1] What is clear in Numbers is that whatever happens, God’s faithful character never changes. Nor are God’s promises altered. Things aren’t easy, but we can still trust God.

Trusting God in the wilderness means turning to God, not against him. It means turning to God in prayer, not away from him in silence. It means turning to God for spiritual nourishment, and not only to ourselves or our crutches for aid. It means turning to God through our Christian communities when we find it too hard to face God alone.

A Place of Blessing

Near the end of the wilderness experience sits a bizarre story about a foreign prophet Balaam and his ass (Numbers 22–24). An enemy hires Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam has no choice but to speak only the words God gives him—just like his talking donkey. Despite their rebellion and mistrust, God blesses his people as they languish in the wilderness.

But the Israelites do not simply have to wait until the end to discover this. Near the beginning, God gives them words that promise good to the Israelites that no matter what they face; assurance that the Lord is with them.

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)

When the Israelites drew near to God to worship and pray, they would be strengthened with these words. When they trusted him, he kept them safe with the nourishment they needed. Whatever happened, the nation would survive. God’s grace would cover over their sin. If they remained faithful, they would have peace.

As we languish in this wilderness, the Lord is with us by his Son and Spirit. Whatever sin we have fallen into as we move through the desert, his grace is sufficient to cover it. When we trust him, he will spiritually nourish us with the bread of life and living water that wells up to eternal life. He offers us an enriched spiritual life now, and hope for everlasting comfort. When we’re anxious and weary, he hears our prayers, carries our burdens, and gives us peace and rest.

The Wilderness is a tough place to be. But this is where we are. Will we trust him?

[1] Richard S. Briggs, Theological Hermeneutics and the Book of Numbers as Christian Scripture (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 91.