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Using the Wilderness to Expose the Heart

We are more prone to identify our difficult circumstances than we are to identify the issues of our own heart, which the circumstances mean to reveal.

Apr 22, 2021

The Old Testament story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt depicts the New Testament story of the Church’s deliverance from sin through three major stages: Egypt (representing sin), exodus (representing salvation), and the Promised Land (representing heaven). The Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt led by Moses (Exodus 14:21-22; Deuteronomy 8:14) points to the believer’s exodus from slavery to sin led by Jesus (Romans 6:17-18). Likewise, the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey (Exodus 33:3; Deuteronomy 11:9) points to the heavenly home that contains peace and safety (2 Corinthians 5:1; Revelation 21:4; 2 Timothy 4:18). Between the exodus from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land exists an expansive territory fraught with uncertainty and discomfort: the wilderness.  

For the Israelites, this land represents the “already, but not yet.” Once they enter into the wilderness, the Israelites find themselves having “already” left slavery in Egypt, but they have “not yet” entered the Land of Promise. Today, believers find themselves in this same “already, but not yet” reality. We have already been saved from the penalty of sin (Romans 5:10-14), but we have not yet escaped sin’s presence. 

The Wilderness Motif: From Egypt to Corinth 

The wilderness motif spans from the Israelite wanderings in the Pentateuch to Jesus’ temptation in the Gospels to the church’s struggles in the Epistles (Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6). Deuteronomy 8:15 develops the trajectory of this motif by describing the unforgiving nature of the Israelites’ forty-year home, saying, “the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where there was no water.” Poisonous animals and dehydration are not the only troubling circumstances in the wilderness. Domestic conflicts between spouse and extended family (Numbers 12:1-2), the death of loved ones (Numbers 20:1, 28-29), physical infirmity (Numbers 5:2; 12:10), and opposition from other nations (Numbers 20:14-21) also cause stress, strain, and difficulty for God’s people as they wind their way through the scorching heat of the “already, but not yet.” 

A Wilderness Like Theirs 

The harsh circumstances of the wilderness are similar to the circumstances God’s people face today. The Israelites faced constant threats to their health, their homes, and their loved ones. Believers today face political unrest and cancer; car accidents and epilepsy; public bombings and depression. Add in marital discord, financial struggles, a bad back, and a blown tire, and our “already, but not yet” wilderness looks more and more like the Israelites’ desert by the moment. 

Finding Purpose in the Wilderness  

In Deuteronomy 8, the children of Israel are close to entering the Promised Land. They are ready, after forty long years, to exit the pervasive barrenness of their wilderness. As he speaks to God’s chosen people, Moses reflects on the wilderness’ humbling nature and reveals part of the God-given purpose for their trials. He declares, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). 

The Lord, in His omniscience, already knows the contents of His people’s hearts and does not require them to endure the wilderness to make this discovery for Himself (1 John 3:19-20; Psalm 139:4). Instead, as Dr. John Street teaches, “He took them through such a troublesome time so that they would know what was in their hearts.”1John D. Street. Passions of the Heart: Biblical Counsel for Stubborn Sexual Sins (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2019), 8. Since a primary focus of wielding the Word in biblical counseling is to effect heart change, God’s use of wilderness-like circumstances to reveal the heart is remarkably useful for the counselor and the counselee. The wilderness is a diagnostic tool for pinpointing and exposing the often-inconspicuous heart issues in ourselves and those we counsel. 

How the Wilderness Reveals the Heart 

As people who exist in the “already, but not yet,” we are more prone to identify our difficult circumstances than we are to identify the issues of our own heart, which the circumstances mean to reveal (see Numbers 11:1-15). This tendency is evident when a counselee presents their problems. Often (not always), the precious souls in need of help come describing their problems as external circumstances, like scorpions and the desert climate, instead of internal responses, like faithlessness and discontentment. As counselors, we can implement Moses’ instructions by encouraging our counselees to retrospectively examine their motives, affections, intentions, and desires (i.e., their heart) in life’s “wilderness” moments. 

For example, a counselee may recall a particularly challenging attempt to change a diaper when his youngest child thrashed about, flung their legs, and refused the new garment while his oldest child climbed up his back to use him as a grade school playground. The counselee may describe the deviant behavior of his children (the circumstance of the wilderness) as the reason for his sinful anger. The children’s behavior may make holy living more difficult but does not serve as causation for sin. God’s Word teaches us that the children’s behavior, like the Israelite’s wilderness, helps expose the pre-existing anger residing within the counselee’s heart (Mark 7:21-23; Deuteronomy 8:2). 

Deuteronomy 8:2 teaches the counselor to evaluate a counselee while he endures wilderness-like circumstances. If the counselee disobeys the commands of God in these times, a heart issue is present. Once the counselor and counselee reflect on the reasons for the heart’s response to difficult circumstances, and the wilderness has performed its diagnostic function, the counselor may be ready for prayerful consideration of specific biblical texts that address the newly exposed heart issue. This example displays that examining the counselee’s response in a wide array of events (even seemingly inconsequential ones like a diaper change) is helpful to the counselor as he seeks to uncover the depths of the heart (Proverbs 20:5).  

Jesus in the Wilderness 

In Matthew 4:1-11, we see Jesus take center stage in His own wilderness experience. Here, the wilderness exposes a heart of trust, whose fortification is the Scripture (Psalm 119:11). Jesus quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 8, refusing to forsake his faith in God’s provision for His wilderness needs (v. 3). He shows the counselor and the counselee the sufficiency of Scripture for enduring the wilderness with holiness. When our counselees walk through the wilderness, and their hearts begin to look more like Jesus’ than Israel’s, we should humbly thank God for choosing to include us in the sanctification of His saints.