I think I shall always remember this black period with a kind of joy,
with a pride and a faith and deep affection
that I could not at the time have believed possible,
for it was during this time
that somehow I survived defeat and lived my life
through to a first completion,
and through the struggle, suffering,
and labor of my own life
came to share some of those qualities
in the lives of people all around me.
Thomas Wolfe, The Autobiography of an American Novelist
I crave comfort. My idea of “roughing it” is waiting for room service to deliver my filet mignon and hot fudge sundae. Therefore, I didn’t naturally “take” to the notion of desert time. Yet, God is the creator of lush, bountiful gardens as well as parched, barren deserts. And God calls me, both to “come and see” what brings me consolation and to “come and die” in desolation. In the desert, like a paring knife, God sometimes cuts me to the core, exposing my lack of faith. God uses desert time to work in my life like a solvent, stripping away the hardened veneer. In the desert God empties me of the toxic cargo I carry, opening space for the Holy Spirit to fill, like ballast, in order to keep my life upright.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite toys was an inflatable punching bag with the likeness of a Disney character on the front. It was tall, with a high center of gravity, but was weighted at the bottom so it would maintain an upright position despite attempts to knock it over. For the same reason that kids everywhere punch or kick a blowup character, I would punch or kick that bag and marvel at its ability to bounce back for more.
One day when I was unable to resist the urge to know the secret to my punching bag’s resiliency, I cut it open with my dad’s pocketknife and found at the base a bag of sand, what we call ballast. Years later, mostly during desert time, I learned the value of having ballast in my soul.
This has always been God’s way. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah all experienced desert time. Even Jesus did. Paul did too. After his life-altering encounter with Jesus while en route to Damascus, Paul says, “I did not confer with any human being…but I went away at once into Arabia.” (Galatians 1:17) After being blinded by the brilliant light of Jesus’ radical love and forgiveness, Paul went into the darkness of the desert.
In the desert, not writing, not planning, not traveling about, not preaching—not doing any of the things he’s most known for today—Paul quietly carved out the deep convictions of his soul. In the desert he hammered out the beliefs on which he would build the rest of his life. He wrestled with the things of God until God possessed him and he possessed God.
I believe it’s significant to note that Paul wrote about his initial desert time 25 years after it occurred. During those intervening years, Paul had confronted monumental challenges: He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, thrown into jail, and yet he had persevered.
A while ago my wife and I attended the funeral of one of her aunts. During the eulogy it was noted that the early years of her life were marked by adversity and hardships. Yet, having endured her desert times, she often declared, “There are just some things in life that, if they don’t kill you, will help to strengthen you.” The desert is that kind of place. When we’re alone in the desert, Jesus strips us of the attachments that we cling to, setting us free to be our true loving selves.
Have you had your soul held upright by a difficult season that created soul balast?
What images have helped you understand and make sense of desert times?
Fil Anderson is Executive Director of Journey Resources, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s a frequent speaker at conferences, offers individual spiritual direction, and directs retreats and workshops around the country. He's the author of two books, Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers and Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God.