The torrent of scalding anger had subsided, but hurt still stung my heart and rashly spoken words still hung in the air. We had fought the night before. Yes, I should have handled it better — but I was tired, fed up and didn’t care how ugly I turned. He needed to know I wasn’t going to put up with it any longer. We slept in the same bed not touching: me guarding my broken heart, Bill guarding his pride.
Rising early I bundled myself in my robe, taking my freshly brewed cup of coffee and my Bible out to the deck. The morning was cold. Thick mist swirled and curled from the surface of the water as the lake, gray and mirror-like, caught the first light of day. Utter discouragement drained the last of the fight in me, the last of my hope that we could ever stop the intractable alienation whose cyclical return always destroyed whatever progress we had made.
The goal of joy, peace, and real pleasure in each other lay beyond our reach. We excelled too well as each other’s fiercest enemy.
Thank God, literally, I no longer live there. But I remember it like yesterday.
In each of our lives there is a place like this, a waste-land in which we are shut up. Like ancient Israel during her 40-year sojourn in the desert, we gaze wistfully across the wilderness into The Promised Land that lies beyond our reach. My sadness mingled with smoldering resentment at being shut out from happiness. Like all wilderness believers, I blamed someone else for keeping me there, and I was confused and secretly humiliated that I could not lay hold of what I longed for.
I know, from many years of teaching and listening, that we are all wilderness believers gazing wistfully across a waste-land of our own . . . Some long for a relationship with God they see in someone else’s life, not present in their own. Some long for power to overcome the obstacles that block their way to the well-being that lies irrevocably beyond their reach no matter how hard they try.
* * *
What keeps us in our desert and what is needed to bust us out?
The Promised Land represents those innumerable places in our life where all that God wants to do and be for us still waits to be realized by us. To get there we have to have a moment, followed by more moments, when we’ve heard and understood what God is saying to us. Each of those moments is a step closer. The potential of each one of those moments comes to us in the dialogue taking place between each of us and God.
Those moments break like light in us, when we hear and understand what God is saying to us. They happen when we stop to consider what a coincidence means, when we pay attention to the divinely engineered correspondences spelling out an urgent message, when we honor Scripture. We don’t figure out what God is saying. Each word, each seed of His message unfurls with its own understanding in us, if we will just give it the soil to do so.
* * *
That morning at the lake, listless, more out of habit than reverence, I opened to my Scripture reading for the day. In those pages I came upon a verse that made my heart lurch as tears sprung into my eyes. I was no longer reading words on a page — God was beginning to speak to me where I was, and I knew what He was saying.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, Who leads you in the way you should go.
“If only you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your well-being would have been like a river, And your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
Isa 48:17-18, NASU
Lifting my eyes I gazed out upon the broad expanse of peaceful lake sustained by the abundant flow of a mountain river. Recognition of the truth pierced my heart.
If only . . . I had paid attention. It was a moment of brutal truth removing the responsibility from Bill as the reason I was shut up in the desert of my misery. It wasn’t the enormity of our problems, my personal failures, my weakness or my husband that was keeping me in the desert — it was because I was not paying attention to God’s rich counsel coming to me in His commands.
My despondency and self-pity were instantaneously eliminated by the shaft of light striking through.
Until you have a moment like this, you cannot understand how precious God’s rebuke is . . . It is like the moment at Duke University Hospital when I burst into tears of relief. . . when I knew that there was something that could now be done. The doctor came in and shut the door behind her, turning to my daughter and me, her brown eyes tender with empathy, to tell my daughter, “I know what is wrong, Courtney. I know what disease we are fighting, and now we know how to help you.” After two years of tests, of not knowing, of feeling hopeless and afraid watching our daughter melting away, fighting for her life — to finally know was precious relief.
God’s “if only” that cold morning at the lake was like that for me.
* * *
What happened at Kadesh-Barnea is a picture of what has taken place in each of our lives — keeping us in the desert, unable to lay hold of what God means-to-be. Kadesh-Barnea is not the end of the story — but the powerful motivation to turn to the next page.
At Kadesh-Barnea the children of Israel (you and I) were unwilling to pay attention to what God had been telling them . . .
What happened at Kadesh-Barnea?
Moses had led Israel out of Egypt across the wilderness right to the edge of The Promised Land. Then God told Moses to send a leader from each of the 12 tribes into Canaan to spy out the land He was going to give them. Moses sent them, and they returned 40 days later with extravagant descriptions of a land flowing with milk and honey. In the valley of Eshcol they cut down a single cluster of grapes that had to be carried on a pole between two men. That was the good news. The bad news was there were giants in the land, strong people living in fortified cities.
Joshua and Caleb were the only two who saw the giants but paid attention to the promise — welcoming, recognizing and receiving what God was saying — fueled by the divine energy that would enable them to lay hold of The Promised Land and leave the desert behind. None of the rest of Israel would listen.
- The rest of Israel called the land God wanted to give them “a land that devours its inhabitants.” (At my Kadesh-Barnea all I saw was how difficult my marriage was, how it was devouring me. I didn’t value my inheritance.)
- At Kadesh-Barnea the giants loomed so large that the men of Israel felt like “grasshoppers” in their own sight. (Nothing makes us weaker faster than staring into the face of what threatens us instead of seeking His face.)
- The people rebelled, lifting up their voices and weeping all night (When we turn away from what God is telling us to go for, we will grieve.)
- The people totally discounted their deliverance from Egypt, God’s provision along the way, God’s goodness, and His loving purpose in having brought them that far. They impugned Moses, lashing out at him, telling him they wished they had never left Egypt and had died there rather than being brought to die here. (In our Kadesh-Barnea ravaging disappointment and fear will drive us to impugn not only those leading us, but God as well.)
- Kadesh-Barnea revealed Israel’s underlying opinion of God and her offense at Him. “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” (They were the victim, God was the bad guy. They, like we, preferred going back to the familiarity of what they knew — even if it was hideously painful — rather than risk obedience to what they didn’t know.)
- At Kadesh-Barnea [i] Israel viewed God as unable, unwilling and unworthy of leadership. They said, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” (When we view God as unable, unwilling, and unworthy of our confidence. . . the way that leads us out of the desert is shut, by us.)
Alienation from the truth creates the barrier
between our wilderness and The Promised Land
- When Joshua and Caleb begged Israel to reconsider, the congregation wanted to stone them. (When we become thoroughly alienated from The Truth, we would sooner stone the messenger than listen to what we are unwilling to hear.)
- Then the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel. God told Moses that generation would not be entering The Promised Land. Stung to the quick, Israel rallied, putting together a fighting force to go up and take the land anyway — even though Moses warned them not to — because God was not in it. But they went and suffered a horrendous defeat. (Self-effort cannot fuel our entry into what God has for us, only the divine energy that unfolds in us as we esteem and believe His word to us.)
The Kadesh-Barnea in each of our lives is that place where challenging circumstances surface our unwillingness to pay attention to what God is telling us. . . and therefore a place where we go down in defeat. . . instead of making the breakthrough into the extravagant goodness set before us. 
“I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, Who leads you in the way you should go.
“If only you had paid attention to My commandments!
Isa 48:17-18, NASU
Did I receive this word as a divine rebuke? Yes. But it was also a faithful diagnosis from the physician of my soul.
The moment I heard this truth and understood what He was saying was a good moment — the first of many like it — by which He has brought me from where I was into a marriage better than I longed for. My future well-being never depended on what Bill did, but on my paying attention to what God was telling me to do.
The coolest thing about agreeing with God, trusting His word, believing His diagnosis, paying attention to His commands, respecting what He is saying through painful consequences — is that the moment we begin to listen — He begins to fuel us with His own divine strength and power to leave our desert behind.