And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Isaiah 58:11
Midwestern family members made a trip to my hometown in the desert, and needless to say they were not impressed. The lack of lush green lawns and expansive trees left them searching for something good to say about it. Similarly, my youngest son returning from a mission trip a few years ago to my home state stated, “I didn’t know there were so many shades of brown.” Having spent most of his life in Florida, the desert did not yield the same color palate as the tropics.
To the untrained eye, the desert is a very barren and desolate place. The lack of water leaves the vegetation looking scrawny and ragged. Softness is missing in the desert. Raw sharp edges adorn jagged plants. The landscape is rough and hard. But to the one who has grown up there, this dry barren place holds a special kind of beauty. Life is tucked beneath the rocks and sand, often lingering in the shade hiding from the sun waiting for the summer rains to come. And when the rains come, the desert blooms.
In Chapter 58 of Isaiah, the people were doing all the right things, but they couldn’t find God. Their prayers were going unanswered. Life lacked joy and fulfillment. Just like my family members, the Israelites were looking for green plants and signs of life, but everything around them was scorched and dry. They were asking: “Why is the desert so brown? Why isn’t God present?”
God’s response in Isaiah 58 is similar to what the desert dweller says to the disappointed visitor: “It’s brown because it lacks water. You can’t see the life because you are looking for it in the wrong places.”
God’s people weren’t experiencing God’s presence because they were living spiritually without Him. Sure, they were jumping through all the right spiritual hoops: fasting, praying, attending church, singing praise and worship songs, but their hearts were far from God. They were keeping up a good spiritual appearance, but the reality was in their day-to-today living they were oppressing their workforce, pointing accusatory fingers at each other, inflicting verbal wounds on those who disagreed with them, and withholding their generosity to those in need. In other words, their lives were marked by hypocrisy. What they said they believed and what they lived did not match.
God gives them directions for finding His presence in the scorched places. He offers a promise for providing water in the dry desert: realize what they are doing, repent, and seek Him.
In order to see the beauty in the land around them, in order for the rain to come and cause their spiritual desert to bloom, the Israelites needed to repent. They needed to stop doing the shallow worship thing and start doing the authentic faith thing. God was calling them away from religion and back into a relationship with Him.
I believe God is making the same appeal to us today. Many of us are experiencing scorched places. Our hearts are dry and our souls are weary. We look around and all we see are shades of brown. Like the desert dweller to the visitor, God is pointing out where to look for His presence: “Look see, it’s in the sunset. Look over there, it’s tucked in the pages of my Word. Look closely, I’m behind the eyes of your friend.” God wants to use the dry places in our lives to lead us into a deeper relationship with Him.
A few years ago, I returned to the desert for my mom’s funeral. The winter had been cold and rainy. Snow had touched the mountains. From the window of my rental car, I was struck by the beauty around me. The desert was so green. Plants were blooming. White and pink blossoms capped the cacti. Yellow flowers filled the Palo Verde trees. The dirt didn’t seem so brown. Water had washed across the desert.
In the same way winter water brought new life to the desert, God promises to bring spiritual life back to us. Isaiah 58:11 reveals that the call back to a relationship with God comes with a promise. A promise of guidance. A promise of fulfillment. A promise of strength. A promise of nourishment. A promise of flourishing. A promise of purpose. When we sincerely seek Him, God promises to water the dry and barren places in our soul.
Sweet friends, if you find yourself in a spiritual desert (or real one), don’t let the shades of brown discourage you. Life and beauty still reside in dry places; you have to look for them in the right spots. God is there even when you can’t see Him.
Between a husband, 2 sons, and teaching high school my sanity is found in running and Starbucks. I have a circle of running friends who inspire me to be authentic and real as I live a life of faith before them.