by: Joel Bates
Question: Why does God lead us on deliberate paths and then sometimes, when we’re nearly there, plant a wall? I angrily stewed on this question a couple weeks ago as I led yet another challenge expedition.
I knew this trip would bring extra challenge because of our current drought. This fact was especially true in selecting an itinerary that led to a waterway where I could assign individual sites for the students to spend the 24-hour solo time planned near the end of the eight-day trip. Planning strategically would be essential.
A week before the trip, I had been studying the map and discovered a valley I had never hiked through. The map markings indicated that a creek ran there, so a few days before my trip began, I set out to scout the area to see if it would be a suitable place for the solo time. As I hiked, I prayed that God would provide ample water despite the lack of rain, pleasant and spacious gravel beaches for each participant to erect his shelter, and a flat, wooded glade to center our basecamp.
My first, exploratory steps followed a dry creek bed—not a good start—but as I continued, the gravel-bottom wadi firmed into a rock-bottom stream with delightfully fresh, cold, flowing water. Not only this, but a plethora of small curves in the creek created spots of gravel protruding down to the water’s edge, perfect for solo sites. So far so good! I hiked on to encounter a flat, thickly forested plateau that rose six feet above the creek. It was shaded and pleasant with very little undergrowth. I couldn’t have imagined a better place for the group’s sacred time with God. I sensed not only the Lord’s provision and purpose, but I felt His direct invitation to commune with Him there.
Six teenage guys arrived on camp ready to face whatever came. I grew to appreciate the group’s “can do” attitude as they developed the necessary skills of navigation and campcraft. They all seemed to have a genuine faith in Christ that showed through their service and care for one another, even though the days were long, hot, and challenging. The whole time on the trail I kept thinking about the solo area that awaited us.
One day spilled into another until we found ourselves near the end of the trip, standing upon a mountain with night setting in. I knew that pretty creek lay in the valley below, but there was a lot of distance and darkness to contend with before any rest would come. I trusted God’s invitation to meet Him there, but would the group persevere?
For hours I followed as our struggling party descended the mountain and observed most members growing weary, casting aside all desire to press on to the destination. The leader of the day held the map and compass in his hands and the weight of the group on his shoulders. He knew his general location, but couldn’t pinpoint his position. I asked him if he knew where he needed to go. He indicated that he did, and I coached him to set a compass bearing and follow it. We were little more than a tenth of a mile from that sparkling, spring-fed stream after eight days of hot, arduous sojourning, and I was eagerly looking forward to refreshment that the solo time with God and my little, spring-fed stream promised.
With compass in hand and a definite plan, the leader struck out. We began cutting cross-country as we followed the bearing. Waist-high weeds and brambles, increasingly thick foliage and dense ground cover met our every step. A little trail appeared ahead, giving momentary hope to the group, who were now dead on their feet and bitter about the bushwhacking.
The young leader checked the glowing compass needle and kept moving into thicker, darker underbrush. When his followers protested, he stood his ground. “The trail does not follow the bearing,” he explained simply to pacify their dismay. So, we hiked onward and were soon forced to halt at a nearly impenetrable, 8’ hedge row wall of vines, thorns, and brambles.
Now bewildered, the leader looked back at me, and I could see the question on his face, despite the shadow his headlamp cast over it, “Should I go on?”
“Stick to the bearing,” I urged. That was the right answer to give as the facilitator, but even I had my doubts. Should we try to hack, cut, and crawl our way through the solid barrier of vegetation? Our options were few, so into the scrub we went. Our progress was slow—clear a path, forge through, and then stand with the 50-pound packs on our backs while more path was cleared.
I strained to hear that precious running water that I knew must be only yards away, but the drone of tree frogs, crickets, and mosquitoes drowned it out. Fatigue and misery in that muggy, painful, monotonous moment added to my guilt of having encouraged the young man to continue this way.
How was I to know that our bearing to one of the most beautiful places in the Ozarks would be blocked with only a few strides left in the journey! Forced to halt, pushed back, knocked down, and undone when I was so sure God had invited us to commune with Him just beyond the wall, I felt a hot anger rise in me—an anger not over the wilderness, the bugs, or my waning strength, but an anger toward God. “Why, God, have You allowed us to come so far, to almost make it, only to have to contend with this wall?”
Then I thought of Moses, and I could identify with him. God called Moses to lead God’s people out of captivity, but he didn’t want to; he didn’t think he had what it would take. However, Moses obeyed, only to find that God seemed to deliberately call, invite, and direct him and the people on a specific route that numerous walls interrupted.
Over and over, victory and freedom were so close, but a wall stopped them. They thought they had escaped Pharaoh but then faced the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army gaining. Then God parted the sea so they could cross on dry ground. They could trust God…until their journey took them into a waterless land. They knew this wall of thirst would be their end, but again God provided. Having received the law and a new identity at Sinai, the Israelites confidently set out to follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. But then, enemy nations blocked their way, insisting on waging war, and God was faithful. The granddaddy of all walls became their undoing, though. They reached the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, but giants lived there, and the people lost sight of God’s greatness when confronted by the Canaanites. They hit a wall, lost the faith, and trudged around the desert for forty years. I can only imagine Moses’ despair after breaking through all the walls they had faced, only to have the people give up. Why does it have to be so difficult?
My little escapade in the Missouri Ozarks, trying to follow God…to serve Him, had led me to the wall of brambles in the dark of night. It really was no comparison to the challenges Moses faced, but I was angry, nonetheless. After all the years of inviting people to be challenged, to learn from the adversity, and to bear fruit, on this night I felt like it was just too much. I lifted my hand into the darkness, pointed a reproachful finger at the heavenly Father, and with trembling voice spoke, “Why God? Why lead us all this way only to make us suffer like this? Why can’t we just get to You?”
“I found it! I found the creek!” The jubilant call came at the precise moment I finished my angry accusation toward the Almighty.
I had been hiking at the back of the line, so I broke through the brushy wall to shouts of joy. The young men clambered through their packs for their empty water bottles and splashed into the creek. Never had a simple stream of water looked so good to them. As I witnessed the anguish and fatigue of the wilderness dissolve into elation and joy, I sensed a kind word from the Lord, “Every wall is worth breaking though to get to Me.” And, I could see that overcoming this wall added value to the victory.
Whether for Moses or for me, God’s not playing hard to get. He was there with Moses and the people all the while they were following Him. He was there for me, too, as I stood in the dark with weary legs and waning hope. And He’s here for you today. He has made a promise, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened,” Matthew 7:7-8.
We had reached the cold stream and would enjoy the beautiful solo site. For me, though, I knew we had broken through to the presence of God. As I let that sink in, a feeling of safety and intimacy inside His wall washed over me. No tourists would come this way. We would be uninterrupted during this sacred time with God now that we were hemmed in. The journey had almost been too hard, almost made us turn back, almost destroyed our hope, but we were overcomers. Our Father God was there the whole time…never almost, but always!
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.