Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
The wilderness experience, whatever particular thing that may be in your life or mine, is a test that reveals the heart. The children of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years because of what was in their hearts — and what was lacking. It should have taken only eleven days from Egypt to the Promised Land. But they did not enter the land, because of their unbelief. So they wandered for forty years until that unbelieving generation died out. The wilderness experience continually tested them, revealing their hearts, and what their faith was.
The wilderness experience also tested Jesus and revealed his heart. At the end of forty days of fasting, the devil came to tempt him: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Satan is an accuser — that is what his heart is all about. Jesus’ heart was revealed in his response: “‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus was all about pleasing God, not satisfying his hunger.
Temptation is about the heart, which is why it is so often a part of the wilderness experience. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, tells us about temptation and the heart dynamic.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)When the heart is pure, it cannot be tempted to evil. But when there is evil desire, it will go to seed if given the opportunity often enough. Then the heart mediates on it and the mind considers how to engage it. Finally, it becomes action — and the action deadens the soul. We were created for something much different, to experience and share the glory of God. But sin, which begins in the heart, brings us up far short of that (Romans 3:23).
God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he ever tempt anyone to evil, and that is because his heart is pure. God is love, through and through — it is his nature. The human heart, on the other hand, is divided, pulled in different directions. “Give me an undivided heart,” the psalm writer said, “that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). And that is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. He has given us a new heart and a new spirit — his own Spirit to dwell in us and change us — just as he promised he would do for his people (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
The fruit of the Spirit is love, producing divine love in us. The more we learn to yield to that love — the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the more resilient our hearts will be in trials and temptations. The wilderness experience reveals where we are in that process and becomes an opportunity to turn to God in faith and receive his love.
The children of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years and it revealed their hearts every step of the way. Finally, though, they learned to depend upon God and follow him into the Promised Land.