Seeking the Lord in a Desolate Place

David Harris

Matthew 14:10-13

…He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. 

There are a number of passages that mention Jesus seeking solitude in a “desolate place,” but not just in moments of sorrow or pain. We see a pattern of Jesus routinely looking to get away from the crowds and spend time alone with the Father. As people who bear the name of Christ, it’s worth asking: what does Jesus’ pattern of withdrawing to desolate places mean for us?

What Does It Mean to “Spend Time with God?”

If you’ve been in church more than a few days, then you’re familiar with the terms “quiet time” and “devotions” to mean a specific time set aside each day for reading the Bible and praying. Unfortunately, when “having devotions” is discussed, it’s typically in a negative sense, referring to our lacking and inconsistency. This isn’t necessarily the same across all age levels – some are going to have more time flexibility by default – but in typical conversation, we lament the endless “struggle” of trying to maintain a consistent devotional time.

There’s no direct command in scripture that says, “Have a quiet time every day at 6 AM.” Instead, there are examples and patterns of men of God spending time alone with God, often in wilderness settings.

Here are some biblical examples:

  •  Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not for God took Him.” We can only speculate what his relationship with God looked like, but it resulted in a premature exit from this earth without dying.
  • Abraham is called the “friend of God” and speaks to God face-to-face in the desolate places of Canaan. 
  • Moses is approached by God in the barren wilderness of Horeb in the form of a burning bush. 
  • Job, it is said, would “rise early” to offer sacrifices specifically for his children. 
  • David spent much time alone tending to his father’s sheep before he was King of Israel. The Psalms that he wrote contain many of the verses that we use to remind ourselves of the importance of spending time with God, alone.  
  • Jesus is often found praying alone in a “desolate place.”
  • Peter goes up to the rooftop to pray in Acts 10 right before receiving his vision.

Why Seek a Desolate Place?

While trying to maintain a “quiet time” is a crucial spiritual discipline to cultivate, we would do well to set aside time to withdraw to a desolate place – a place where all or most of what can be seen is of God’s, not man’s handiwork. Specifically, places that are devoid of development and people. Desolate sounds like a negative term in English – like a barren wasteland – but it really just means “solitary,” and “lacking in population.” Here are three specific reasons why it’s worth withdrawing specifically to a desolate place to pray, meditate on scripture, and seek God on a regular basis:

  • We are trying our best to follow Christ’s actions and patterns. We pray as He prayed (“pray in this manner”), we fellowship with others as He did, and most importantly, we strive to model the sacrificial love that He demonstrated for us by dying on the Cross for our sins. We should pay attention to his habits as well.
  • God’s attributes are on display in the natural world: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Creation is a testament to His attributes, and understanding the world He’s made can help us understand Him. When we are surrounded only by the things that man has made, it is much harder to focus on God, but when we are surrounded by nothing but what God has made, there is little else to focus on but Him.
  • We are not capable of handling the noise of life perpetually. Jesus had to “withdraw,” partially because He was being intentional about spending time with the Father, but also because of the crowds that were increasingly seeking Him out. This is what was going on in Matthew 14 when He sought a place to be alone after hearing about the death of John the Baptist, but then the crowds pursue him and the feeding of the 5,000 takes place. We live in a time marked by unrelenting anxiety. In response to our increasing angst, we have mass medicated with a host of pills, therapies, foods, drinks, attitudes, and activities. While the situation in the true church is better than that in the world, anxiety is still a significant issue within its walls, much of this stemming from the noise, pandemonium, and massive amount of choices we have to make on a daily basis. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 6: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Notice that Jesus points to things that exist by the hand of God alone, found often in desolate places. While many of our modern interventions can offer some reprieve from stress and anxiety, it would be a mistake not to first turn our attention to the natural realm and consider how God cares for Creation. 

Barriers to Seeking the Desolate Place

There are significant potential barriers to withdrawing to a desolate place. Unconfessed sin will deter us from seeking out undistracted time communing with God in His Creation. Time and space can make it seemingly impossible to get time alone all, let alone in the wilderness, or even our backyard. Seeking a desolate place can require significant intentionality, even penciling in the calendar. 

Also, while Jesus had the crowds following him, we have the crowds in our pockets. Our dependency on our phones is causing significant addiction and difficulty with concentration in general, but we’re entering a new phase where we have very little control over what we’re consuming or viewing at all. 

This may mean that we need to turn off the phone and leave it somewhere – not just mute or silence it. We know the instantaneous anxiety that sets in when our phones die or get lost – but somehow we survived before them, and after a few minutes, often a wave of relief will wash over us. Withdrawing to the desolate place requires self-control, focus, and discipline – the distraction of the crowds will make it very difficult to be present with God and to be observant of His creation. 

A Personal Testimony

I’m going to wrap up by switching to first person and telling a brief story: A few years ago, when I was still living in upstate New York, I was waiting for my wife to get out of work, and I drove up to a forested area not far from her job for a walk. It was a little rainy, but I climbed a fire tower that was on the preserve and had a view of the entire Hudson Valley all to myself. There were two storms coming toward me, one from the northwest and one from the southwest. I remember the wind really picking up and thinking I should probably get down from the tower, but I just couldn’t. I remember being in such awe of the scene that I was yelling out audibly, “Praise God!” and “Thank you, Lord!” 

Thinking about it now, it seems kind of ridiculous, being alone, high up in the air, in the middle of nowhere, right as a storm is closing in. But I was so wrapped up in the storms’ beauty that seeking shelter seemed out of the question. Thinking back on that moment and other similar testimonies I’ve heard, I realize that within the weather that afternoon, some of God’s attributes were evident. Even though the storm represents great power and danger, it also demonstrates unparalleled beauty. I longed for something that had the power to destroy me. In the same way, we long for God’s presence, we long for God’s justice and righteousness, even though the scope of His power and wrath could destroy us in the twinkling of an eye. But because we love Him and know He loves us, we don’t have to be afraid. 

These are the kinds of things we learn in desolate places. 

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