Learn About/Subscribe:
Christian Union

A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

"They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, 'Can God spread a table in the wilderness? He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for His people?'" Psalm 78:18-20

We are a wilderness people. If the story of Israel is any indication, we, the new Israel, can be assured that, following on the heels of God's salvific action, we become campers. Wilderness dwellers. In the pages of Scripture, the wilderness is not only a thick, mossy forest with towering trees or a sandy desert with oppressively hot days followed by frigid, windy nights. It is also a controlling metaphor for a barren, in-between place of trial. Thankfully, the wilderness is also an ideal setting for God's presence and provision  to be displayed.

We recognize the story recounted by Asaph in Psalm 78 as the history of the nation of Israel. God's chosen people experienced a glorious redemption in the exodus. The signs and wonders of the plagues of Egypt were followed by a long-awaited triumphal entryinto a new future. The waters of the Red Sea heaped up on either side of the tired masses of men, women and children, slaves just days before, free and victorious as they placed one foot in front of another on the impossibly dry ground. And then there was God's presence in the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, miraculously accompanying and guiding His people.

The high of redemption didn't last long before the grumbling began. "Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water" (Exodus 15:22). Tongues are dry and bellies are empty, and there's no obvious solution in sight. Surely the God who parted the Red Sea would provide food for His people? Surely they have a right to grumble?

The wilderness can be a place of forgetfulness. From the very first requests made of Pharaoh for the emancipation of the people of Israel, the wilderness meant to serve as a kind of retreat center, a place where they would go to worship and serve their God: "Moses and Aaron went and said, 'Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness'" (Exodus 5:1). Unfortunately, upon arrival, it became a place of faithlessness, where God's precious children doubted His provision and questioned his love. But faithful Yahweh responded to the needs of his chosen people with sustenance, making bitter water sweet and raining food from heaven. Even as the manna fell, the people stared at this provision and literally named it, "what is it?" They didn't recognize God's provision.

This lack of recognition of God's provision didn't stop at the exodus. Jesus comes on the scene as God's provision for an unfaithful people, and the gift is unrecognizable. And those who do recognize this provision are few and surprising. The list is short and unimpressive: loud and brash Peter, several women, some of whom are not meant for polite company, the disenfranchised and disabled, and a Roman Centurion, among others. After the cross and the democratized presence of God in the Holy Spirit, the theme continues. The Holy Spirit is gathering a surprising people, the new Israel, defined in Christ rather than along ethnic lines, to partake in the unexpected provision of God in Christ.

On this side of God's provision in Christ, we have a slightly different relationship with the wilderness. We read the wilderness accounts of Israel through the lens of the Messiah who is "led by the Spirit into the wilderness" (Luke 4:1). He who, rather than receiving a seat of honor at a feast, enters a 40-day fast with the devil for company. Unlike Israel, the place of wilderness temptation for Jesus is a place of trust in a good Father and His ways. Jesus' wilderness experience is paradigmatic for those of us in Christ. In our own wilderness place, between the victory of the cross and the reality of new creation, the questions of Israel resound in our hearts. We ask ourselves, individually and collectively, Can God spread a table in this wilderness? Can He provide for my financial needs? Can He meet me in a place of loneliness and fear? Can He visit these campuses, those cities, this nation, with revival? Psalm 78 offers an invitation to faith. HE CAN. But does He? Sometimes. Sometimes we have not, because we ask not. So let's get busy asking. The feast He prepares is food we don't recognize or we'd rather not eat, thank you very much. And it's in those times that we're invited to trust in the provision of our good and loving Father.

As we seek God during these 40 days, in which many of us are intentionally heightening our wilderness experience in fasting and prayer, may we have great faith as we ask God for the impossible, and deep trust in His sufficient provision.

Teal McGarvey
Ministry Fellow at Harvard