The phone call came a few days before Christmas.
‘Hi Merryn,’ the voice said. ‘It’s Emily, from the clinic.’
Merryn pressed the phone to her ear, ready for Emily’s news.
‘I’ve checked with another colleague here to be sure and...’
‘And...’ Merryn said expectantly.
‘It’s all looking good.’
‘Yes,’ Emily said, with a smile that shone down the phone line. ‘Your hormone level is where we’d expect it to be by now for a pregnancy.’
Merryn and I had spent ten years trying to start a family. Over those ten years we’d tried special diets and fertility-boosting supplements, healing prayer meetings and costly rounds of IVF treatment. We’d waited for two agonising years on the Australian adoption list. Exhausted from a decade of disappointment, we’d decided to try one last round of IVF before bringing our dream of having a family to an end.
Merryn had put the phone down and cried with surprise. My mother had squealed with joy, and friends had texted us in tears upon hearing the news. After a decade of waiting, we were going to have a baby!
But another phone call was to follow, this one on Christmas Eve.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Emily would say this time.
The doctors had misread the signs; there had never been a baby.
After that call Merryn had walked into our room and curled up on the bed in a foetal position. Later that evening I pulled out my journal to express my rage:
God, this is cruel – leaving us in this wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years, tired, thirsty and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering it.
If you’ve in any way experienced prolonged disappointment or pain – if you’ve longed to be married but remain single, or if your career has never taken off, or if a crushing diagnosis has shattered your hopes for your friend or, like us, you’ve never been able to have a child – you’ll know what I mean by ‘the wilderness’. It is that barren place between longing and fulfilment – a place of wandering and waiting, yet never reaching the ‘Promised Land’ of the spouse, the career, the healing, or the child.
And as you wait for that spouse or that healing or for your career prospects to change, and as you perhaps glimpse the Promised Land in a potential partner or a better diagnosis that proves later to be a mirage, you may feel as we did along our wilderness journey of infertility – tired, jaded, sad, confused. Life may feel meaningless to you, feelings of failure may haunt you, you might harbour jealousy towards those who have what you want and anger towards the God who has denied your request.
The wilderness can be a harsh place to dwell. Thank God there is more to it than broken dreams and frustrated longings.
A PLACE OF REVELATION
The wilderness imagery is drawn, of course, from that momentous biblical story where the Jews set out for the Promised Land after their liberation from slavery. What started as an adventure for them soon became an ordeal, with an 11-day trek becoming 40 years of wandering (Exodus 12:31 – 20:26; Numbers 10 – 36). It is in returning to that original biblical story that we discover there’s more to the wilderness than suffering.
As anyone who has experienced it knows, the wilderness is a place of trial. But the purpose of a trial is to reveal the truth. ‘Remember how the lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness...’ Moses would remind the Jews, ‘to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart’ (Deuteronomy 8:2). The wilderness has a way of revealing the truth about our hearts – proving just how strong our trust in God is, and exposing the idols that have secretly crept into our lives. As her own diary entries would reveal, the wilderness brought a sharp test to Merryn’s faith:
What can you really trust God for, when you ask with all your heart and you’re ignored? I wish I could trust God again. I wish I could trust that there’s some grand plan or reason behind him not giving us a child. Or maybe God is just mean.
‘Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?’ the Jews questioned, doubting God’s care for them in the desert (Psalm 78:19). Like them, during our infertility journey Merryn never questioned God’s existence, but she did at times question his goodness. Her faith wasn’t one of saintly trust in the face of difficulty, but of doubt, confusion and at times, bitterness. The wilderness would reveal something of my own heart too.
A few weeks before that fateful Christmas Eve, Merryn and I had sat by Sydney Harbour one evening talking about the future.
‘If we don’t have a family,’ Merryn said, ‘the thought of life going on as usual is too depressing for me.’
‘What would be a nice consolation prize for you,’ I asked, ‘if we don’t have a child?’
‘I’d like to start again,’ she said, ‘overseas.’
Merryn’s dream of becoming a mother would soon be denied, but here was a dream that could be fulfilled. Would I make it happen? I didn’t like the cost. To move overseas would require leaving my ‘successful’ life and ministry in Australia – a writing career, good speaking engagements, a national radio show that was itself a dream come true – to enter an unknown land as an unknown lad. Ask any publisher; there is little opportunity for an author to be published in a country that doesn’t know who he is.
To fulfil Merryn’s dream I’d have to give up what I’d achieved. I’d have to give up the influence I was having for God.
Ah, influence – that prized possession discussed at so many Christian conferences. Once we get it, it can so quickly possess us, leaving us terrified at the thought of its loss. While the wilderness revealed in Merryn a lack of trust, for me it revealed an idol (Psalm 106:19,28; Amos 5:25–27).
The wilderness is a place of revelation. What will it reveal of your own heart?
A PLACE OF PROVISION
‘Remember how the lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness…’ Moses told the Jews, ‘to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart’. In the wilderness we are humbled, tested, and our hearts are stripped bare to reveal what is in them. But Moses says something else to the Jews toward the end of their desert trek: ‘Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these 40 years’ (Deuteronomy 8:4).
Grumble though they did, God provided the Jews with manna from heaven, quail from the skies, water from rocks (Exodus 16:13–15; 17:3–7), and eversturdy clothes. The barren wilderness for them was not just a place of revelation, but also of provision.
And so it had been for Merryn and me. The same decade filled with dashed hopes for a baby, with tears, fear and disappointment with God, was also a decade filled with God’s provision in other ways: the provision of book contracts and dream radio shows; the provision of finances and friends when we needed them most; the provision of a career for Merryn in medical research, providing her with some small sense of purpose.
But now Merryn needed a new start. Would God provide one?
Much had happened in the intervening weeks since our conversation by the harbour. I’d met with my boss, tendered my resignation, and made plans for announcing the news to my radio show listeners. I’d told my Australian publishers about my leaving the country, and they’d no doubt made plans to shift leftover stocks of my books as quickly as they could. And yet Merryn and I still didn’t know where we were moving to.
We’d had a further setback too. Merryn had set her heart on moving to Switzerland, a place of natural beauty, of course, but also the home of numerous pharmaceutical companies who needed her medical statistics skills. We’d even enrolled in a Swiss-German language course in preparation. But visa restrictions scuppered the idea, bringing further dejection for Merryn.
The phone rang again. I tried to read Merryn’s tone of voice down the line. Just a few days before, she’d undergone an intense telephone interview for a job at an English university, where visas for both of us would be easy to obtain. But she hadn’t left the interview hopeful. Even so, she had been offered a position as a medical statistician at Oxford University.
In the wilderness comes provision. In ways that often surprise.
A PLACE OF DISCOVERY
‘[In] the wilderness’, Moses said in his homily to the Jews, ‘…you saw how the lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son’ (Deuteronomy 1:31). ‘Know then in your heart’, he continued, ‘that as a man disciplines his son, so the lord your God disciplines you’ (8:5).
Don’t miss these words. They’re significant.
Up to this point the Jews have known God as creator, king, warrior, judge. But now they come to know him as Father. The wilderness was not only a place of revelation and provision for the Israelites, but a place of discovery. Through the wilderness they discovered God to be their dad, and themselves to be his children.
Merryn and I arrived in our new country of England and our new home of Oxford, set up bank accounts and mobile phones, and walked wide-eyed around the city’s historic sandstone buildings. We took trips to the Cotswolds and Stonehenge at weekends. After the wilderness of infertility, Oxford was like a Promised Land for Merryn. Soon she was coming home each day with a spring in her step, having her journal papers published and enjoying other career successes.
‘This move is working out well for you, isn’t it?’ I said to her one afternoon a few weeks later.
‘It really is,’ she said, her face a mixture of gratitude and relief. ‘And how was your day?’ she asked. ‘Did you get much writing done?’
I glanced at the ceiling, looking for the right words. Life in the UK was proving a little more difficult for me. While I was being recommended by well-connected people, the BBC wasn’t returning my calls, and two publishers had already declined my current book project owing to my lack of profile.
‘I only managed a paragraph today,’ I replied. ‘I had writer’s block.’
In truth, my problems ran deeper than writer’s block. Feelings of insignificance were starting to crush me. An insidious little voice whispered that where once I’d had an audience of thousands, now no one cared what I said. I felt spiritually impotent and professionally irrelevant. My sense of identity was taking a hit.
These murky feelings were shared one evening over a pint with my friend Darren. It was some comfort to discover he’d experienced something similar. He had once been the lead singer of a Christian band that toured Australia full-time. The gruelling schedule of long drives and late nights caught up with him, inducing a burnout of sorts, which forced him to leave the band just as they were completing a new album.
‘One day I got a copy of the album in the mail,’ Darren said. ‘I put the CD in my player and started reading the album’s liner notes.’
‘And?’ I said.
‘I wasn’t there. Page after page I read, and I wasn’t even mentioned. After all those years pouring my life into the band I had been reduced to nothing. I think it was then that I learnt something profound.’
I leaned in to hear what he said next.
‘I was bedridden, exhausted, and had nothing left to offer the world,’ Darren said. ‘I could accomplish nothing to make God love me or feel proud of me. All I had left, in fact, was God’s grace – which is all I’d ever had in the first place.’
I went home from that chat with Darren, pulled out my journal, and wrote some more:
‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,’ says St John, ‘that we should be called children of God.’ My role, position or status may change but this identity will remain. Whether I succeed or fail, whether I’m applauded or forgotten, I am a child of God.
Out there in the wilderness, stripped of our successes, we discover who we really are: children of God, our Father.
A PLACE OF TRANSITION
‘Observe the commands of the lord your God,’ Moses told the Israelites, ‘walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the lord your God is bringing you into a good land’ (Deuteronomy 8:6–7).
A place of revelation, a place of provision and of discovery. But now the Jews find out the wilderness is something more again. It is also a place of transition.
The wilderness is the ground between what was and what will be – the place between slavery and freedom, between immaturity and wisdom, between God’s promise and its fulfilment, between who we were and who we are to be. After 40 years in the wilderness, the Jews entered the Promised Land. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus launched his world-changing mission (Mark 1:12–15). And this can give us hope as we walk our own difficult journeys: after the wilderness comes a new beginning.
‘Have you considered turning your story into a book?’
The unexpected words came as a friend and I sat in his lounge one evening. The friend in question knew a thing or two about publishing – he was the author and poet, Adrian Plass. But even though the idea came from him, my mind soon filled with objections.
‘I’m not sure I’m qualified to write a book about infertility,’ I said.
‘Your story isn’t just about infertility,’ he said. ‘It’s about broken dreams, tested faith and the need for a new beginning. It’s about taking a risk and starting again, and holding onto God when you don’t understand him. I think many could benefit from reading about that.’
Our conversation drifted onto other things but his idea didn’t leave me.
A few weeks later I sat down at my desk and began to write. A year later our story was released into the world in the form of a book. Within days of its release, my inbox began filling with emails from readers who had found hope through its pages.
The wilderness is a place of transition; it is the place where God gives us a new mission. God recycles our suffering into service to others.
And so as you wait for that spouse or that healing or for your career prospects to change, and as you face hope then disappointment again and again; and as you feel tired, jaded, sad and confused, and you wonder what God is up to, remember this:
It is in the wilderness our hearts are stripped of idols and mistrust, as the shaping hand of God softens and strengthens us.
There we find provision in unexpected ways, and God confirming his presence with a few surprises.
We discover who we most truly, deeply are. Whether successful or defeated, whether applauded or forgotten, whether single, married, broke or infertile, we are children of God.
And in the wilderness we discover that after grief comes a new beginning – a mission of hope to those entering their own wilderness.