Changing jobs during the pandemic wasn’t part of my plan. But like millions of other women, I found myself leaving familiar territory and learning to navigate new skills and new terrain. And at times, this new space has felt like a disorienting wilderness. Even though I haven’t moved to a new location, other factors relating to the pandemic dramatically altered my sense of place.
In other words, it hasn’t been a seamless transition. Then again, why do we expect to swing from one vine to the next with the ease of a primate? Even when one part of a transition happens quickly, settling into a new place doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, transitions are often unsettling. We face new situations that cause us to wrestle with everything we thought to be true about ourselves.
Yet if we let them, transitions of any kind can be formational experiences that shape the next season of our lives. As we confess our vulnerability in these places, God meets us with his strength.
Meeting God in the Wilderness of Transition
Many times this past year, God has invited me to meet him (in a literary sense) in the Wilderness of Shur.
The Wilderness of Shur is a place of transition. It’s where the Israelites found themselves immediately after God rescued them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. For the first time in their entire lives, they were free, but they were also completely miserable.
God had promised to lead them to the garden-like land where their ancestors had staked their hopes. However, in order to get there, they had to lead their children and cattle through a land with no water. When they did reach water, it was undrinkable.
Dying of dehydration isn’t what they had signed up for. Mere days after shouting about how God was leading them with loving-kindness, they were complaining. They were as bitter as the waters. So bitter that they named the place “Marah” which means “Bitter.”
My situation barely compares. I loved the job I left, but I also already love the new job God has set before me. But the pandemic-saturated ethos has magnified every rocky shard in my paths. No matter what transition we are navigating, we have been traversing a minefield. Even familiar places no longer look and feel familiar. In many cases, we don’t recognize our own surroundings.
A Transitional Vocabulary
Places of transition are also known as liminal spaces. A liminal space is like the threshold of a doorway. You aren’t inside the house, but you aren’t outside it either. It’s a place of being neither here nor there.
By their nature, liminal spaces can be extremely disorienting. When we read the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness, it can be easy to look down our noses at them. We scoff at how they refuse to be thankful for what God has done for them and set their gaze back on Egypt.
Dr. Carmen Imes writes about the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness in Bearing God’s Name. She observes, “If this response surprises us, it’s because we underestimate the disorienting effect of liminal spaces and because we overestimate our own stability” (p. 19).
Transitions are disorienting. Transitions are destabilizing. Transitions can disturb us. Even the good ones.
Yet they invite us to quiet ourselves and simply listen. Because God loves to speak in the wilderness.
Two Questions in the Wilderness
In Hebrew, the word for wilderness—midbar—is built around a word that means “to speak.” Time and again, God speaks in the wilderness.
Would God speak in the Wilderness of Shur? If he did, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Hundreds of years before the Israelites found themselves clinging to life in the Wilderness of Shur, a slave-girl named Hagar had fled there.
Hagar’s mistress, Sarai, had given Hagar to her husband, and Hagar had become pregnant. Sarai then turned on her and treated her harshly. Hagar didn’t know what to do. So she fled.
But God saw Hagar in the wilderness, and he spoke. “Where have you come from?” He asked her, “and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8).
Hagar only answered God’s first question. “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”
She had no answers to the second question, and God knew it. He knew she needed him to answer it for her. And he did. Hagar called him “a God of seeing.” Not only did he see what she couldn’t, but he saw her.
Gifts of Eden
These questions surely echoed in the Israelites’ minds as they panted through the Wilderness of Shur.
Where have we come from? Egypt. But where are we going? Where is our next drink of water even going to come from?
God saw them. Make no mistake about that. But even though God traveled with them in a cloud, their thirst blinded them from seeing him.
But Moses saw him. When Moses cried out to God, God showed him an ets— a tree. When Moses threw the tree into the water, the water changed from bitter to sweet (Exodus 15:23-25). And where were they going next? God led them to an oasis of palms and spring water. Both the tree and the oasis are the Bible’s way of saying that God gave them gifts of Eden, reminders of God’s desire to dwell with and bless us.
Yes, God gives us gifts of Eden even in the wilderness. We don’t have to rush through it. Instead, we can rest in its grace. We can transition with slowness as we search for new rhythms of stability.
Embracing the Wilderness
So what about you? Where have you come from?
God sees you in the wilderness just as he saw Hagar. Even though he already knows where you’ve been, this question invites you to tell God your story. To sit with it in rawness. Perhaps to mourn the beautiful parts of what you lost. Or perhaps to mourn the realities of that old place. You have a story, and God wants to hear it. He wants to know that you know it.
Maybe, like the Israelites, you are having a hard time seeing God in your wilderness. Let telling God where you’ve come from be an act of faith that you know he sees you.
We can cry out to God as Moses did. We can tell him of our thirst. Of our sadness. Of our frustration.
We’ll still be in a disorienting place of transition, but with God, the wilderness is ripe for gifts of Eden, especially when we least expect it.
I love this, Amber! I had never heard of liminal spaces before but that concept is so interesting. I feel that I am in such a place right now. Thank you for reminding me of the Wilderness of Shur and how God is with us in our own wildernesses as we contemplate where we have been and where God is leading us next.
Thank you, Sharla! Carmen Imes’ book, Bearing God’s Name, introduced me to the phrase, and it has been such a helpful concept this past year.
Amber, this is encouraging as it is instructive. I love the insight into the Hebrew and the parallels drawn with the wilderness. Thank you so much for writing this, gave me a lot of good to chew on.
Thank you, Paola. The Hebrew wilderness narratives are so incredibly rich.
Such a fresh framing of familiar accounts. Thank you.
Thank you, Stephanie!
I will remember these two questions the next time I’m in a wilderness, or as you put it, a threshold between two spaces. Where did I come from? Where am I going? Very insightful.
It’s interesting how often God speaks in the form of questions. “Where are you?” “Why are you angry?” “Where is Abel your brother?” “Why did Sarah laugh?” Gives me a lot to think about.