The Wilderness Makes or Breaks a Man


I love this quote about the wilderness. It’s from the late Peter C. Craigie. He was an accomplished biblical scholar from Britain.

I stumbled upon it years ago when preparing for a sermon out of Deuteronomy. The quote is about what the Israelites learned, or should have learned, during their 40 years in the wilderness. But it’s also about what all followers of God learn, or should learn, in their own wildernesses.

The wilderness tested and disciplined the people in various ways. On the one hand, the desolation of the wilderness removed the natural props and supports which man by nature depends on; it cast the people back on God, who alone would provide the strength to survive the wilderness. On the other hand, the severity of the wilderness period undermined the shallow bases of confidence of those who were not truly rooted and grounded in God.
The wilderness makes or breaks a man; it provides strength of will and character. The strength provided by the wilderness, however, was not the strength of self-sufficiency, but the strength that comes from a knowledge of the living God. (Craigie, Deuteronomy, pg. 185)

I love so many things about this quote.

I love this quote because of the way it gives me a paradigm to understand my own wildernesses. We all have them. The underlining causes of our wildernesses and their particular outworking may be different, yet we all have them. But what do you do when you are in one? Where do you go for strength? When relationships are wounded, finances are weak, and health is fragile, what should we do? Shall we dig deeper into the “props and supports which man by nature depends on”? No, but we should dig deeper—deeper into God. If you are a Christian, your current wilderness is not a place of abandonment but a place where God draws you near (cf. Hosea 2:14–15).

And I love this quote because of its unexpected twist. Conventional wisdom would say that training and hardships make a man stronger because they teach his body and spirit to survive in such harsh conditions. And I suppose there is some truth in this. In a moderated form, this line of thinking is the basis of all athletic training. We detest running sprints at the end of soccer practice because they hurt. But, in time, we also know wind sprints make us strong. Yet, this type of strength—the strength that comes from the cycle of tearing down muscle fibers and letting them rebuild again—is not the strength the wilderness brings, at least this is not the strength that Craigie has in mind. The twist in this quote comes near the end. Over and over and over the wilderness breaks and re-breaks a man, but this breaking makes him stronger because he must learn the source of true strength: reliance upon God. In the wilderness, we come to the end of our natural strength to find the source of true strength.

Finally, I love this quote because I found it buried in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). For some, this detail might not mean much of anything, but when you hear NICOT, picture fat hardback books written by academic scholars. And in my experience, many commentaries that emphasize rigorous scholarship also tend to only rarely have warm, devotional reflections about our relationship with God, and many times are completely without such encouragements. Anyway, I love this quote because Craigie, at least I presume, must have believed that rigorous thinking and devotional application should never be put asunder. The former, in fact, should flow into the latter. This quote reminds me that biblical, theological precision should lead to doxology. It reminds me that theology, when done properly, should forge within us not merely the strength of intellectual knowledge, but deep strength—the strength of mind and heart. This is the strength of faith, the “strength that comes from a knowledge of the living God.”


[Photo by Andreas Selter on Unsplash]