When you first meet Robert Fergusson, what strikes you is his deep humility, his sincere passion and his uncommon care to to understand — both the heart of each person he is speaking to, and the heart of God — and then connect hearts to God. Robert and I have talked at length about his daily spiritual disciplines, his time in the word of God, his daily practice of writing out his eucharisteos, his thanks to God each day, his practice of never going out into the World, until he has first come into the presence of the King of this World. As a family, we have listened to many of Robert’s sermons over and over again — and we are deeply indebted to Robert’s earnest faithfulness. His latest book, Are You Getting This?, is a formidable work on how to tell the story of God to the people in your life, whose paths cross yours, to that they may come to the Cross and know what we all desperately need: the hope of a new story. A humble grace to invite the wisdom who is Robert Fergusson, who points to God’s wisdom with all that he is worth, to the farm’s front porch:
I have often wondered why various biblical tests took place in wildernesses.
What is it about the desert that caused God to choose this location? Would an ocean not have been a suitable setting? Or what about the mountains or the forests?
With these questions in mind, I have visited various deserts—and each experience has left me transformed.
Even a short trip to a desert is strangely compelling. These places are filled with paradoxes.
Deserts inspire worship
My first encounter with the enormity of the Sinai desert left a deep impact on me.
Standing in the desert, I felt vulnerable and small. Rock and sand stretched for miles around me, and the dry heat was draining and relentless. The barren mountains towered above, prompting me to lift my gaze.
It is no wonder many think monotheism was birthed in the desert. Idolatry flourishes amongst fruitfulness and abundance, as the gods of Canaan demonstrate. Rivers and their creatures provide a natural focus for our adoration.
But in the emptiness of the wilderness, there is only one God.
The philosopher, Alain de Botton, describes deserts as ‘sublime places’ that engender awe and teach us our place in the world. He concludes that in the desert, ‘The sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship’.
Perhaps that’s the reason God led Israel through the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
It played a significant role in His overall plan, which is revealed in Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh: ‘“Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness”’.
So, why did the Spirit of God lead Jesus Christ into the wilderness before His public ministry began? And why did an angel of the Lord tell Philip to travel the desert road? Deserts inspire worship.
Deserts test hearts
Not only was I overwhelmed by the shocking beauty of the Sinai desert, but I was also impacted by its severity.
A desert is not an easy place to remain for a lengthy period of time.
As we entered, we were instructed to drink plenty of water, stay together as a group and follow the guide’s directions. These may seem like simple requirements, but some members of the group immediately ignored them—and they paid the price for doing so. Many of them soon became dehydrated.
After that, it became clear that this desert was not a casual tourist spot; breaking the guide’s instructions could lead to serious consequences. He told us, ‘If you don’t do what you are told, we all must return’.
Thankfully, the guide allowed us to continue. But it was obvious we had failed a simple test.
Think about how much greater the consequences were for Israel when they entered the same desert! They, too, failed their test and were not permitted to continue. Deserts test hearts.
Deserts crucify self
It’s not an easy feat to convince people that God wants us to have a ‘desert experience’.
Deserts are seen as barren, harsh and unforgiving—all of which are characteristics alien to the heart of God. So, why should He want us to have such an isolated experience? For some, even the word ‘wilderness’ has a negative connotation.
For instance, the phrase ‘the wilderness years’ has been used to describe a season in the life of Winston Churchill—the British Prime Minister—the years of relative anonymity between 1929 and 1939. Yet it is was the obscurity of the wilderness that prepared him for his greatest achievement.
Paul, the apostle, experienced wilderness years as well. After his dramatic conversion to Christ, he created disquiet with his self-confident debating; but after a God-ordained season in the desert, Paul returned with a new authority and understanding. The harsh anonymity of the desert brought about God’s purpose.
Paul describes the outcome of his desert experience to the Galatian church when he said, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’.
Notice that his egotistical, self-confident ‘I’ had been crucified, and his unique, Christ-centred ‘me’ had been resurrected. This is the selfless character that the desert can produce within us.
W. Boyd Carpenter, a nineteenth century bishop, suggested that public speakers are to ‘deny ourselves’ in order to ‘be ourselves’. He wrote, ‘If self-expression be a true instinct, the safe avenue to self-expression lies through self-repression’. He describes the ‘desert road’ that so many of us fail to travel.
Why? Because we don’t want to deny ourselves. Yet this was the first requirement of discipleship.
Jesus said, ‘“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”’ Deserts crucify self.
Deserts establish priorities
A visit to a desert can challenge our priorities. Even a short trip tends to make us reconsider our values.
My own trips to natural deserts forced me to concentrate on the matters that matter—companionship became a lifeline, prayer a necessity and food became secondary. Water was the main topic of conversation.
In a desert, wells are so vital that they became places of both power and conflict.
Beersheba, which means ‘well of oath’, is one such place of value. This was demonstrated in 1917, when the Australian Light Horse Brigade attempted to capture Beersheba during their historic charge. (Although, as I have heard it said, the Australians thought anything that included the word ‘beer’ was worth fighting for.) Failure to capture this well—and the water it promised—could have resulted in their death.
The desert heightens these life and death choices.
One of the ancient Jewish commentaries relates a possible desert scenario: ‘Two men are in a desert. One has a jug of water and the other a jug of honey’. The rabbinic ruling states that, if one jug breaks, the water must be saved, and the honey poured away. This is because honey is irrelevant if one is dying of thirst.
It is no coincidence that water is often the conversation of the prophets as they faced these desert environments. ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water’. Deserts establish priorities.
Deserts train shepherds
In the Bible, there seems to be a tension between farmers and shepherds. The shepherds of Israel, for instance, clashed with the farmers of Egypt.
This tension is also illustrated in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer who grew crops, whereas Abel was shepherd who tended flocks. Abel was considered to be the more godly brother. One of the reasons for attributing spirituality to shepherds is due to their geography.
Farmers settled where the soil was good and the fruit abundant; the shepherds, on the other hand, led their flocks into the wilderness. That gave them an opportunity to face fewer distractions and establish a greater reliance on God.
This is, perhaps, the reason why God, through the prophet Hosea, allured idolatrous Israel into the desert. I believe He was inviting them to return to their shepherding roots, the trade of the patriarchs, and the intimacy their fathers had enjoyed. He intended them to return to the settled farming of their vineyards.
But before that could happen, God wanted them to have a taste of dependence, the kind that only deserts could provide.
The Jewish author, Nogah Hareuveni explains, ‘Hosea, about 200 years before Jeremiah, already saw the turning to idol worship as a consequence of the change from nomadic shepherding in the desert to an agrarian society. The temptation could be overcome only after a return to the desert, followed by a rebuilding of that settled, farming society on more faithful foundations’.
Two millennia later, in our urbanised world, many of us have forgotten the dangers and temptations of the settled society.
In our city-based theological colleges—where we train students to become pastors—we often seem to forget that the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’. A pastor is a trade and a lifestyle, not a title or a license.
I believe all of us could benefit from returning to a reliance on God. The kind that only a wilderness can bring.
Deserts train shepherds.
Robert Fergusson has been part of the teaching team at Hillsong Church for the last thirty years. He is English by birth, Australian by choice and European by taste. He is a biologist by training, but dislikes the colour green. He is a teacher by calling, but hates marking. He loves travelling, reading, photography and coffee. For over forty years he has taught people how to live in order to please God.
If Robert Fergusson were to tell you a story, whether from a church platform or in the confines of the seat next to you on an airplane, you would undoubtedly listen – and undeniably be changed. Stories pass on gathered wisdom, they reveal much about a person’s identity, convey responsibility, instil values and uncover truth. There is an art to storytelling, and priceless significance gained when you discern and absorb this age-old practice.
In Are You Getting This?, discover the story telling method that has made Robert Fergusson a sought-after teacher, memorable preacher and incessant disciple of Jesus Christ. Rediscover a love for learning and teaching, the importance of impartation and the eternal truths found in the greatest story ever told.