You will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation. And in that day you will say, “Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; make them remember that His name is exalted.” (Isaiah 12.3-4)
What the Desert Does
Gratefully, I’ve never been stranded in the wild. Yet reading survivor accounts and seeing movies based on them always impress me with how rapidly little things one takes for granted become monumental blessings that inspire unfettered gratitude. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston—the hiker who severed his right arm after a boulder pinned it to a canyon wall—dives face-first into a foul puddle to quench his desperate thirst following the ordeal. The water’s taste and purity are inconsequential. It’s a life-saving gift for which he’s forever thankful, no different than the bottled water he gulps down when passing hikers eventually come to his aid.
That’s what the desert does. It reminds us there are no little things in life. Every gift God gives is big. Every blessing merits gratitude. Nothing we have can ever be discounted as automatically given. From the infinitesimal effort required to open our eyes each morning to our last conscious breath as we slip into slumber, our days are overrun with goodness we should take note of and be thankful for. Sure, we recognize this. But we get busy, preoccupied, and often gratitude for “little things” gets supplanted by equally worthy thankfulness for “big things”—specific answers to prayer, for example, or unexpected instances of God’s mercy and protection. Meanwhile, big little things continue to happen. Daily blessings continue to flow. And we continue to count on them. Not until we enter a desert where they’re not assured—yet where they’re most vital—do realize how miraculous they truly are. That’s what the desert does. And that’s one of the main reasons we’re called into the desert, where absence of distractions and heightened awareness alerts us to how lavishly we’re blessed.
What the Desert Teaches
But there’s a deeper lesson the desert teaches. Many things we’d dismiss as unfit or inconvenient in greener surroundings turn into precious gifts. Muddy puddles we’d walk around without a second thought become founts of survival. Strangers we’d ignore on a city street become saviors to whom we’re indebted for life. Boulders that inexplicably trap us and threaten us with certain death occasion discovery of strength and determination unlike any we’ve known. The desert validates the cliché “Nothing is what it seems” by proving how often what we presume to be troublesome, negligible, and hopeless can be God’s means of providing us healthier, richer, and freer life. Israel learns this lesson in Isaiah.
If we were to gauge Israel’s relationship with God by the first few chapters of Isaiah, we’d surmise God’s pretty much had it with them. They’ve exchanged faith and trust for religion and pride. They’ve tumbled into the pits of ingratitude, giving no thought to how faithfully God sustains and blesses them. Instead of honoring God’s commands to vigilantly care for widows, orphans, and strangers, they try to buy God’s favor with elaborate rituals and fasts. God wants none of it, and pleas to mend their ways voiced by the prophet go unattended. Instead of banishing Israel to the desert, God brings the desert to Israel. Its enemies lay siege to their cities and blessings they took for granted instantly dry up.
So, yes, God's had it with Israel. But God’s not done with them. The desert that descends on them is sent to teach them to see blessings in struggle and misfortune. In the end, they will be grateful—not only for big little things they undervalued, but also for the experience they underwent to renew their gratitude. Isaiah 12.1 proclaims, “Then you will say on that day, ‘I will give thanks to You, O LORD. For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and you comfort me.” What we learn in the desert doesn’t die when we leave it. Its lessons are meant to change how we value the greener world once we return to it. I’m sure if we asked Aron Ralston, he’d confirm every sip of water he’s taken since his ordeal tastes indescribably sweeter and more refreshing than any he had before it. “You will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah says. “And in that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; make them remember that His name is exalted.’” (v3-4) The heightened gratitude we take from the desert inspires us to rekindle our gratitude for a God Whose name is exalted. In our thankfulness for little things we renew our appreciation for the bigness of our God.
The Desert Around Us
As we traverse Lent's desert of self-denial, we become increasingly aware we also live in a desert of its own kind. The desert around us is one of rampant selfishness, competition, and ignorance that foster a culture hostile to gratitude for big little things. When others hear us express thanks for the “givens”—waking up each morning, the activity of our limbs, food to eat, shelter overhead, and so on—they minimize our gratitude as naïve and overstated. We cannot allow their narrow perspective to infect our vision, however. Nothing we’ve received, from the least to the greatest, comes by our merit. Everything we possess and experience, from the worst to best, is a gift from God. For that reason alone, God is worthy of praise and thanks.
A life of gratitude and praise for big little things engenders attitudes and habits that earn God’s trust in us for greater gratitude and praise. In Luke 12.48, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” When we practice gratitude for big little things, we open the door to bigger, more unusual blessings because we can be trusted to thank God for all we receive.
The most powerful moment in 127 Hours comes when Ralston—thinking he’s recording a video to be found with his corpse—says, “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life—its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago in space. It’s been waiting to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the earth’s surface.” Destiny finds us in the desert. It changes us forever, teaching us nothing is by chance, nothing is what it seems, and everything is God’s gift. May thankfulness mark our journey and open our eyes to the majesty existent in all of the big little things we receive.
The desert teaches us to be grateful for things we’d overlook in a greener world.
Postscript: “For All You’ve Done”
I’m smitten by this simple song that encompasses a life lived in gratitude for everything, big and small. “For All You’ve Done,” by Don Moen.