Between Breakthroughs


Exodus tells story of a man named Moses leading the Israelites out of years of enslavement. In the face of unbearable resistance from Egypt, this motley group of slaves and sinners find themselves at the foot of a parted sea and a path straight to freedom. In the final moment, God comes through. He splits the sea, and the people march into victory.

To the Israelites’ surprise, their victory march leads them straight into the desert. Remembering the promise of a God who brought them victory, the people march on. The desert will end and waters will part once again for the people of God. But months turn into years and the promise of Canaan seem to fade into echoes of the past. Their past lives in Egypt are too far gone and the hope of the Promised Land evaporates into a distant dream. In between Egypt and the Promised Land of Canaan, the Israelites find themselves in a barren land.

What happened in the middle of a barren land? God begins to shape His people.

I often find myself in the middle of a barren land. I am not the same insecure and painfully shy person the Lord encountered many years ago; I’ve come far from that place of darkness. I am redeemed, I am restored, I am a new creation in Christ. But I am also not quite there yet -- my dreams and desires of being used by God have yet to fully come into fruition. There are moments between the highs of revival nights and the depths of despair that I find myself in the stillness of the desert. I am neither bound in the chains of Egypt nor bearing the fruits of the Promised Land. Without the shadows of my past life to hide in nor the flashiness of a mountain top experience to blind me, the Lord begins to whisper.

Our spiritual lives are easily identified by our “highs and lows.” These are simple and clear markers we can claim as defining moments. Testimonies are bulleted by the depths from which the Lord brought us and the highs to which He has taken us. But the unglamorous, quiet moments we have in the wilderness are those that God uses not to brighten our exterior but to strengthen our core.

As for me, it has been twelve years since I first heard the voice of God. Looking back, this walk is filled with memorable moments -- college acceptances, graduations, deaths, stolen passports, mission trips, family milestones. Nonetheless, the memories that weave through my thoughts most this season are different. They are quieter, they are hidden. They look like moments where serving Him meant leading empty prayer meetings, groggy early mornings, and giving forgettable messages to sleepy audiences. Moments where I barely made it to the end of the day and could only hope for just enough for tomorrow. Moments, seasons, and times where the barren land seemed closer than the river. These are the times that make up my seasons in the desert.

But when I am in the desert, I see that He is not just a God who parts the sea but One who makes manna for His people. He is big enough to be the Lord over the nations and yet intimate enough to speak to Moses face to face. On the mountaintop, He is God of my future, my calling, my dreams. In the depths of valleys, He is Lord over my greatest pains, my hurts, and my insecurities. But in the desert, He is Lord over the hairs on my head, the bread that I eat, the clothes on my back. He is Lord over the deep insights and random thoughts that permeate my mind. He is Lord over the quiet moments of surrender where His gentle voice beckons me to bear the offense, to take the lesser portion, to persevere not when the pressure is great but when the silence is deafening. In the desert, He is Lord over the miniscule moments of surrender that shape my character -- removed from the applause of man and hidden from the eyes of the world. The breakthrough that I seek in the desert is replaced by quiet decisions that shape and mold my being.

In the desert, He withholds giving us breakthrough so that we can become the breakthrough.

For Exodus, the first time God brought breakthrough, Moses lifted his staff to part the sea. Forty years later, the people of God find themselves in a similar place. This time, there is no staff and no Moses to lead the way. There is no enemy in pursuit behind them, only a long-awaited promise ahead. The Lord commands Joshua and the Levites to stand still in the water as the people pass by -- breakthrough no longer came through a staff but through the very people of God.

I don’t know what it must have been like for Joshua to stand before the River, but I imagine that his mind might have flashed back to stories of Moses and the parted waters. Perhaps as the Levites stood, one by one, still in the river, they remember when the Sea stood still before them. Perhaps they remember the desert, where the sand seemed endless and the rain never came. They might turn their gaze to the waters below their feet, to the Land that awaits them, to their past behind them. They might look upward and realize that they are standing before a God who is worth much more than forty years in the desert. That somewhere in the middle of manna and the wilderness, the God who parted the sea made this motley group of slaves and sinners into a fierce army ready to conquer a foreign land.That in the desert, between breakthroughs, the Israelites found their identity as the people of God.


Eleanor Ma (@eleanormaa) is currently serving as a Field of Grace Missionary in San Telmo, Mexico. She graduated with a Bachelor’s of Architecture from Rice University.

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