The Wilderness Years

On a bus headed to Ibadan, I had a fantastic conversation with a young man. I had come to my hometown for the weekend and was returning to school.

I was seated in the front seat of the 15-seater bus, between the driver and the young man, who was about 35 years of age. As usual, I had my earpiece in my ear, prepared to consume a huge chunk of an audiobook I was reading.

As we traveled along, I couldn’t help but notice the young man was particularly excited and visibly agitated. He’d open the backpack he was holding, ruffle its content and close the bag again without taking anything from it.

He repeated this action about four times. I ignored all these, determined not to pay him any attention. Finally, the man pulled out from his bag, a spiralbound document. Naturally, I glanced over to see what it was that made him so excitable.

Boldly typed on the the first page of the document were these words: The Wilderness Years, by Joshua Adewole. “Hmmm,” I thought curiously, “that’s interesting.”

I longed to know what the document was about. But, I had it almost as a rule not to poke my nose into other people’s business, so I returned my focus to my phone.

The man flipped invitingly through the pages of his document, and I couldn’t help peeping from the corner of my eyes. Suddenly, the young man looked straight at me, catching me in the process. I stared at him, then at the document, before glancing away in embarassment.

The man had a stupendous smile on his face, almost breaking off into a laughter. “How do you do sir?” he said to me.

Startled, I replied with a faux smile, “I am good sir. And you?”

“I am good,” replied the young man. “My name is Joshua; happy to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise. My name is Revival.”

“Revival? That’s a beautiful name,” Joshua remarked. “I like it very much.”

“Thank you.” My faux smile began to take a more genuine form, as my eyes relaxed, and once more, darted towards the document in his hands.

He followed my eyes, and seeing his document had caught my attention, he raised it up. “It is a manuscript for my autobiography,” he said, turning it back to the title page.

“The Wilderness Years,” I observed with great interest. “Sounds very interesting.”

“It is. Very much, indeed. It is about my journey through the wilderness—the wilderness of life, that is—I mean it figuratively.”

I nodded, prompting him to continue.

“I suspect you’re a Christian, Revival, is that so?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Fantastic, you don’t mind a conversation on the subject, do you?” he asked, slightly waving the book at me.

“Oh, I’d love it. The title actually caught my interest.”

Still with a broad smile on his face, Joshua sighed contentedly. “Well, it is the story of my life, and I suspect… I suspect it is also the story of several Christians today.”

“People living in the wilderness?”

“Yes, figuratively speaking that is.”

“Yes, figuratively speaking,” I said, “but, how so?”

He made a cheerful sigh, and replied: “The wilderness years are the most difficult years of our lives. Of course, it is not an uncommon subject since the Bible has a lot to say about the wilderness.”

“Yes, yes, of course. The Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years.”

“Yes!” Joshua exclaimed, causing the driver to throw him a curious look. “Exactly,” he continued more calmly, “it was such a remarkable passage of time, wasn’t it? Forty years. It must have seemed like a long delay, a waste of time. But, we later come to realize the value of those wilderness years.

“It was during the wilderness years that the Israelites came to be equipped with the most important things they needed in the promise land: humility and obedience.

And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.

(Deuteronomy 8:2)

“This forms the basis of my autobiography; that we’re led into the wilderness, prideful and disobedient creatures, but we emerge thence as changed people, humble and totally dependent upon God. So, the wilderness years are transformative and indispensable.”

Joshua paused, watching me closely to see if I was following his explanation. I nodded in affirmative. Before he continued, however, I thought it necessary to pose a question. “But, the wilderness years do come about as a result of our sins, right? The Israelites sinned, so they had to spend forty years in the desert.”

“Yes, but it is not merely to punish our sins that we’re led into the wilderness. The main object of the wilderness years is to change our very nature and turn us into new people.

“After all, Christ has dealt with our sins on the cross. But the nature that causes us, not only to sin, but also to be distant from God—that nature must be dealt with. Take David, Elijah, John; they all spent considerable amount of time in the wilderness, not on account of any particular sin. So, that’s it, we go through the wilderness to affirm and reaffirm our total surrender to God.

So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Luke 1:80

“It is so for us, and it was so for the Israelites then. Discipline is designed to change the people, not punish them. And everyone must be changed.”

“Ah, so everyone must go through the wilderness?” asked I.

“Yes, everyone who has the desire to be of any service to God.”

“So, you’ve been there? How was your own wilderness.”

“I wrote it all in here,” he waved his manuscript at me again. “It is my desire that you read it one day, and I will make sure of it. But, I am happy to give you a brief account now.”

“Please do,” I said.

“I was an undergraduate student at Osun State University. At the time, I only identified as a Christian because I came from a Christian home. I never gave much thought to God myself, and was totally distant from him. I didn’t attend church, and even derided those who did.

“I indulged myself in worldly pleasures, and wallowed in sin and filth. I had drunken revelries, smoked weed, did drugs, fornicated; I only stopped short of theft and murder—though I was very close to these too.

“I had no intimate friends, but I was very popular in the circle of bad boys. I lived in my sins without shame and consequence. I was brilliant, you see, so I always did well in my studies. I took immense pride in my academic prowess.

“One fateful day, however, during my final year exams, I had a very strange experience. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, but that was the day God began leading me into the wilderness.

“It was a very hot afternoon, I remember. I was in the exam hall, writing my first paper, when I started feeling a strange sensation inside my body. I had smoked a roll of weed that morning. It was no more than I was capable of handling even during exams. I used to smoke triple that quantity without having any adverse feeling.

“Ordinarily, I tried to ignore the sensation, thinking the weed was kicking in. However, the sensation grew more intense, and it was now taking over my mind. Then I became truly afraid, which was also an effect of weed. ‘A single roll of weed can’t be this effective,’ I remember saying to myself.

“Several minutes passed, and I was getting really weak from the feeling. I couldn’t focus on my exam questions anymore. But, I tried my best to remain calm. Then, all of a suddenly, the whole sensation metamorphosed into a voice. A voice, can you believe it? I heard it clearly, clear as day.

“It was a gentle voice, but it reverberated all over my body. Even my toes felt the sound, and they twitched inside my shoes. I felt a spasm run through my whole body, and as soon as it passed, my consciousness was gone with it. I gently put my head on the table, and fell into a deep sleep. I didn’t awake till the time was up, and we were called to submit our papers.

“No one noticed my experience; even I couldn’t have explained what happened at the time. I woke up and submitted my paper without fuss. I sank back into my seat, feeling extremely exhausted. I was so weak I sat there for hours, motionless and thoughtless.”

“What did the voice say to you? You said you heard a voice.” I asked with eagerness.

“I am surely going to tell you. I will tell you the very words in a moment. Bear with me as I continue my story.”

“Why won’t he just tell me now?” I asked myself.

“You see, I hold those words sacred. But I’ll surely tell you, Revival,” he added, to reassure me.

“Okay then,” said I.

Then he continued his story. “I had another exam the following day. But I couldn’t study for it, for I was still very weak. In short, I failed both exams and got an extra year.

“My father was stunned, as he didn’t imagine I could fail. Both my parents knew nothing about my drug addiction, as I was pretty much away from home for my studies. After a brief admonishment, my parents sent me the fees for the extra year.

“Instead of applying for the courses, however, I squandered the money on drugs. I was at my lowest by that time. My parents knew nothing about it, until I was rusticated from school. I was forced to go home to my parents in Lagos.

“Though they were livid at first, their anger soon gave way for concern as they saw the state I was in. I managed to stay off drugs for a while. I had serious bouts of depression, and I contemplated suicide a couple of times.

“The following year, my father encouraged me to go back and get my degree. I did. But I soon relapsed into my previous lifestyle. I managed to pass the courses though, barely making credit in both. Then I was deployed to Edo State for my National Youth Service.”

His story was interrupted when we arrived at a pothole, bringing our bus to a near halt. Three policemen were standing in the middle of the road. One of them approached our driver, and 50 naira exchanged hands in the blink of an eye. This exchange made my interlocutor laugh. But he didn’t make any remark about it.

“At Edo State,” he continued, “I picked up my extravagant lifestyle. I’d spend all my allowance on drugs and alcohol, and spend the remaining half of the month broke and destitute, only to be saved by the next month’s allowance.

“You must begin to wonder now: If God had visited me on that fateful day during the exam, why was my lifestyle unchanged? What’s more, I didn’t even care for God one bit; I gave no thought to His existence. Nevertheless, I knew a change had come over me.

“I used to be a happy fellow during my undergraduate days, happy in my sinfulness too. However, since I had that experience in the exam hall, I had no happiness for living. Weed became an escape for me, but it didn’t give me any joy as it used to. I had become terribly sorrowful, and didn’t care to be alive anymore.

“I recognised my addiction to alcohol and drugs at the time. So, I stayed off those substances for a month, thinking I could find a glimmer of hope in sobriety. Suffice to say, my sorrow only multiplied. I’m not boring you, am I?”

“Oh no, not one bit,” I said quickly. “I’m really enjoying your story; not your travails, though. I’m sorry about your experience. It must have been really awful.”

“Yes, it was awful. Yes. But you need not be sorry. I’m a changed man now, and my happiness for life is second to none, I dare say. Looking back, I now consider all my sorrow a blessing. I see it as God’s way of calling my attention.

“He finally got my attention, I must tell you. Out of my despair, I walked into a church one Saturday evening. I was coming from a palm wine joint, tipsy but joyless, when I heard a chorus emanating from the church. When I went into the church, it was empty, except for the choir, who were practising a song.

“All eyes turned towards me as I went in, but they weren’t bothered by my presence, as they carried on. I sat on a chair close to the entrance, and listened to their singing. I didn’t quite get the wordings, but the melody was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I was so engrossed in the song that I suddenly lost all awareness.

“A familiar sensation started to well up inside me. I knew then, at that moment, that something transcendental was occuring to me. Afraid of fainting, I stumbled out of the church, into the compound.

“I was gasping for air, semi-conscious, and hadn’t noticed that someone was standing over me, trying to calm me. When I finally got my composure back, I stared wide-eyed at the man. He was dressed in a plain polo shirt, and black jeans. He smiled at me, and led me to a chair just in front of the church.

“‘How do you feel now? Do you need something? Water? Food?’ he asked, making me sit on the chair. ‘No, thank you,’ I managed to reply him. ‘I’m seeing you for the first time here,’ he observed gently, ‘what is your name sir?’

“I didn’t reply him immediately. I felt a sudden urge to run away. I didn’t know why. However, the man kept smiling as he waited for my reply. ‘Joshua Adewole,’ I finally gave my name. ‘I am Godwin Odiase,’ he said, ‘and I am happy to meet you, fellow brethren. I know the circumstance of our meeting is a bit strained, but I’m glad all the same to make your acquaintance, Mr Adewole.’ He spoke vibrantly, and that everlasting smile never left his face for once. I should have been put off by the smile, but I could tell it was very genuine.

“Disconcerted, I told him I had made a mistake coming into the church at that time. ‘I thought there was a service,’ I said to him. ‘Oh, that’s fine. The choir are just practising, but it is a sort of service too. I am always blessed listening to them. You were not mistaken to walk in when you did. And, I must say, I am extremely glad you have come here, Mr Adewole.’

“I stared at the man confoundedly. Though he was still smiling, his eyes now had a piercing seriousness to them. He stared at length into my face without blinking, as though he were searching for something. Then he flushed and laughed. ‘Pardon me, Mr Adewole, I am just very pleased to be meeting you. I feel like you’ve been led here by God Himself.’

“I opened my mouth, ready to refute his words when suddenly something hit me. My breath was thick with the smell of palm wine, and this man must have surely noticed it. He didn’t seem disturbed by it, though. However, I was greatly embarrassed. The urge to leave at once came over me again. I leapt to my feet immediately. ‘I am sorry, I have to go,’ I told him.

“I was already on my way, when the man called after me.” Joshua took a deep breath at this point, and gazed out the window at the tropical hills stretched out on the horizon. About a minute passed before he continued his story.

“You know what he said to me, Revival?” he finally said, facing me again. “He repeated the exact same words I’d heard that fateful day in the exam hall. He said it in the same voice too. Can you believe it?”

Even though he was yet to tell me those words, I was visibly astonished. “Really?”

“In the same voice too. How could he have known, I asked myself. I had never repeated those words to anyone at the time. I turned around, dumbfounded. He was smiling at me, then he said the words again. ‘The wilderness is not a fine place, but it will make a fine man of you.’”

As Joshua said the words, he looked wide-eyed at me, and he laughed out loud—a little too loud. The driver stared curiously at him then.

Joshua must expected me to be stirred at hearing the words, but I wasn’t. I found his story intriguing enough, but I didn’t find the words particularly fascinating.

“How could he have known?” I asked him.

“I asked him, trust me. He told me I had the look of a man who was in the wilderness. I told him I’d heard those very words about three years ago. He was surprised too. ‘It is not a mere coincidence,’ he said to me, ‘the Lord is surely saying something to you.’

“To cut the story short, he invited me to come to service the following day. It turned out, he was the pastor of the church, and he longed desperately to win my soul for Christ. I didn’t honour his invitation though. In fact, for a whole month, I purposely avoided the road that led there. I returned to my wayward life, and to my despair too.

“Then one Sunday, about a month later, I had a persistent prompting, urging me to go to the church. So I got dressed and went. I accepted Christ that very day. Gradually, I began to get off my addictions. My addiction to weed was the last to go. Even a year after my full conversion, I still found myself going back to it.

“I must mention that I didn’t leave Edo after my service year. I couldn’t separate myself from the congregation there. The pastor was most helpful, as he helped understand the Word of God better. So, I stayed behind and took a teaching job.

One day, I asked my pastor: ‘Why does my addiction persist, even after being born again?’ He could tell I was agitated and sad, so he said to me: ‘you seem to be fighting a battle that’s already won.’ Perplexed, I reminded him that I had smoked some weed the previous day. ‘Joshua,’ he said, holding me by the shoulder, ‘the battle is won. When you get home, give thanks to God.’

“Would you believe it, Revival?—from that very day, I became totally free. So, the shackle of sin was finally broken,” Joshua said, rather triumphantly. Then he stared solemnly at the manuscript, and continued:

“However, my time in the wilderness was not over yet. My salary was teaching was paltry, and it suddenly occured to me that I was not fulfilling my purpose. My pastor encouraged me to go back to the southwest.

“So I left Edo State. I visited my parents, but didn’t stay with them even though I had very little means. Then my struggle continued. I had a series of misfortunes, and my faith was seriously tested. I experienced so many disappointments that I wouldn’t have the time to recount now.

The wilderness is not a fine place, but it will make a fine man of you.

“I joined a new church in Ibadan. The body of Christ helped me to remain standing, both spiritually and materially. Whenever I came close to despair, I remained the voice and the words that was spoken to me.

“Then it occured to me to search my Bible for answers regarding the wilderness. I read about the travails of the Israelites, and how they were sustained by God throughout. I realized at that moment that I was in the hands of God too, and he was sustaining me.

“I was so happy for that revelation. I began to thank God for His sustenance, even though I continued to struggle. I thanked Him because I finally understood what He was doing to me—what He was making of me.

“You’re probably asking yourself now, ‘what’s become of him?’ Well, my good friend, my story has changed. I can’t tell you all. I hope you read my book when it is published. I’ll see to it, I promise. You’ll get your copy free, I promise.”

Joshua was almost out of breath when he stopped talking. I watched him very closely. His eyes were moist with tears, which he tried to conceal. Then he suddenly looked at me and said: “Revival, God has changed me indeed, and He has blessed me very much.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I replied.

As we approached our destination, we exchanged phone numbers, and promised to keep in touch.

THE END

Disclaimer: The above story is a work of fiction. The account of Joshua Adewole was actually inspired by certain events in my own life and stories of others close to me.

Just like in Biblical times, God will sometimes lead us into the wilderness to change us. When we come through the wilderness, our old nature is left behind.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.

Matthew 16:24

Do not be afraid of the wilderness.

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