Lessons From a Cactus: A Field Guide for 2017

I grew up in the desert. Our front yard had rocks in it to add decoration and beauty to the otherwise, simple surroundings. Right down the street was a wide open space filled with sand, desert, tumbleweed and cactuses. Driving down the El Paso roads, the heat of the sun seemed to radiate amidst the dry, desert land. As a little girl, I was always fascinated by the cactuses. Their beauty can often be overlooked in the midst of the desert! Some even produce beautiful, red flowers that bud in between the prickly spines. Even the desert contains its own design for survival and beauty in the midst of drought.

Though I no longer live in the desert, I've experienced desert seasons of life that remind me of that stifling heat, blaring sun, and barren land. Each year seems to bring with it a different variety of desert season of the soul. Some deserts are a result of loss, grief, and tragedy. Other deserts come from fear, anxiety, and depression. While other deserts come from our own trajectory, through overcommitment, pride, and greed. No matter the state of the desert you face, the conditions are always the same: dry, hot, and parched.

Desert seasons are a part of life and are to be expected. As the Christian travels in this world, following Jesus with a cross on their back, mountains, valleys, springs, rivers, and deserts will be encountered. In each season that we walk through, God gives us exactly what we need not only to survive, but also to thrive. He never sends us where He won't equip us and provide for us. In facing the desert storms that come, we can take a lesson from God's very creation on how to survive: the cactus.

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The Creator of the Desert

In Psalm 63, David penned a Psalm in the desert that reads, "O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (v. 1). David knew the desperation that is felt in the desert. When we are in a dry season, our souls become thirsty for what only satisfies. The desert strips us of all other unnecessary wants and gets us back to the basic necessities for life: water, food, shade, rest. Even Jesus knew what it feels like to walk through a wilderness.

In Matthew 4, Jesus was "led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry" (v. 1-2). Jesus felt hunger, exhaustion, and thirst. When He was weak physically, the tempter came and attempted to cause Him to stumble. Three times the devil tempted Jesus, and three times Jesus responded the exact same way: with the Word of God. When Jesus was in the wilderness, His food was God's Word and His hope was His promises. 

Jesus was in the very beginning of time when the desert was created (John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-16). He came to earth and put on flesh to show us how to live victoriously in the desert. Not only that, He bought us the victory through sacrificing Himself on the cross in our place, conquering death, and being raised from the grave. He walked through deserts and faced what we face so that He could give us hope and streams in the desert. Not only that, He created things like the cactus to give us a visible reminder for how to thrive in the deserts that we encounter in the life. The cactus points to Him, and He sustains us in the desert.

Lessons from the Cactus

The cactus was built for survival in the desert. Every part of the cactus has a purpose and aids in its survival during the hot, arid heat. First and most importantly, the cactus stores up water to sustain it's growth and life during times when there is no water. Its body swells during times of rain and moisture to store as much water as possible for the coming days. The "leaves" of the cactus are known as spines and they also collect water (source). The spines are used by the cactus as a defense mechanism towards predators. They not only store up water and nutrients, but they protect the cactus from harm. The cactus also spreads its roots out closer to the top of the ground in order to quickly receive all moisture from the ground. From its roots to its core to its spines, the cactus is not only unique and beautiful, it teaches us how to survive in the desert.  

There are three things that we can learn from the survival of the cactus in the desert to implement in our own lives when the desert seasons come our way:

The Word of God is our water.

Just like the cactus stores up water, knowing that the dry seasons will come, so are we to store up God's Word in our own hearts for when we walk through our own deserts. When Jesus was in the wilderness, He responded to the devil's temptations with truth. It came right from His heart and flowed out of His lips, and the devil knew that there is no stronger weapon than the Word. Jesus gave us a living example of how to survive when our souls are thirsty and it seems that water is far off: know God's Word.

When we aren't in the desert, we should be nourishing our souls with truth. Every single day we need to be in Scripture with our spiritual forks and dining at the table of God. Every verse of all 66 books of the Bible has worth. When we commit to study all of God's Word (yes, even the parts that may seem hard to understand), we develop a deeper, intimate walk with God that cannot be shaken or severed, even in the harshest desert conditions. Store up truth in your inner being now. His truth will not forsake you when you need it most; it will be the glass of cold water you need when your soul is thirsty.

The armor of God is our protection.

In Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul shares vital wisdom to survival in the desert: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil" (vs. 10-11). Be strong in the Lord and put on the armor of God. This is the "spine" of the Christian. The armor of God consists of several pieces: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the readiness of the gospel of peace as shoes, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and prayer (verses 13-18).

Every piece is given to us by the Lord for protection against intruders, lies, harm, and defeat. We've been given all we need through Christ Jesus to survive the desert. But the key is we have to suit up. The spines of the cactus protect and store water. They do what they were created to do. When we come to hungry for God's Word, wielding our sword through the power of prayer, we will stand firm against the enemies schemes to shake us.

Roots grow from community, thanksgiving, and wisdom.

The cactus has roots that spread out to receive nutrients. It can't survive without the sand, sun, and water. We cannot survive in our walk of faith without the body of Christ supporting, encouraging, and providing hope when we need it most. Fellowship with other believers is key to survival in the desert. Community strengthens our faith roots and equips us to keep going. 

Colossians 2:6-7 tells us, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving." In these two verses, Paul gives two more avenues to be deeply rooted: through thanksgiving and wisdom. Even in the desert, we are to "abound in thanksgiving" because God has not changed and will always be faithful. We abound in thanksgiving "just as we were taught." Wisdom is knowledge applied to daily life. It is taking what we know to be true of God and this life from the Word and applying those principles to daily life. Our roots are strengthened when we grow in wisdom and abound in thanksgiving.

Living like the cactus

We learn from the cactus that the desert has purpose and it is possible to survive through God's mighty power within us. Dry, desert seasons will come to your life this next year. What will you do with them? Start storing up truth in your heart now to sustain you when there is no water. Suit up in the armor of God. Spread your roots out through community, thanksgiving, and wisdom. God will not leave you in the desert. There's beauty to be found in the desert, we just need the eyes to see and the heart to long for it.

drinking deep from the Well,

Gretchen