There’s always such a teasing conglomeration of feelings when it comes to reading about God’s people in the Old Testament.
On the one hand, they’re such frightened little lemmings. With the objectivity of thousands of years, I’m constantly rolling my eyes. These people freak out about everything. They’re like a bunch of nomadic toddlers, with their tantrums and terrible long-term memory. Oh, what a surprise, you’re grumbling again. Cue the fire of judgment, ya dummies.
But on the other hand, I (begrudgingly) see my bumbling, fearful self in their every breakdown. I can picture myself, running in panicked circles in the desert, tearing my robes and falling down oh-so-dramatically. I see it playing out like an Old Testament version of Oregon Trail:
Jewhosebuh has suffered a snakebite and died.
Neshebuseth grumbled against the Lord and has been burned by fire from on high.
Mariko succumbed to a hangry paroxysm and killed everyone in her tent.
I am so much like these people and it is such a comfort and yet such a disappointment.
I’ve come to that part of the story where God has led them out of their slavery in Egypt, across the desert and to the edge of the Promised Land. They send some scouts out and they return with a report that the land is filled with wild animals and – wait for it – giants. The nation of Israel has a collective meltdown, turning on their leader Moses and (I imagine) screaming like maniacs:
WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.
WE WERE BETTER OFF WANDERING THE DESERT.
OR BETTER YET, IN EGYPT AS SLAVES.
REMEMBER HOW IN EGYPT WE ATE WATERMELONS?
WATERMELONS WERE SO GOOD AND NOW ALL WE HAVE IS QUAIL.
WATERMELON TRUMPS QUAIL ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.
And I’m right there with them.
Sometimes we come up against hard things and it feels like God has turned on us. Like he’s placing hurdles in our path just to be a turd. Like he doesn’t really love us, otherwise He would smooth things out so that we don’t need to do hard things to get to the good things. Like we should be able to get to the good stuff without the threat of giants or wild animals or dismemberment.
He led us to this place and it’s filled with challenges.
He led us to a place and it’s not easy.
He led us into hard stuff — HE MUST BE AGAINST US. HE MUST HAVE TURNED ON US.
It is so, so easy to make this assumption. It is so, so easy and weirdly satisfying to fall into despair and fear.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned about God as I read the Old Testament, it’s that He’s opposed to (in fact, irritated by) fear. He’s just so done with it. He’s incredulous – these are the people He led out of Egypt after ten days of miraculous plagues. These are the same people who saw the Red Sea actually part so they could escape on dry land. These are the same people who saw food literally fall from the sky when they were hungry. And they’re still afraid and complaining and afraid to move.
So God tells them FINE- I’ll give you exactly what you want, you whiny little turds. Stay safe in your beloved desert. In fact, wander around there for the next forty years until you’re dead. I’ll start fresh with your kids in the Promised Land. Die right there in your stubbornness and fear. (I may be paraphrasing here.)
He tells the Israelites: “you’ll know what it is like to have me against you.”(Num. 14:34) And then sentences them to 40 years in the desert.
You’ll know what it is like to have me against you.
And I immediately remember an illustration I saw once from Dante’s Inferno. In Dante’s imagination, there are layers – ever deepening circles- of Hell and the ninth and final circle is where Satan himself dwells. It’s the very core of Hell, but it’s not fire or lava like you’d think. It’s ice. Everything is frozen, with Satan himself at the center of a frozen lake, trapped in ice to the waist. This is because Dante considered God to be the essence of life – action, motion, change. So he wrote Satan’s realm as the opposite.
Dante imagined the deepest pit of Hell to be characterized by immobility. And in a way, God confirms this idea in His response to His people’s whining.
And it hits me that to be opposed by a just and loving God – who is slow to anger and abounding in love- is NOT to encounter hard things.
Having God against you would look more like being frozen in familiarity. Having God against you would look more like being left to your own comfort zone*.
But if we’re choosing to be people of God and we’re praying to be more like Him…then we’re praying to be changed. To MOVE and to GROW and to PROCEED. We don’t get to ask for His goodness without trusting Him to lead us to it. We don’t get to ask for a stronger faith without the inevitable exercise.
And this is a tough truth for me to swallow. I really would rather be free to play victim. To tear my robes and flop down and moan about the hard stuff. To assume He is against me and that I have no choice but to despair.
But He never promised me that there wouldn’t be hard stuff. There were giants in the Promised Land when he told his kids to go live there. But He promised to go ahead of them and behind them and with them. You want to be where God is? He’s in the hard stuff because He’s in the movement.
So I really have no choice but to dig in to the paradox here. Like a covered wagon, caulking and floating across so many rivers along the Oregon Trail, I find my familiarity in the action. His action. I find my movement in the knowledge that He is the same everywhere.
The only way to stay in my comfort zone and keep moving forward toward the promises is to find my comfort in Him. In the weird backward knowledge that change is evidence that He has never and will never abandon me to my comforts. He’s going to take me with Him, further in and higher up.
*The theology nerd in me wants to clarify that while we can learn from the parallels in our situations, the relationship with God that we enjoy now is vastly different from the one the Israelites experienced. Old Testament God required physical sacrifice for sins and dealt in physical discipline with His people. Jesus changed all of that. He’s our permanent sacrifice. He took on our physical discipline. This post deals in hypotheticals because God cannot and will not “turn on us” or “leave us in our comfort zone” because He turned on Jesus. He abandoned Jesus. THE PUNISHMENT THAT BROUGHT US PEACE WAS UPON JESUS AND BY HIS WOUNDS WE ARE HEALED.
CAN I GET AN AMEN.