Posted by: 15shekels | May 30, 2010

Inefficient Travelers

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” -Come, Thou Fount

“These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan…(It takes eleven days to go from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.) In the fortieth year…east of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound on this law…” -Deuteronomy 1:2-3, 5

It was recently pointed out to me that the above passage from Deuteronomy contains one of the best parenthetical statements in the Bible. It’s easy to miss, and yet it concisely captures one of the overarching themes of human history.

Despite God’s past acts of love and faithfulness, and His promises to care for us, we drag our feet in following Him.

Deuteronomy 1:2 tells us that it should have taken the Israelites 11 days to travel from Mt. Sinai (where Moses receives the law) to the edge of Canaan, the promised land. And they made it to Canaan’s border relatively quickly. Somehow, though, it took them 40 years to enter the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy begins 40 years after they set out, with Moses speaking to the Israelites “east of the Jordan”—meaning they had still not crossed into Canaan. 40 years later, and they had not entered the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 14:8) that God had promised to them and led them right up to. 40 years to make a trip of 11 days. Why? Because then, as now, despite God’s faithfulness in our lives, we never seem to trust Him to lead us. We are such inefficient travelers.

When I experience this in my own life—a reluctance to obey God because I think I know better—I often think that I just need proof that He delivers on His promises, that He has my best interest at heart. Lord, just show me that you’ll come through for me, and I’ll gladly obey. And yet the story of the Israelites in the desert reminds me that God needing to “prove Himself” is rarely the actual problem.

When the Israelites set out from Mt. Sinai for Canaan, they had just experienced dramatic evidence that God fulfills His promises and protects His people. He had just delivered them out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12), led them through the Red Sea on dry ground (Exodus 14), rained bread and quail from heaven to feed them (Exodus 16), and sent water flowing out of a rock (Exodus 17). God, who doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone, had demonstrated to the Israelites over and over that He would take care of them.

But instead of trusting Him, the people doubted, questioned and grumbled, refusing to enter the land because they were afraid of the people living there:

“That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?…We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'” (Numbers 14:1-4)

My eyes widen when I read of the Israelites’ hardheartedness and inability to trust God. Then I realize how often I say the same thing to Him. I reflect on the past three years, and see the overwhelming evidence of God’s hand in my life. I remind myself that He has welcomed me into a relationship with Him at infinitely great cost to Himself—at the cost of His beloved son. And I see that over and over, He has cared for me and rescued me from harm, not just with the promise of heaven, but in concrete ways in this life. But somehow, I forget these truths a thousand times a day, and my stubborn feet turn back toward Egypt, to the things I trusted and relied upon before I knew God.

The happy ending of the Israelites’ story is that they did enter Canaan. Despite their many rebellions, God never gave up on them, and they eventually entered the land. He also kept another, more important promise to them—a promise to redeem the world through one of their descendants. So the story ends well. But there is a cost to their lack of trust. While the Israelites as a whole did survive, the majority of the original members of the group perished in the desert, with only two of them entering Canaan with the next generation. Because of their own stubbornness, most of the desert wanderers missed out on a lifetime of milk and honey.

For us, the good news is that because God kept His promise and redeemed the world through Jesus, those who accept Him will enter the ultimate promised land of heaven, of eternal life with God. Just like the Israelites “made it,” we, too, will “make it” to our destination. But how often do we miss out on the “milk and honey” God has for us in this world because we grumble, doubt, and continually go running back to Egypt and the chains of slavery? Sure, following Him can be dangerous, and may lead to suffering and pain. But He has said it is always worth it. How differently would we live if we genuinely believed the following words of Moses?:

“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” -Deut. 1:30-31

The truth is, in this world we will always be inefficient travelers, slow to trust our loving Father, running in circles around His gifts. But luckily for us, He is unbelievably patient with His children. And I believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, our stubborn feet can slowly be trained to turn from Egypt toward Canaan—it is a constant process, as they are always shuffling west—toward milk, honey, and an adventure far greater than a lifetime of slavery or desert wandering.

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