Some Trust In Chariots

S7300001_r1How many times will I go back to doing things that have already proven not to be helpful before it occurs to me that perhaps I should not go back that way again? As it turns out, I am not alone in my dilemma. Around 3500 years ago, the Lord explained that very concept to the Israelites.

The King, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”  Deut 17:16 (NIV)

After He delivered His chosen people from Egypt, God knew that there would come a time that they would want to be ruled by a king, so that they would be like “everyone else.” He warned them that even then, in their trying to be like everyone else, they should do it in their own, special, set-aside, holy-people-of-God way.  They were not, like everyone else, to fall into the trappings of acquiring status and power symbols and treasure.  They were not to trust in the size or strength of their army, with all its horses and accompanying chariots; they were to trust in the Lord. He was their deliverance and their strength.

And above all, they were not to go back to Egypt to get these things.  Egypt had been a place of refuge, a place of provision and safety, but it had also been a place of bondage and suffering.  The Israelites had come out of Egypt with a collective mentality of slavery. It took years for the Lord to rid them of this attitude and start seeing themselves as God’s Chosen People and a force to be reckoned with among the pagan nations around them.  The last thing He wanted was for them to go back to that mentality, no matter how tempting the benefits of trading with that nation appeared.

The frustrating thing about this is that the Lord had already proven to the Israelites that they did not need the horses and chariots of the Egyptians. That army was not as mighty as people supposed.  He had swept the entire thing aside into the Red Sea, proving once and for all that even the greatest army on earth was no match for the Almighty God.  So He wasn’t asking the Israelites to do something completely crazy by not amassing a cavalry.  He was asking them to trust the One who had proven Himself mightier than the even best-equipped form of protection man could devise.  And yet even after all that, He knew human nature well enough to know that He still needed to warn the Israelites not to go that way.

In the same way, it seems that every time the Lord sets me free from something in my past, some bad attitude or wrong conception or downright entanglement with sin, after the initial glory of freedom wears off, there will come a point where a situation arises that tempts me to fall back into old habits or thought patterns. That difficult person in my life will do that thing again that always hurts me.  That financial situation that was almost resolved will suddenly have a set-back. That promotion I thought was imminent will once again be put aside. Or maybe a combination of traffic, cranky kids and sleep deprivation will align perfectly so that I have A Really Bad Day.

Like the Israelites, when I am faced with these situations, I can chose to not fall back on what I did before.  I can choose not to go down that road, but instead to trust the Lord and let him show me a new road.

And like the Israelites, that old road that is tempting me, that old thought pattern or entrenched groove of bad reaction, that stupid, self-destructive habit, really was not the best way to go about life anyway.  In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” And therein lies the problem, and the reason that the Lord had to deliver me from that in the first place.  It wasn’t working for me.  It was making me miserable.  It was a cold, dark cave of insanely repeating the same action and expecting a different result.

But that road is so easy to follow.  It is so easy to go back that way again. It feels comfortable to me. In a cold, dank, dreary, miserable way.

I have come to the conclusion that I need a sign post, or preferably a road block, at the entrance to that road.  I need to mentally construct that across that path.  A big, neon sign that says “You are not to go back that way again.”  And then maybe another one, pointing in the opposite direction, that says, “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” Isaiah 42:9 (NIV)

At any rate, I need to keep reminding myself of the truth.  That I have a choice in the way I react.  That my misery is not inevitable. And that God has a far, far better way if I will only stop in my tracks and turn to Him instead.

Leaving the Desert Behind

“The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden.  But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven.  It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.”         Deut 11:10-12 (NIV)

Usually when I think of the Exodus, my focus is on the leaving behind of the awful days of slavery and the entering into the wonderful new land of milk and honey.  One point I hadn’t considered, however, is that the Promised Land was not like anything the Israelites had experienced before.  It wasn’t just that they were no longer slaves; it was entirely different terrain.  For example, in Egypt, apart from the Nile, the land was a desert. They watered their crops by a complex system of irrigation canals; much of the watering of the fields was done from buckets or baskets, which were carried on foot to all areas of the field, “as in a vegetable garden.”  But these were not garden patches behind the house where the homeowner grew a few tomato and zucchini plants; these were the fields that produced the food for the entire nation.

If you wanted to grow anything in Egypt, this was how you did it.  It took constant care and hard manual labor to turn the desert into a crop-bearing land.  Which was one of the reasons it was so convenient for the Egyptians to have slaves to do the watering for them.

It was also one of the things the Israelites left behind when Moses led them out of Egypt.  But the thing is, the Israelites had been living in Egypt for a few generations; any other way of irrigation had been collectively forgotten by them years before.  Carrying buckets on foot was the norm for them.  So the Lord had to warn them before they entered the Promised Land that things would be different.  They would not be responsible for the irrigation in the Promised Land.  The Lord Himself would take care of that, because it was “a land the LORD your God cares for…”

On the one hand, this must have come as a relief to the Israelites.  What a burden to be lifted off their shoulders — literally!   On the other hand, this would test their faith.  Not being in control of the irrigation meant there was nothing they could do to manipulate their success in providing food for themselves.  They would plow the ground and plant the seed, but then they would have to wait for God to send the rain.

Waiting for God to send the rain.  There’s a concept.  The Promised Land in my life can represent different things, depending on what the Lord is doing with me.  It can be a new mindset of freedom from slavery to sin.  I can be a new opportunity into which He is leading me. But as I enter it, the question is, am I waiting for God’s rain?  Am I doing what He has told me to do and trusting Him to provide what I need beyond that?   Do I fret over pennies on my budget spreadsheet or do I bring my needs to the Lord and ask Him to provide for them?  Do I step out in obedience to write, teach, sing or whatever other action He has nudged me to do and wait for Him to bring the readers, students or listeners, or do I lay awake at night thinking of ways to market my ministry?

I can easily fool myself into thinking that my giving in to worry and my gleaning to the edges of my fields (Lev. 19:9-10) are simply good stewardship, until the thought comes that THAT is how you live in a desert, when there is not enough to go around.  Every drop counts.  When you are entering the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, however, it is time to leave behind the desert mindset and put on the Promised Land mindset.

The Promised Land mindset for the Israelites is detailed in the rest of Chapter 11 of Deuteronomy and involved both faith that God would do according to His promises and obedience to His command to stay in relationship with Him.

Without the faith, they would wear themselves out carrying unnecessary buckets up and down a mountainous, valley-ridden land that didn’t actually need irrigation.

Without the obedience and relationship, He withheld the rain.  It wasn’t optional — He had already warned them of this.  He had warned them to keep themselves separate from the people around them lest they be tempted to worship false gods.  The Promised Land remained in its promised state only as long as they stayed in intimate contact with its Promiser.  Apart from that, it was a fearful and forbidding place, full of wild animals, fierce tribes and the threat of drought.

So what is the Promised Land mindset for us today, living under the New Covenant of grace rather than a law of obedience and reward?

I believe it still involves faith.  It involves letting go of our buckets.  I believe we need to stop trying to water on foot every inch of our fields of living, relationship and outreach and trust Him to bring the rain.  Or in other words, stop trying to control our production in His Kingdom.

And it still involves obedience to stay in relationship with Him.  It’s not so much that He withholds the rain as that we cut ourselves off from it when we don’t abide in relationship with Him.  It’s not that He refuses to walk alongside us.  It’s that we let go of His hand and run ahead, thinking we know the way without asking Him.  Or we continue to do something He had us do in the past, feeling more comfortable following a program than trusting Him to do a new work in the future.   Bucket-carrying is exhausting work, and one bucket is never enough.  Once I commit myself to furthering my plans by watering them myself, I can’t take a break — I have to keep going with it.  No wonder I am so often weary.

The Promised Land was not just a patch of dirt.  It meant so much more than that — it was a place of rest.  When the Israelites finally entered into it, they were entering into His rest.   Rest from slavery, rest from wandering in the desert.  And rest from carrying buckets.   Since I noticed this passage, whenever I find myself weary in the work I am doing for the Kingdom, I stop and ask myself, “Am I carrying buckets here?”  Usually I am.  When I mentally put down the buckets, stop trying to micromanage the outcome of my labors, and ask the Lord to send the rain, He multiplies my efforts and I find His peace and rest.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. John 15:4

Take Care Lest You Forget

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you–with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant–and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Deuteronomy 6:10-12 (ESV)

Before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, they paused.  Moses had one last set of instructions to give them.

This would have driven me crazy. When I am poised to enter a promised opportunity or path the Lord has shown me, I don’t generally want to wait around.  I want to rush in the minute I am aware that the Lord is beginning to move me in that direction, full of my own expectations of what is ahead, not bothering to be still, wait and listen to His instruction.

Which is precisely why I have been disappointed so many times that I now cringe whenever the word “promise” comes up.  Not that He is unfaithful to His word.  But I run out the door before He has even finished His sentence, thinking I know what He has in store because I caught a few words, confident that my overactive imagination can supply the rest of the plan.

But it’s all in the details with God.  It’s the ONE thing He puts in front of us, the ONE person He asks us to minister to, the ONE attitude He asks us to change.  It’s never everything at once.  We never see the big picture right away.  And His way never involves fudging the corners, putting a shiny cover on it and shrugging it off by saying it’s “close enough for jazz.”

In Genesis 4:3-5, Cain’s sacrifice was not acceptable.  It looked like a nice sacrifice, but his heart was not in the right place when he put it together, so God was not pleased with it.

In Leviticus 10:1-2, Aaron’s eldest two sons were burnt up with holy fire because they got creative on their first day on the job in the Tabernacle and decided to offer incense in a way not specified by God.

In 1 Samuel 2:6-7, Uzzah was killed because he reached out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant; they had missed the detail where you don’t load the Ark on a cart.

So why do I think I can skip the details, or add my own expectations, or assume there’s nothing more to it than what my eye can see?  Why do I think I don’t need to seek Him for further instructions once the first clear word is spoken?

To make matters worse, those vital last instructions are usually nothing like what I’m expecting.

And so it was with the Israelites.  You would think the instructions would simply be not to fear, to fight well against the giants, to build a temple once they got there — some tip about the winning the impending battles, at the very least. And those things were covered, eventually, but Moses’ first instruction in this address, after He covered loving the LORD first, and after reminding them to teach this to their children, was that they needed to be careful not to forget where they came from and Who it was that rescued them from it.

Because the LORD knows us, and He knows that a little prosperity can instantly go to our heads, and that we very quickly fall into an attitude of entitlement.  So before it even started, He wanted to make sure they understood the dangers inherent in the blessing.  He wanted to make sure that they remembered that they didn’t plant those vineyards and dig those wells and build those cities, because the minute they started to take credit where credit wasn’t due, they would think they could turn their eyes from Him and worship more convenient, portable gods.  The cool gods that “everyone else” was worshiping.

When poised on the brink of something new, I’m so concerned about whether my expectations are going to be met.  I’m so sensitive about my agenda not being considered, about being disappointed again (conveniently forgetting that I made those expectations up out of whole cloth in the first place). Rather than trying not to disappoint me, however, the LORD is far more concerned that I not spoil the blessing He has prepared for me.  He is far more concerned that I remember His mighty works, that I remember that he has defeated my enemies and moved them aside and that there but for the grace of God go I. Because like the Israelites, if I lose hold of gratitude, if I forget that I got where I am because of His hand and that I can claim little more than somewhat nearsighted and reluctant obedience as my contribution to the situation, I will get my eyes off Him and start to look for the short-term thrill, the enticing quick fix, the controllable pleasure.

There are giants in the land, yes.  But the ones with which I need to concern myself the most are the ones inside my own foolish heart.