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.

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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

Of Weeds and Graves

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So the Lord God banished (mankind) from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. Genesis 3:23

Genesis 2:4-22 describes how, in the Garden of Eden, life sprang up from the ground.  Man was made from it, animals were made from it, plants grew up from it. Water sprung up out of it to water the plants. It was the stuff of life, breathed into being by the Creator.   The Lord took man and put him in the Garden to “cultivate it and take care of it,” but it was God who made the life spring forth.

Once man was banished, however, he was outside the life-giving Garden and was sentenced to work a cursed ground, one that produced thorns and thistles, one that required “painful toil” and “sweat of the brow.”  As if that weren’t bad enough, God told Adam that he would wrestle with this ground until the day he died, at which point he would return to it.

He was fated to spend his life digging in his own grave.

This is not what God had intended. He had intended for the man to “cultivate it and take care of it,” not wrestle with it and die in it.

We still live under the physical curse of weeds and graves.  No question there — it’s hard to make things grow.  A farmer’s lot is a tough one.  By extension, it’s also hard to make a living for those of us who are not farmers.  Life is just difficult much of the time.  We’re still wrestling, and we still die. But since that is not what God intended, He has provided a remedy.  Certainly, in order to produce the food we need to live, we may still have to dig in the dirt from which we come and to which we will return, but there is more to us than the physical, short-term life in which we live at the moment.  We are, in the words of John Mayer, “bigger than our bodies.”  We are eternal beings.  And so far more important, although less immediately obvious when one’s vision is obscured by the weeds and rocks of life, is the spiritual, eternal part of us. Since He created us, God never lost sight of that fact, and it is in that arena that He provided the remedy when Christ died for us.

“For freedom Christ has set us free….” Gal 5:1a

The original plan in the Garden was for mankind to cultivate the land (abad in the original Hebrew),  and keep it (shamar).  Abad is the same word that is used later for the concept of serving, in the sense of serving a king, serving God or serving as a Levite in the Temple. Mankind was to serve the land.  Once sin entered the picture and corrupted the purpose, he became a slave of the land — an entirely different thing.  Shamar has a sense of guarding, protecting and preserving.  It can also mean to be on one’s guard, to take heed or take care. Unfortunately, Adam did not shamar. He was not taking care, nor was he protecting the Garden.  The serpent walked right in and messed with Eve’s mind without Adam even noticing, and then when he did see what was going on, he carelessly went right along with it.  The result of this was the grave-digging, the slavery, and the separation from God.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Going back to Galatians 5:1, we can see this concept echoed in the remainder of the verse “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”

Because Christ has set us free, we can return to that original purpose, to cultivate life, not in the dirt, but springing up in the spiritual and eternal soil of our hearts.  We can choose to make ourselves servants of the living God rather than being forced into a yoke of slavery to sin.  We choose it by accepting his remedy – Christ’s death on the cross in our place.  We live in freedom by never losing sight of the important and eternal no matter how many weeds and dirt clods infest the path before us.  We lay down our life of slavery and live instead for His kingdom, the hidden kingdom that exists in the hearts of those who know and love Him.

But just as before the fall, Adam’s mission was to cultivate and guard the Garden, we must also guard our hearts and minds and stand firm against the lies of the Enemy.

We either live as servants of the Most High, serving His Kingdom by cultivating life in our hearts and with each other, or we live as slaves to sin, trying to coax whatever short-lived pleasure we can out of lives beset with the troubles of a fallen world.

We either protect the life that He has planted in our hearts by refusing to identify with and live under a mantle of sin, or we grasp at everything we can for ourselves, hoarding any good thing we come across, protecting what we deem as “ours,” and miss the freedom of sharing our lives, our resources and our time with others.  Even worse, we miss the multiplication of life and love that results when hearts are open and connected.  We miss the springing up that was the original plan. We are left with the dirt, the weeds and the grave.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1