Testing in the Waters

There’s an interesting story in Exodus 15. Right after the kids cross the Red Sea, right after God drowns their enemies, there are two significant events:

The first is a party about the multiple miracles in their escape from slavery. Moses and the kids sang a song about his glory and his strength. It sounds like three million people (historians’ best guess for the size of the crowd exiting Egypt through the middle of the Red Sea) spend the better part of a day partying with God, and Miriam and the ladies took up the refrain and went after it with dance and tambourines. That is a serious party! Have you ever had three million people at one of your parties?

After the party, they headed out into the wilderness, though they weren’t particularly well prepared for the wild-ness of it, and then the second significant event happened: the bitter waters of Marah. The hike from the party spot at the edge of the Red Sea was about three days, and by the third day, there was a lot of complaining among the community. These people had been slaves for hundreds of years, and had received their every provision from their slavers, and who had lived on the banks of one of the greatest rivers on the planet. They weren’t so good at taking care of themselves, and never thought they needed to bring water!

But the desert they were waking through had no water. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one person, except Moses himself, who had backpacked through the wilderness before, and I’m thinking Moses had other things on his mind besides telling three million people how to pack for the journey. The beginning of the trip was hard to plan for anyway, so it’s not completely unexpected to discover that they didn’t actually carry three days’ worth of water with them.

So on that third day, they’re whining and complaining, focusing mostly on their need (their thirst) when they round the bend and look, there’s water!

And it is there that the problem exposes itself. Here were a very large number of people who had been focused on their thirst for the last several miles of their trek through the wilderness, and when they come around the bend and discover something new, they interpret it through their focus for the past couple of days: they make an assumption.

I hate assumptions. They get me into all sorts of trouble, and it appears that an assumption got this vagabond community into trouble as well.

The people were so heavily focused on their lack (of water) and their problem (their thirst), that when they saw the water they made the assumption that this water had to be God’s provision for them.

The thought process apparently went something like this: “I’m following God, and I have a need. Here’s something that looks like it might be an answer. Therefore I conclude that this is God’s answer for my need.” Suddenly, the whole world was to be interpreted through the particular need that they were focused on. (I suspect that there were other things that this vagabond metropolis needed besides water, but water appears to be the primary one they noticed at the moment.)

And apparently that was an incorrect assumption, as the water wasn’t even drinkable: it was bitter. But they’ve already concluded that this must be God’s provision for them, so they go after Moses, who goes to God, and in his mercy, God provides a solution to the problem of the bitter water.

If the rest of their journey is any example, and if we’re able to learn from hindsight, then it is not unreasonable to infer that God’s plan actually had more to do with water flowing from a rock at the command of the man of God, than it did with a loving Father’s provision consisting of a nasty puddle of ickyness in the wilderness.

God, of course, had intended that instead of the people trusting what they found along the road, instead they would trust him for their provision, and I think that this is the crux of the issue with these people, and perhaps in our day as well. They trusted their need – and their interpretation of their need – more than they trusted God to take care of them.

I have known people – God’s kids even – who do this very thing. They discover they have a need, a lack, and they fix their attention on that lack, and now a disproportionate portion of their lives is defined by their lack. It’s easy to interpret a great many things by the vocabulary of that one perceived lack, and that perception begins to define their relationship with the Almighty.  

I have lived among people who described their provision as “living by faith.” But some of them lived a life that could better be described as “living by hints,” and by the donations that came as a result of the hints. Others have lived by scrounging: always on the lookout for money lying around, on the floor, in pockets, in vending machines, in parking lots. (Since I’ve participated in these patterns, I’m afraid I know whereof I speak; if others have not lived there, then I suggest they give thanks, rather than pass judgment.)

Even affluent people can fall into the problem of relating to the world through their lack, whether in regards to money, or to the need for a husband (or a wife), or the need for acceptance, or significance, any lack, really. Their interpretation of the world – and ultimately of God – revolves around the need that they are fixated on. This presents some problems.

·         Some of us see every expense, every scrap of money coming or going as an expression of God’s provision for our (very real) financial need. Often, these people find themselves “living by faith,” and financially living on the edge, where “enough” is a scarce commodity, or has fallen off the radar entirely.

·         Some of us see every relationship in terms of our own needs, and their conversations often center around their own healing, their own goals, rather than about the real need for community. If every relationship is evaluated by “Do they help me feel better?” then I’ve become just as guilty as these Israelites: I’ve stopped looking to God for my provision. Instead, I’m looking to my own understanding, though I may disguise the issue by using religious terms like “God wasn’t leading me that way.”  I may slap a prayer onto the process to convince myself that I’m focusing on God, while I focus on my own needs.

·         Some of us see every sickness and injury as a ballot on whether God is still in the healing business, or whether they’re good enough, devout enough, or holy enough to be successful at healing the sick. If we were to look at the situation from God’s perspective, we’d see it differently.

·         And we tend to judge (yes, “judge”) God’s care for us, predominantly by that one issue: has he met this need? At the waters of Marah, the people judged Moses and the God whom he served as having failed, because this puddle that they so desperately wanted to be God’s provision for them was not actually God’s provision for them.

Note that these are not illegitimate needs. We need provision. We need real relationship, we need to walk in the power of the Kingdom. And the Children of Israel in the desert really needed water! Those are real needs.

The issue is not in having a need, or even in acknowledging a need. My need is not a problem. It’s only when I begin to make a solution for my need apart from my relationship with God that I get into trouble.

This leads us, or at least it leads my own thinking, to an uncomfortable place: much of this could be resolved by simply trusting God – the God who promised to provide for us – to actually provide for my needs. It’s a shame that this is something of a radical proposition.

Trusting God really shouldn’t have been a great stretch for these particular folks. Apart from the testimony of their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, though their reputation was not yet what it is now), these same people had just watched a grand showdown between their God and the gods of the Egyptians. It wasn’t even close, which, of course, was God’s plan: God was showing off his provision for them, his advocacy of them. And in the actual departure, he made these former slaves wealthy, wealthy enough to construct a very impressive gold-laden tabernacle a few months later.

Oh, and the parting of the Red Sea (and the drowning in that sea of one of the most powerful armies in the world at that time) was what? four days behind them? They spent a day partying and singing about it! God had demonstrated his supernatural provision this week, another set of testimonies last month, and the testimony of their ancestors. God had proven both his willingness and his ability to provide for the people. But they hadn’t learned the lesson.

And then I’m reminded of the many times that God has very effectively provided for me and my household, and I’m reminded that every time he’s provided for me is another testimony of his faithfulness, and another reminder that I need to focus on God and his provision more than I focus on my own needs and wants. God – my omnipotent and beneficent, heavenly Daddy – is my provider, not the mud puddles along the road of my life.

We will prevent a whole lot of serious problems if we leave the means of God’s answer in God’s hands, rather than focus on the thing that we assume his answer must be.


Craig Adams said...

A good word, and a timely one.
I know I am reading something nourishing when it by turns encourages and corrects me.

False, powerless faith and living in lack is being broken and falling off of the people of God. And none too soon.

It looks as though we have only seen the beginning of the financial crisis. But the more we know God, the more comfort we can take in his willingness (even eagerness!) to provide our needs without money.

Likewise, recognizing and knowing the Spring from which Living Waters flow will be critical when an epidemic pestilence is released throughout the world.

Better to learn now than via OJT!

the other Adams said...

"If the rest of their journey is any example, and if we’re able to learn from hindsight, then it is not unreasonable to infer that God’s plan actually had more to do with water flowing from a rock at the command of the man of God, than it did with a loving Father’s provision consisting of a nasty puddle of ickyness in the wilderness."

My times of greatest poverty have been when I think that the things I see are what I get...that is, when I think that what I see is my provision.

But that isn't my provision, He is.
Even a rock that gives upi water when spoken too (or given a good whack with a stick) isn't provision.

Provision is the One whose ear hears the word spoken, (or sees the blow) and causes what is needed to be.

And provision seems to show up when I make a little noise (like speaking, or hitting something with a stick)expecting the impossible to happen.