Tuesday, April 30, 2019

When Waiting is Worth It

“O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”

Here we find Moses complaining to God that the Lord is not fulfilling his promises quite fast enough for Moses’ taste. Perhaps you may have voiced something similar once or twice.

We know how this particular story ends, right? God brings his people out of Egypt with a series of mighty, miraculous works, and makes a name for himself from one end of the known world to the other. The tale is still being told today.

Giving Up Already?

Bear in mind that at the point Moses first cries out to God, nothing truly devastating or permanent has really happened to him or the Israelites he represents … yet. Moses has returned to his people enslaved in Egypt with God’s promise of deliverance. The Israelites have believed his message and gratefully worshiped God. Nice. So Moses and his brother Aaron have approached the king of Egypt and asked him to allow the Israelites to travel three days’ journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to their God. Pharaoh has less-than-politely declined, and subsequently increased the workload of his Israelite slaves. Unable to meet Pharaoh’s demands, a few Israelite foremen have taken a beating or three, and they’ve complained bitterly to Moses that his plan is not working. As for the people, their spirits are broken, but nobody has died. Not yet. So Moses goes to God in prayer, despondent at the negative results to date of his own reluctant obedience: “Why, Lord? Why?”

How long has it been exactly? A week or two, max? To us, then, Moses may look just a little bit shallow and faithless at this point.

But his question is actually a legitimate one: Why does it take so long to do the things that God has said he is going to do? The usual answer to such questions is that we have to “wait patiently for God’s time.” That’s the right answer, I think, but it is unlikely to satisfy the beleaguered Israelite foreman as he goes under the Egyptian whip. So let me suggest four reasons why the plans of God to extricate his people from slavery and bring them into a land of milk and honey could not possibly move at the pace his people would have much preferred. By extension, we may even find an application or two to trials in our own lives of which we urgently wish to be relieved.

1.  The Sufferers Were Not Ready

Everybody would like to have suffering over with right now, but it has to be admitted that occasionally trials and tribulations serve a useful purpose. In this case, Israel simply was not ready to leave Egypt. They had rejoiced at the prospect of deliverance, and even worshiped the God who promised it to them, but they were not yet sufficiently committed to the concept of God’s leadership through Moses to accept the choices being made for them. At the first sign of anything going wrong, they go straight from belief and worship to huffing and puffing at Moses for his temerity: “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” That’s a reversal almost as abrupt as the end of Britney Spears’ first marriage.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, their life was not without certain benefits. It’s very evident from the continual broad appeal of socialism that some people simply don’t like independence. It’s too scary. They prefer to be told what to do, even if life under Big Government is a bit restrictive, because it comes with benefits like cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic and “fish that cost nothing”, or in our case, iPhones, Instagram and Netflix. The fish in Egypt may have cost nothing, but they were part of a life without remuneration, self-determination or choice; a life without a home to call their own or a future for their children. All the same, plenty of Israelites liked that life enough to stay right where they were — until such time as God made them so repellent to Pharaoh that he drove them right out into the wilderness.

Sometimes suffering continues because we need to come to the point where we really, completely hate our condition and cry for deliverance. More importantly, it continues until we are determined we will absolutely never — for any reason — voluntarily put ourselves in that situation again.

2.  The Leaders Were Insufficiently Mature

Even if the Israelites had been totally motivated, entirely behind Moses and Aaron, bags packed and raring to go, the fact remains that Moses and Aaron were not. Moses especially had balked repeatedly at being drafted into leadership. Here he reprises his objections: “Why did you ever send me? You have not delivered your people at all.”

Despite his reluctance, Moses would ultimately develop into a great leader with very few personal negatives. God had chosen well. But Moses had to be hardened by being forced repeatedly into the intimidating presence of Pharaoh very much against his own wishes. Learning to depend on God when he knew he was out of his depth served Moses well in the wilderness, where the very people he had helped deliver from slavery often grumbled and rebelled against his leadership.

Sometimes troubles of the corporate sort — family drama, church disagreements, and so on — continue because the person who will one day help solve them for us is still a work in progress.

3.  God Does Not Wish That Any Should Perish

God is merciful. That’s the theme of a great many psalms, and the reason some of us are reading or writing blog posts today rather than prematurely simmering in Hades. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The patience of God is legendary. He does not enjoy judgment for judgment’s sake, but gives opportunity after opportunity to the guilty to repent. “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people.” Amen to that.

Pharaoh and Egypt were the beneficiaries of God’s immense patience. They got not one but ten opportunities to repent and obey his commandments. Regrettably, though we don’t know the condition of every Egyptian heart, it seems they did not respond to God’s mercy toward them in significant numbers.

Sometimes a situation we find genuinely oppressive continues because God is being gracious to our oppressor, giving him or her opportunity to respond appropriately to that grace. Wouldn’t you want to work with him on that?

4.  The Spectacle Was Not Big Enough Yet

If men do not hear God when he speaks graciously, then God will make himself heard in judgment. Either way, when God wishes to be heard, nobody misses the point. And when he shows his hand, it is not just for the benefit of the oppressed or even their oppressors, but for the benefit of all who will see and hear at the time and throughout coming generations:
“I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”

“And the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.’ ”

“Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”

The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm.”
If God had jumped straight to the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn — skipping over blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts and darkness; bypassing the opening acts and going straight to the main event — it might well have accomplished his purpose and provoked Pharaoh to drive his people out of Egypt. It would also almost surely have been fairly quickly forgotten, or perhaps even attributed to other causes. Instead, through a combination of divine patience and human intransigence, Israel’s exodus from slavery became an absolute show-stopper with the Red Sea baptism as its redounding final act.

Ask any Hollywood producer: big spectacles take time to execute. If we’re going to suffer in this life, wouldn’t you prefer it to be the greatest possible testimony to the greatest possible number?

I know I would.

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