Tuesday, May 03, 2022

The Best Lessons

Back in 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow published his theory that human decision-making is based on a hierarchy of psychological needs, from the most basic physiological requirements — food, water, shelter, rest, reproduction — all the way up to the more sophisticated forms of self-actualization pursued by affluent moderns habituated to having all their ‘lower-tier’ desires met. You may be familiar with the concept.

We will not linger over the details of Maslow’s little flow-pyramid and the pursuit of normal human desires. What’s important about it for our purposes is the observation that identical circumstances can produce very different responses in different people depending on what is important to them. The exact same test can produce very different results in different subjects.

The Test of Hunger

Now, test results can certainly teach you something after the fact, but the test itself is designed not to teach the student but to demonstrate what the student has already learned. The test I have in mind today is hunger in the wilderness, which is a pretty basic human response to a need, and one to which Moses makes reference in Deuteronomy:

“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna ... that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

The manna, the hunger and the humbling of the people of Israel were all part of the same lesson plan. The need had to come first, then the awareness of their own inability to meet the need, and then the cry to God, and then the meeting of the need. The entire process was teaching a lesson that was not only for Israel but for all of us in the school of God.

Israel in the Wilderness of Sin

The first generation of Israelites gave little evidence the vast majority had learned much about God’s character either before or after being tested. For one, they complained about their hunger to the wrong people. Evidently they had never learned to pray. But Moses and Aaron were simply undershepherds doing a job they had been assigned. It was the Lord who had brought Israel out into the wilderness. This being the case, Moses could no more solve their problem than he could carry the nation on his own back. And this is what he tells them: “The Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him — what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”

That he had to tell them this is the first indication that the way they were thinking about God in their situation was far, far away from where it needed to be. Despite all the Lord had done for them in Egypt and in the wilderness to date, their first instinct was to look to men to solve their problems for them.

A Lesson Lost

In fact, the lesson of the manna that Moses refers to in Deuteronomy was almost wholly lost on the men and women who first gathered and ate it. When the manna fell, many were surely convinced they were experiencing a natural phenomenon rather than witnessing God responding to their need. What else can explain the fact that they ignored Moses’ explicit instructions not to leave any over until the next morning on every day except one? Some kept manna overnight, only to find that it bred worms and stank. Others — or perhaps the same unbelieving souls — left their tents in defiance of God’s instructions not to work on the Sabbath in search of manna Moses had explicitly told them would not fall.

At best, the original generation of Israelites learned nothing more profound from the miracle of the bread from heaven than perfunctory obedience to Moses’ instructions — and even then, only after challenging them. Hard experience brought their patterns of behavior into conformity with observable reality, but that was all. That generation of Israelites never learned to cultivate an attitude of dependence and trust in God, let alone satisfaction and fellowship with him. For that matter, they never really learned the value of obedience. That lesson was put on endless repeat in the wilderness until it became apparent to all that, with a couple of exceptions, the generation that left Egypt was not fit for Canaan and would never enter it.

Israel Beyond the Jordan

The crowd Moses addressed in Deuteronomy were only children when the first flakes of manna fell from heaven, but many of them likely experienced the same hunger in the wilderness that their parents did. Some were probably old enough to help their mothers and fathers pick up manna from the ground, to watch their mothers bake or boil it for supper, and to observe what happened to many of their parents when they failed to appreciate God’s provision. It is these men and women, now grown, that Moses addresses when he says “man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”.

What could they take from that? Well, certainly more than their parents. This generation would at least enter Canaan when instructed. They had learned that obedience to God works and disobedience doesn’t. I suppose that is something. But could they learn anything important and lasting about the goodness and faithfulness of God, about fellowship, trust and dependence? The evidence of Bible history is that the vast majority did not.

Jesus in the Wilderness

When the Lord Jesus encounters the devil during his temptation in the wilderness, the tempter has noted the fact that Jesus has been fasting forty days and is hungry. So he suggests a solution: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus declines, quoting Moses: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In doing so, I think he is saying something like this: “I live to do the will of God. Breakfast will be served when he provides it and not a moment before. I will not act independently of my God. I have no need to.” He reiterates this principle to his disciples in John: “I have food to eat that you do not know about. My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In this sense, even after fasting forty days the Lord Jesus was already full.

Moments later when the devil left him, angels came and ministered to him, demonstrating that he had assessed the situation accurately: he was never in any danger of starvation. God, as usual, had things well in hand, and putting on a gratuitous show of miraculous power for the enemy was not part of the day’s program.

The best possible lessons were already learned.

Learning the Best Lessons

Same test, three different types of response. The first generation of Israelites showed no evidence that most of them had learned much about God’s character or care for them from their wilderness experiences. They ate the manna because it was there and it kept them alive, but they neither appreciated it nor drew the proper conclusions about God from it. Ask them to complete the sentence “Man does not live by bread alone”, and they would finish it with “but by fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic”. This was not because they were operating at the bottom end of some psychological hierarchy and were giving authentic voice to their inculcated slave mentality. It was a simple matter of choice.

The second generation of Israelites had learned something about God second-hand from observing their parents, if only that grumbling and complaining do not end well. However, their interpretation of “Man does not live by bread alone” did not rise to that of the Lord Jesus. To that generation, it probably meant something like “Man continues to stay alive when he obeys everything God tells him.” That’s not the worst lesson in the world to learn, but it’s not the best either.

For the Lord Jesus there was no learning exercise involved in this experience. He had already fully internalized the truth behind the manna that fell in the wilderness: a man in fellowship with his God is sustained in the worst of circumstances.

Test passed with flying colors.

Rethinking Our Responses

Testing produces an instinctive response in each one of us, some more Christ-like than others. To the objection that Jesus was God in the flesh, I note that Paul could write that a mere man had indeed learned “the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need”. Many of us in the West have faced the test of plenty. Not so many have acquitted themselves as well as the apostle. If we ever face the test of hunger, I’m sure we will find out very quickly what we are made of, and whether we are able to learn the best lessons or only the most basic realities.

I don’t know what Abraham Maslow thought about people’s ability to change the way they respond to desires unfulfilled, but I can tell you with a fair bit of confidence that the Bible assumes we can: that faith can grow; that the knowledge of God can increase; that lessons can be learned and retained rather than simply forgotten; that fellowship with God and the peace of mind that comes from trusting him are possibilities for all believers willing to allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts.

Illustration courtesy FireflySixtySeven, CC BY-SA 4.0

No comments :

Post a Comment