Which word best describes your year? Let me guess:
a. Uncertain | b. Disastrous | c. Painful | d. Wasted | e. All of the above.
Yet deep in our hearts we have this hope that this rough ride is in some way purposeful, that perhaps this perilous path is preparation for power. Such expectation for good is not vain imagination – it is the substance of the Biblical message.
As pastor I am often confronted with questions about the purpose of pain. If God is all powerful and has good plans for us, why do we find ourselves walking through dark valleys like many do during this year? Why not just skip the bad times and move straight to the good times ahead? We would all love that!
Moses answers this question in the re-giving of the Law to the Jews about to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 8 is one of the most moving chapters in the Bible, where we sense God’s vulnerability and loving concern for his people. We also see God’s desire to bless his children, to do them good and to prosper them. Verses 3 and 18 serve as a good summary.
In this emotive text God reveals that he is the one who had lead them through this season of hardship in the wilderness. He was the one who opened the Red sea so they entered the wilderness, and he is the one who will again open the Jordan river so they could exit this hostile terrain. This season of hardship was his design, “to do you good in the end.” (Deut. 8:16) In some way, this hardship was for Israel’s benefit – a season of preparation to live with power and prosperity. A season of character building, if you will.
In particular, the Lord mentions two purposes with this season of preparation: to humble and to test. First, the dessert-dwelling was meant to instill in the ethos of Israel a character of humility, a healthy awareness of their insufficiency to do life by themselves. The forty years of daily provision was meant to teach them that what they have is a gift from God, and that when they don’t have God is still their provider. As I wrote before, “not by bread alone but by every word from the Lord” refers to the provision from God, reminding them that they are eternally dependent on the Lord. We are never self-sufficient.
Secondly, the journey through the harsh wilderness was a time of testing, revealing what was in their heart, “whether you would keep his commandment or not” (v2). Moses’ account of Israel’s encounters in the dessert is indeed revealing of their unthankful, flaky and rebellious character. Tough times tend to show us for who we are. In life as in a harbour, times of plenty means sailing is smooth, but during low tide the rocks at the base of our character causes dangerous and embarrassing moments. Low tide is not the problem; low tide only reveals the problems that were there all along.
The Lord’s purpose – for Israel and for us – is not only to show us what is in our heart, but also to correct and train us as a loving Father (v5). His purpose, as revealed in this chapter, is to heal our hearts so that we may live well with the prosperity and power he plans to entrust us with, in fulfillment of his covenant (v7-10, 17-18).
This is both the great promise and stern warning in this moving chapter: that indeed God had led Israel through this long period of testing and shaping in the wilderness, because of the great prosperity and power they were about to inherit. Indeed, God had promised them wealth and success, “to eat and be full and bless the Lord” (v10).
All they were called to do was remember the Lord, remember the way he led them to this place of prosperity and power. This blessing is a gift from God, in fulfilment of his promise, to reveal his covenant (v18; compare Psalm 25:12-14). Israel’s journey, from being powerless, poor slaves in Egypt to their prosperity in Palestine, was a witness of God’s character, power and purpose in the world. Their position of power and prosperity was meant to portray God’s nature and partner with his purpose of redemption and restoration of his creation. It’s all about the Lord and his covenant.
Therefore the stern warning that sets the tone of this beautiful chapter: do not forget from where you come, and the way the Lord had brought you here. If you forget the Lord and think that your prosperity is the product of your own power, “you will perish” (v19-20). God is bound to his purpose and jealous of his glory.
In some sense this chapter paints Israel’s entry into the Promised Land as a return Eden: the Lord having redeemed his people from slavery, bringing through the wilderness into a garden of plenty. And therefore the great warning: “do not fall for the temptation to sin as your ancestors Adam and Eve did by enjoying My gifts and thinking you don’t need Me anymore”, says the Lord. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5-6; James 4:6)
Metaphorically, do you find yourself in the wilderness on the way to the promise of God for your life? Or can you acknowledge that you already enjoy much power and prosperity from God? Regardless of where you see yourself in relation to the hope in your heart, a year such as 2020 brings much shaking, inviting us to note our response to hardship.
As when this message was first preached to the wilderness-dwelling Israelites en route to their promised destination, it reminds us during tough times of God’s promise to not abandoned us and fulfill the good plans prepared for us. This message also reminds us that God always provides during tough times, calling us to receive both the humble daily manna or the plenty with thanks as gifts from God. This chapter reassures us that these hard times hold purpose for our good, urging us to allow the season of testing to purify and prepare us for what lies ahead. Lastly, Moses’ message moves us to soberly assess the pitfall of prosperity and power: the temptation to presume independence from God when all is well. Such pride progressively permeates our mindset, gradually moving from an indifference towards God and God’s people / Word / mission to the tragic ignorance of God’s presence where Samson “did not notice that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). Because God loves us, he will save us from each gift we turn into an idol, and return us to retrain us in the wilderness (Hosea 2:14).
Our invitation in these tumultuous times is to note our emotional responses towards the hardships, to remember the Lord who has shown us his goodness by recalling the particular saving moments which brought us to where we are today. We are invited to remember and re-imagine the promise of his goodness he holds before us, as it is the basis of his covenant to restore all things! We are urged to re-evaluate our relationship with the blessings he has gifted to us, whether health, plenty, prestige or power, rendering all we are and all we have in service to him. This is indeed a time to remind ourselves that “in him we live, we move and we have our being” (Acts 17:28)