Eagerness and Frustration: Reflections from Exodus

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Holy Spirit has inspired all the Bible we have so as to include some very, VERY helpful stories.  They are stories because this is how God wanted to communicate to His world and His creation.  That hasn't changed since the beginning if time.  They are helpful because every person who's ever lived can find themselves in at least one, if not more, of the stories in the Bible.  

Through those stories God wants to communicate one simple and clear message: He is merciful and gracious to people who get it wrong so often.  When I read about a tower of a man like Abraham, and then read about how this guy lied about his wife...twice!...and then tried to help God fulfill His promise...when God never needs our help...ever...I am stunned that God continues to pour out blessing after blessing on this guy.  

When I read about David, a guy who's supposedly a man after God's own heart, have sex with the wife of one of his best soldiers, and then try to cover it all up by murdering the guy...well, let's just say that while people never cease to amaze me with their stupidity, God continues to amaze me with His grace and mercy.

The story of Israel in the book of Exodus is just such a story.  It follows much the same pattern as all the other stories in the Bible.  God reveals Himself.  He chooses to make that person one of His children.  He chooses to promise them an infinite inheritance.  They screw up by worshiping idols or rebelling against Him.  He continues to love them anyway.  He disciplines them.  He reiterates His promises to them.  And on it on the stories go.  Utterly amazing.

After God miraculously revealed Himself to the Israelites in the crossing of the Red Sea, He was ready to make them His children and make a promise to them, which included ridiculous wealth and inheritance.  To communicate the plan He chose Moses to be the mouthpiece and He called Moses up to Mt. Sinai to talk with Him.  God told him, 
Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians.  You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples of the earth; for all the earth belongs to me.' This is the message you must give to the people of Israel. 
Moses had picked seventy men to help him lead these two million people in the wilderness.  When Moses told the seventy elders what God had told him, what was their response?  Exodus 19:9 - "We will do everything the Lord has commanded."  Men in charge of leading God's people can be all too eager to say "YES!!!" without thinking through things carefully.  And this refrain of commitment from them is just the beginning for those who should be leading God's people faithfully.

Moses then goes back up to Mt. Sinai, gets the Ten Commandments, along with a boatload of other commands and ordinances from God.  Those are listed for us in Exodus 20-23.  Then in chapter 24, God wants Moses to go back down the mountain, then come back up with seventy elders, along with Aaron and his two sons, Nadab and Abihu.  Everyone else had to stay back from the mountain and worship at a distance.  "Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him.  All the people answered with one voice, 'We will do everything the Lord has commanded.'" (v. 3).  

Moses then wrote down everything God had told him.  Early the next morning, he got up, build an altar, constructed a memorial, sacrificed some bulls, performed a bloody ceremony...all in all a pretty busy day for the leader of two-plus million hungry people in a desert.  "Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people.  Again they all responded, 'We will do everything the Lord has commanded.  We will obey'" (v. 7).  People who want to follow God are often all too eager to say "YES!!!" without thinking through things too carefully. This repeat of good intentions is just the beginning for the people of God.

The next few chapters of Exodus are usually the ones we either grow weary and bored with (abandoning our "through the Bible in a year" plan), or else skip altogether so we can get to the "good" parts.  I've done both.  Chapters 24-21 can become the pages you read, while never remember having read, because you were probably daydreaming when you "read" them.  I've done that too.  But when you begin to see the story that unfolds during those chapters, it's one of mystery and confusion.

The elders of Israel have responded that they would faithfully obey whatever God said.  The people responded twice that they would obey whatever God said.  There was enough revelation from God to actually know what God said.  So there could be no possible confusion about what He said.  Yet there was.  Strangely....mysteriously...oddly...ironically...there was confusion about what God said.

Why?  Well...if for no other reason than that Moses had been up on that dang mountain for a long, freakin' time!  "When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron" (32:1).  This was not good.  The people who had said twice that they wanted to obey God, were now approaching their leader who had also said he wanted to obey God.  And they approached him out of frustration.  Their eagerness to obey God was too quickly frustrated simply because of God's timing.

"Come on," they said, "make us some gods who can lead us.  We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt" (32:2).  "This fellow Moses"?  This fellow Moses?  Exactly how long had he been gone for them to have moved from following his leadership wholeheartedly, to now speaking with him as if he were some distant relative they hadn't seen since the last family reunion some...oh...fourteen years ago?  Only forty-seven days, according to Exodus 24:16-18.  That's six-and-a-half weeks...about a month-and-a-half...an eighth of a year...half a semester of school.  That's all.  It's easy to get the feeling here that Israel's perspective on time is like that of a child who prefaces their incessant whining and complaining by asking the question, just twenty minutes into a six hour drive, "Are we there yet"?

Lest you tear off on a trail to rip Israel a new one for their frustrating antics of rebellion, think about how many times you have been eager to follow and obey God, only to have been turned aside in frustration just weeks, if not days later.  There are many chapters like these in my own life.  I grew up the son of a Baptist preacher, where I was exposed to the obligatory twice-annual revival meetings.  Standard for most Baptist churches of that time.  Some incredibly godly men came through town and stayed in my home each year.  And each of them preached with fervor, fire, vigilance, and zeal that made me want to follow Jesus even more diligently than I ever had before.  

Like any good teenager who wants to follow Jesus, I responded with eagerness!  "YES!!!! I will do EVERYTHING the Lord has commanded!!!"  And off I would go, thrusting my way to the altar, and then into the darkness, toward the gates of hell, resolving to wake up earlier to pray, or read my Bible through this year, or save money and go on a mission trip, or...fill in the blank.  

I don't recall a single thing any of these men ever said as being unbiblical or even unwise.  I simply recall a stirring up of my own eagerness to follow God and obey Him faithfully, only to be deterred later by something so simple.  And that simple thing would frustrate me.  And that frustration would seem to build some inward compulsion to go astray again.  So I know I can relate to this story in Exodus.  I am an Israelite in so many respects! 

Stuff takes too long...at least in my book.  And my eagerness to do what God said is too often met with frustration followed by waywardness...and in such a short amount of time, too!  

How frustrating that must be for God, I often think.  (To be sure, nothing frustrates God.  It's just not possible.)  Now, I don't go off on a tear to pillage my wife and daughter's jewelry collections to melt them down in my wife's Calphalon pot and shape them into young head of cattle.  And I never called my friends over so we could party like it's 1999, dancing, singing, and having orgies around something that would probably have looked like a summer VBS craft.  

No, I never did stuff like that.  I just returned to my teenage girlfriend/boyfriend drama, thinking about naked ladies, idolizing the Dallas Cowboys, and finding ways to copy my bare butt on the Xerox machine at school with my friend Paul, and not get caught.  

When I "grew up" my fresh efforts of eagerness would soon be thwarted by more frustration, and I would waywardly pursue new places to make out with my fiance (now my wife)...while I was a youth pastor, of course.  (That'll hit hard for any those reading this who were parents of the youth I led way back!  Please have mercy on me, though.)  Thankfully, I never made it to home plate.  I was so foolish!

When I got married and "grew up" I put all that silly stuff aside and pursued a fresh eagerness again for following God.  That was frustrated too, and replaced with a pursuit of self-righteous, theological studies which only made me more legalistic than I already was.  This stimulated me to recommend my wife for counseling during our second year of marriage...just because she wasn't taking care of the housecleaning like I thought she should.  I was such an idiot.  Thank God for almost twenty years of marriage to her.  She has been so sanctifying for me, and I love her for that!

I hope my point is clear.  We all struggle with a seeming cycle of fresh eagerness to do exactly what God said, only to be frustrated by something so simple.  This in turn leads us, not to worship hand-crafted animals, but to worship other idols of our own making: sex, sports, education, money, job...fill in your own blank.   A major lesson I learn from this story of redemptive history is that: 
  • I will always be eager to follow and obey God, since I want to be in His family.
  • I will always be eager to follow and obey God, since I want to lead His people.
  • I will always be tempted to go astray when simple obstacles come my way.
  • I will always have opportunities to fulfill those foolish temptations.
  • I will always have idols I could choose to worship instead of God.
  • I will always have opportunity to be frustrated with God's timing on stuff.
The Exodus chapter in the history of redemption will repeat itself, many times over.  With each chapter in this grand story there is an ever-increasing, ever-mounting frustration I feel toward Israel...and myself for this eagerness to follow God faithfully, followed too quickly by weakness in wandering from God unfaithfully.

Thankfully, there's hope for change.  It's called grace, and it's pictured not only in God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt, but also in the sheer number of times He showed mercy and grace to a people who seemed to always doubt and complain and rebel despite the sheer mercy and grace!

That means there's hope for me.

And for you.

About the Author: Rob is a church-planter and entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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