And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you.(Deuteronomy 8:2)
To profit most from our adversities, we must remember them and the lessons we learned from them. God wants us to do more than simply endure our trials, even more than merely find comfort in them. He wants us to remember them, not just as trials or sorrows, but as His disciplines- His means of bringing about growth in our lives.
In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the Israelites of how God “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 “word from the mouth of the Lord” in this passage is not the Word of Scripture but the word of God’s providence (Psalm 33:6,9 and 148:5). God wanted to teach the Israelites that they were dependent upon Him for their daily bread. He did this by bringing adversity in the form of hunger into their lives. But in order to profit from this lesson, they were commanded to “remember” it (Deuteronomy 8:2). We, too, if we are to profit from the painful lessons God teaches us, must remember them.
I once learned a rather painful lesson after trying to subtly usurp some of God’s glory for my own reputation. God holds me responsible to remember that lesson. Every time I come across God’s words in Isaiah 42:8, “My glory I give to no other,” in either my Bible reading or my Scripture memory review, I should remember that painful circumstance and let the lesson sink more deeply into my heart. Every time I stand up to teach God’s Word I should remember that lesson and purge my heart of any desire to enhance my own reputation. This is the way adversity becomes profitable to us.
“Consider it nothing but joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you fall into various trials. Be assured that the testing of your faith [through experience] produces endurance [leading to spiritual maturity, and inner peace]. And let endurance have its perfect result and do a thorough work, so that you may be perfect and completely developed [in your faith], lacking in nothing.”
James reminds us that every trial has at its core the purpose of producing “endurance.” That “endurance” develops our faith in making us complete, “lacking nothing.” For the child of God, nothing occurs without purpose. Whether the trial is of our own making, through the working of the devil, or we are brought to the place of testing by God, it is always for the purpose of revealing our need for God.
The Bible says that God could have led the Israelites another way but He chose the way of the wilderness. It was an easy thing to bring them out of Egypt, but it was more important to bring Egypt out of them. As you read through Exodus you find that almost at every test of their faith, the Egypt in them surfaced. When they faced the Red Sea and heard the Egyptian army coming to drag them back to slavery, they forgot that God had shown His power through the plagues and in the exodus. Their response to Moses indicates that though they were physically free, they were still slaves in their hearts.
“As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians marching after them, and they were very frightened; so the Israelites cried out to the Lord. Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Did we not say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians [as slaves] than to die in the wilderness.”
God’s deliverance was seen as He opened the Red Sea and then drowned the army and the people danced and sang and rejoiced. But still Egypt was in their hearts, so God brought them to the wilderness where they hungered and thirsted. Their response indicates that they had soon forgotten all they had experienced.
“Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went into the Wilderness of Shur; they went [a distance of] three days (about thirty-three miles) in the wilderness and found no water. The people [grew discontented and] grumbled at Moses, saying, “What are we going to drink?”
“The whole congregation of the Israelites [grew discontented and] murmured and rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the Israelites said to them, “ Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate bread until we were full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this entire assembly with hunger.”
“Moses said, “ This will happen when the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning [enough] bread to be fully satisfied, because the Lord has heard your murmurings against Him; for what are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord.”
“But the people were thirsty for water; and the people murmured against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord for help, saying, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.”
“Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered together before Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron replied to them, “Take off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took the gold from their hands, and fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw the molten calf, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord!”
The sad story of this journey is that a whole generation failed to allow their adversities and experiences to bring about the change that God was desiring. Instead of becoming people of faith and obedience they remained stubborn and rebellious. So seated in Egypt was their hearts that we just read that they attributed their deliverance to a calf which was the idol of one of the Egyptian gods. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 put it this way:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, believers, that our fathers were all under the cloud [in which God’s presence went before them] and they all passed [miraculously and safely] through the [Red] Sea; And all [of them] were baptized into Moses [into his safekeeping as their leader] in the cloud and in the sea; and all [of them] ate the same spiritual food; and all [of them] drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not well-pleased with most of them, for they were scattered along the ground in the wilderness [because their lack of self-control led to disobedience which led to death]. Now these things [the warnings and admonitions] took place as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did. Do not be worshipers of handmade gods, as some of them were; just as it is written [in Scripture], “ The people sat down to eat and drink [after sacrificing to the golden calf at Horeb], and stood up to play [indulging in immoral activities].” We must not indulge in [nor tolerate] sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand [suddenly] fell [dead] in a single day! We must not tempt the Lord [that is, test His patience, question His purpose or exploit His goodness], as some of them did—and they were killed by serpents. And do not murmur [in unwarranted discontent], as some of them did—and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example and warning [to us]; they were written for our instruction [to admonish and equip us], upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
1 Corinthians 10:1-11
What Paul is warning us about is that we should consider the example of the Israelites in the wilderness and to not forget the lessons learned.
Now let’s apply this to us as the people of God. What will be the outcome of all we’ve experienced in the pandemic. Will it become at some point an interlude of interruption and will we soon forget its lessons and move back to all the old ways of living and rituals? One of the things I hear, particularly in the church is this phrase, “as soon as we get back to our norms things will be better.” I challenge that thinking as being a good thing. The fact is that before the pandemic, the church by and large was in a state of decline. Complacency and routine were the norms and growth and evangelism were almost nonexistent. Is this the norm we wish to return to? I realize that many congregations desire to return to the normal Sunday morning routine with its normal activities but I must ask if in doing so we continue down the path of decline. The pandemic has given us great lessons. We’ve learned that there are multitudes of ways to connect and the worship together. For many, the pandemic forced them to consider ways and means that hitherto were brushed aside as being unnecessary. We have learned that communication is important and every available means to do so is vital. We have learned that our faith is not just in gatherings but in personal pursuit of God, being creative in our seeking. We have learned that it’s possible to worship without a building and without the available normal means. We have learned, for example, that we can worship together sitting in a car in a parking lot, sharing Love Feast through virtual means together as the church and intimately with our family. We have learned that it is possible to meet virtually for Bible Study and fellowship.
The crisis of the pandemic, in my opinion is not the issues of the disease, though they are challenging. The crisis for the church is whether it has learned and will remember its lessons or whether like the Israelites find itself still in the wilderness with Egypt in its heart. As difficult as the pandemic is, as chaotic as things are, this is the moment- the window- of opportunity for the church to reinvent itself. This is the time to evaluate all its activities and rituals and discover which ones are necessary and productive to growth, both spiritual and numerical. This is the time to bring the “sacred cows” into the corral and run them around to determine which are God induced and which are the ones that are hanging on because of sentimental value. As individuals we must access our own lives and ask the honest questions. Are those things that kept me so busy prepandemic necessary to return to postpandemic or have I discovered that some were just for the sake of habit? Have I learned what to treasure, for example, simple things like being together as family even with restrictions? I pray that the pandemic causes us to evaluate everything that we were doing and at the end of the day we will have learned and remembered the lesson that above all things, we need the presence and guidance of God in our lives. I truly believe that these are defining times and those individuals and churches that access and adapt will find themselves entering the “promised land” and those who fail to learn and remember the lessons will “die in the wilderness.”
Dr. John Thompson