Nothing can put me in a mental tailspin quite like being unproductive—specifically when I had a planned list of things to do. I’ve gotten better about the self-condemnation part, but it still makes me feel so off, so annoyed, and craving a new day so I can try again. I absolutely love feeling like I accomplished something: that I contributed, helped, enabled, encouraged, bettered, or served.
This can be a great thing. I’m always seeking to fill my time with activities that better myself or better others; therefore, I have no idea what boredom is. I can often wake up feeling purposeful and excited about the day: the more specific the activities, the better.
This can also be a terrible thing. I can sometimes blur the lines between my motivation: do I think that I’m not valuable or good unless I’m being productive? Am I trying to do this because I’ll consider myself a bad person if I don’t? I start to confuse my responsibilities with all responsibilities: if an opportunity to serve or to grow exists, I have to take it right? Irrelevant of whether or not it was meant for me?
Let me back up a step. There’s a seemingly irrelevant but completely relevant narrative I recently studied that showed me my heart.
About two-thirds of the way through Numbers, the Israelite nation is going through their normal cycles: believe God, experience small trial, doubt and complain against God, get rebuked, believe God, experience small trial, doubt and complain against God, get rebuked, believe God…it honestly gets predictable after awhile. But more on that another time.
In Numbers 20, a few key things happen: Miriam dies, Moses and Aaron strike a rock for water instead of speaking to it as they were told and therefore are told by God that they can no longer enter the Promised Land, the king of Edom refuses to allow the Israelites to walk through his land, and Aaron dies and his position is passed onto his son.
Numbers 21 opens with the Israelites being attacked by a Canaanite king; he even took some of them captive. In a moment of uncharacteristic faith, the Israelites cry out to God for assistance in retrieving their people and destroying the cities of those who had attacked them. God hears them, gives them the strength, and they overcome the Canaanite king and his cities.
Great! The Israelites have learned to trust God in hardship and when they are threatened! This is wonderful! Progress! Faith building!
In the exact next verse (verse 3 to verse 4), it says, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [remember from Chapter 20?]. And the people became impatient in the way.”
Well, I mean we all get impatient in our hearts. This doesn’t have to be a big thing, right? They can just ask questions, they don’t have to make a huge fuss or anything…
“….And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loath this worthless food.’” (Numbers 21:5)
Well. Never mind.
A few things jump out at me:
- The Israelites seem to go for the same complaint each time: “God/Moses, you brought us out here to die. You did this on purpose.” Throughout all the miracles, the deliverances, the provision, and the care, they have not faltered in using this extremely bleak and intensely negative view of God. This shows that throughout everything, they have not allowed the mercies of God to grow their faith. They are intentionally stagnant.
- Even worse, they are so negative that they turn the miraculous gifts of God into something to be hated: the ‘worthless food’ they’re referring to is the manna that God graciously sustained them with in the desert for years. They have such a negative view of God that even His miracles are used to fuel their complaints.
- What happened to the faith they exhibited only two verses earlier?
Maybe it was the passing of time: they had faith one moment, then lost it another. But I think it was something else: their active participation.
In the battle with the Canaanite king, the Israelites sought God for strength to overcome their enemy and He gave it to them. It could’ve felt like God was just the edge that they needed; after all, they were the ones in the actual battle. God was only there to tip the scales in their favor. He was important, sure, but the Israelites were the ones actually fighting.
Then comes the long walk around Edom. It’s just a lot of…walking. And then more walking. Nothing exciting or adrenaline-inducing. Just more walking, more heat, and more reasons to question the departure from Egypt. Cue the complaining.
It seems like the first situation would breed more complaints than the second: isn’t being attacked by a strong nation a bigger deal than going on a long walk throughout the desert?
It is, but I believe the Israelites experienced something that we still struggle with even until today.
We like to have faith when we can see our active participation. We’ll have faith that God will bless us on our test, sure, and we’ll study really hard (this is good). We’ll have faith that God will provide for us financially, and we’ll do our best at our jobs (this is also good). We’ll trust that God will bring that person to Him and we’ll do our part in sharing about Jesus with them (even this is good).
If our active participation is a part of faith (faith without works is dead, as James would put it), then what am I getting at?
Simply this: sometimes our participation is far less than what we expected and we don’t like it. We can become so accustomed to ‘doing our part’ that we come to rely on it more than the God who gives success in anything.
I think the Israelites lost faith in the walk around Edom because their faith had actually been in themselves. When they found themselves in circumstances that showed their true helplessness (again), they didn’t like it, and their true view of God resurfaced.
And what of us? Do we remember our helplessness and our utter dependence on God? Do we allow the amazing victories in battle that He gives us to build our confidence in Him or do we use it as a way to only construct deeper self-reliance?
These are uncertain times, but our God is the same as who He has always been. Let us seek to be productive only as far as glorifies Him, only as far as He asks us, and not as far as our imaginary-self-imposed standards sometimes seek to stretch us. Do good because He is good and He has shared His goodness with us, not to try to forge our own. He has always been the cornerstone of our faith. Whether we are called to an intense battle, or called to walk with patience through a desert, He asks us to trust and to lean completely on Him. We’re still called to do our part: just remember that even that is a gift of grace.