What if our perceptions could lead us to oppose God?
Numbers 13 gives the account of God telling Moses to send twelve spies into the Promised Land, and what happened when they returned.
It begins with God saying to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.” Moses does, choosing men from the twelve tribes, including two men named Caleb and Joshua. He gave them detailed instructions of what to look for:
“Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.”Numbers 13:17-20
The men go, and after 40 days return with their reports, which basically go like this:
“The land is amazing! It has everything we need! And check out this huge cluster of grapes that just grows everywhere in the land! BUT, it doesn’t matter because the people there are strong, the huge cities are fortified, and we’re pretty sure we saw some giants there.”
Caleb, who had seen all the same things they had, quieted the crowd and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”
The other spies pushed back: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” They then double down on their report:
“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”Numbers 13:32-33, emphasis mine.
Unsurprisingly, the people did not take this well. After crying out and weeping, they lashed out at their leaders and at God:
“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”Numbers 14:2-4
So Moses and Aaron fall down on their faces, and Caleb and Joshua rip their clothes, then say:
“The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”Numbers 14:7-9
How did the people respond?
“Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones.”
In the end, very few made it to the Promised Land. Most chose a fatal path, though they believed it was right, which is deeply relevant to the season we find ourselves in.
Listening isn’t always hearing
As people, we struggle with the difference between “listening” and “hearing.” We can listen to the words someone is saying, but not actually hear them. This is particularly true in how we engage with God.
Take the man of great wealth who came to Jesus to ask how to inherit eternal life; he had spent his entire life listening to what God wanted him to do, but had not heard the heart of what God wanted. The Pharisees were the same, as was the Apostle Paul before his conversion (Saul); they could tell you exactly what God said, and somehow missed the message completely.
In the midst of all the commands, God wanted them to hear the core of “love God and love others”; when they missed that, they missed Him.
Moses listened to God, and did what He said; the spies listened to Moses, and did exactly what they were told. They all listened to what God said — “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” — but only Caleb and Joshua heard it.
If you recall, Moses laid out a detailed list of what the spies should observe, none of which was found in the original call from God. Some were detailed questions about the land, which may indicate an attempt to determine if the land was worth pursuing, even though God had already promised it was. Others were questions to determine the risk that the inhabitants brought — were they strong or weak, few or many, in camps or strongholds — which may indicate a concern with their ability to move forward. In other words, Moses’ addition may reveal a distrust in God’s perception and protection. God never asked Moses to make determinations on if they should proceed, only to “send men to spy.”
Taking the lead from their leader, the spies understood their task not as giving an objective report, but evaluating whether or not they should even go into the land. They ultimately attempted to make the final call; after seeing the risk, they decided the Promised Land was off the table. God never asked them to do that.
So what did Caleb and Joshua hear that the others didn’t?
“…which I am giving to the people of Israel”
This line is everything. God says “I am giving” the land, which indicates not only that He wants them there, but that He will get them there. While the spies — and as a result the people — saw the risks as insurmountable obstacles, Caleb and Joshua rightly understood them as nothing. “What does it matter if there are strongholds or giants? If God says He is giving the land to us, no enemy can stop us.”
This simple understanding of God and His will is what allowed Caleb and Joshua to feel safe spying in a dangerous land. It is what gave them confidence to speak boldly against the majority of the spies. It is what gave them strength to keep speaking truth when the people turned on them and threatened their lives.
It is also what allowed them to be among the few that made it to the Promised Land. It is what allowed them to cross the Jordan, defeat Jericho, and accomplish countless other impossible feats.
They didn’t just listen to God, they heard Him — understood His heart — and responded from that space rather than their own understanding. It was the only way forward, the only path that led to life and thriving.
How are we not hearing God?
Countless Christians are making choices and taking stances based on the Word of God; they are listening. Have they heard His heart?
We, like Moses, have too often slipped our will into His call. We, like the spies, see the good He promises, but push back when difficulty presents itself.
The story of the spies mirrors our bend toward escalation:
- Though they knew the land was amazing, fear led them to overemphasize the danger.
- When their fear was confronted, they began exaggerating the dangers; hyperbole was treated as truth.
- When the fear was confronted further, disagreement turned into sharp opposition, including verbal attacks and plans to remove the leaders and go a new way.
- Finally, instead of owning the effects of fear, they were ready to pick up stones and murder their kin.
We too, when confronted, reject humility and push back. Like the people, in the face of losing our desires or way of life, we turn against those we see as opposition, we question God’s goodness, and we choose our own path. And in the worst moments, we get violent.
I don’t need to list the ways we see this today, because the divisiveness, name-calling, opposition, and attacks speak for themselves. We must ask ourselves: “Though I believe I am listening to God, is it possible I am not hearing Him?”
Knowing our track record, and the fact we are still in process, the answer will usually be “yes”. Are we humble enough to accept that, and obedient enough to respond? Are you?
Misinterpreting the Promised Land
Perhaps the biggest reason we listen but don’t hear is because we have our own idea of the Promised Land.
The Israelites initially understood it as a new home that God had promised them, which they couldn’t have found on their own, and was far better than the life of slavery they knew. Somewhere along the way things crept in — entitlement, bitterness, distrust — that reshaped their view of the Promised Land, to the point that they were willing to turn and reject it.
What is our Promised Land?
Many Christians believe it is America. We Christians tend to identify with certain political mindsets — Democrat, Republican, Independent — and become convinced we know what God wants for America and how to get there. This is why there’s an immense spirit of confusion after years of political turmoil; our best efforts are failing to get things where we believe God intends them to be. As a result, we devolve into the progression we explored above: overemphasizing danger, treating the hyperbolic as truth, verbally attacking and diminishing others, and — abundantly clear repeatedly over the last few years — violence.
What if America isn’t the Promised Land? What if our pursuit to make America a certain way is leading us to reject the true Promised Land?
The Israelites were a people who had spent decades seeking God and going where He said — albeit immensely poorly — and who desired to reach the Promised Land. They were a people who struggled to trust God, even though their lives were hinged on it; as God put it in 14:11, “And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” When they were on the edge of the very thing they longed for, fear took over; the greatest reward was not enough to overcome the threat to their way of life and well-being.
As much as American Christians have longed to seek God, we have often done so equally poorly, and we too have come to the edge of the promise prepared to reject it. What is the Promised Land we are failing to see?
It is not a place, at least not as we understand it:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.John 15:5
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.John 14:3
Just as God told the Israelites He was leading them to a new home, Jesus has invited us to a new home. It is not a physical home; it is a home in Him. And much like the Promised land, getting there looks impossible — “take up your cross and follow me” — but the “land” is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.
“But I have given Jesus my heart, so I’m good, right? Why are you bringing politics into this?”
This mindset reveals just how little we understand the Promised Land Jesus is offering. It is not — nor was it ever meant to be — an individual experience. Jesus invited a Body of people to follow Him and enter in. Your personal relationship is only a piece of the journey
As for politics, it provides a clear window to the other piece of this: like the Israelites, we reject God’s methods. What are the methods Jesus invites us to use? Among other things, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Through Jesus’s words and example, and the words the Helper he sent gave, we get a unique, counter-intuitive picture of how we must live in order to arrive where he is leading us.
So, a simple question: are these the methods the American Church is predominantly using?
Pull back from the natural inclination to think in terms of sides, and instead ask that question of the Body that we represent; are we living out the methods of Christ, to get to the place Christ promised? Or are we rejecting Jesus’s methods as foolish and his destination (see: dying to all but him, being unified with even our enemies as one, etc.) as undesirable?
Here’s the striking bit: there really were enormous dangers in the promised land.
Our understanding of God, ourselves, and what He is inviting us into ultimately determines how we respond to that reality.
The Israelites who did not understand God, themselves, or the Promised Land, saw the legitimate threats, made them bigger, and rejected God and His will, all while convincing themselves they were in the right.
When we as the Body don’t understand God, ourselves, and into what He is inviting us, we do the same. You can easily find articles, sermons, and posts from believers that overemphasize the dangers, slip into hyperbolic language, attack the perceived opposition (including brothers and sisters in Christ), and even justify the most drastic of actions.
“THIS is the danger we must address. THAT is the thing that is destroying the church. HERE is the hill we must make our stand on.”
The Israelites who did this never made it to the Promised Land, but it wasn’t the giants that stopped them; it was the giant of their own fear, above all the fear of fully trusting God with their lives.
Church, the two words I have heard spoken and discerned among believers over the last few years are “FEAR” and “REPENT”; yet the reaction in most cases is to assume those words are for the “other side.” What if there is no “other side” barring us from the Promised Land, but instead our own brokenness? What if it is our own fear — of man, of death, of change, of loss of power, of being wrong — that leads us to go on the defensive against man and God? What if it is us who must repent for choosing our ways and dismissing God’s?
Though there be giants in the land, we have always been our own greatest threat; we have always had a loving God who was bigger than any giant, but our own understanding and own pursuits — not the giants — break that bond.
Let us be like Caleb and Joshua, who didn’t just listen, but heard God’s heart; who held to God’s Truth, no matter how simple or undetailed; who knew they could face the impossible because God keeps His Word; and whose pursuit was not their own desires and security, but God’s will and glory. If we can do that, we may just see that the giants ahead are but grasshoppers, the walls crumble with a shout, and the land is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.
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