We all want to live easier lives, don’t we? Lives free of pain and suffering, free of struggle and hardship, free of fear and worry, free of conflict altogether. I think if you and I were completely honest, we’d say this is what we want for this life. These are the things we tend to pursue, and the things we tend to pray for earnestly. As I pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon, we don’t often pray for God to add to our faith virtue and knowledge and self-control and steadfastness and godliness and brotherly affection and love, even though 2 Peter 1 tells us to pursue these things. The truth is these are the sorts of things God pursues for our lives, even if we do not.
Our default assumptions are revealed in how we think about difficulties and pray about them. Most often we pray for God to remove the difficulty, to solve the problem we are facing. When you are facing a difficult and painful circumstance, by all means, pray! Pray with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Join us on Sunday mornings at 9:00 and take it to the Lord! Of course! First Peter 5 says we humble ourselves by, in part, casting all our anxieties on the Lord. We should go to the Lord with our concerns. How often, though, do we react to a problem with eagerness to learn and grow? The truth is when the Lord allows hardship to come our way, he usually has a specific purpose in mind, one that involves our growth.
Consider the Israelites in Egypt. They heard God’s promise to rescue them out of the land of slavery and to take them into the land of Canaan. They saw God spare them numerous times as he poured out the plagues on Egypt. For example, in the plague of flies, the flies were everywhere in Egypt—except in Goshen, where Israel was. The Egyptian livestock was struck by the fifth plague yet the Israelite livestock was spared. In the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, all were in danger. Only the blood of the Passover lambs would spare the people. After this final plague Israel was sent out of Egypt. God had finally answered their prayers for deliverance!
As they were leaving Egypt, Moses tells us the path they took—and did not take.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”Exodus 13:17 ESV
See the kindness of God! The most direct route from Egypt to the land of Canaan would take Israel past numerous forts filled with experienced warriors. Rather than take them into such battle, the Lord chose a different path for them.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.Exodus 14:1–4 ESV
Rather than go the most direct route into Canaan, the Lord instructs Moses to turn around and encamp at a place by the Red Sea. Notice that they are to camp there. They set up their tents and get out their cookware and prepare a meal and get their bed rolls ready. They are to appear as though they will be there for a while. God says why: this is so Pharaoh will think they’re lost and then he will pursue them and God “will get glory over Pharaoh” and his army. The end result will be the Egyptians will know that he is the Lord. In other words, God didn’t want to take Israel past the heavily armed forts so instead he put them in a place where they could not flee from the even more heavily-armed Egyptian army!
Oftentimes when we think of Pharaoh and his army pursuing them, we think of Israel on the run, high-tailing it as fast as they can. Remember, however, that they are encamped at Pi-hahiroth.
The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.Exodus 14:9 ESV
The truth is that Israel had not gotten very far. The Egyptian army had horses and chariots, and battle-hardened soldiers used to forced marches. When the text says they “overtook” the Israelites, it wasn’t difficult! They were encamped! Their tents weren’t exactly setting land speed records! God had led them out of one extreme difficulty, that of slavery in Egypt, prevented them from entering into another difficulty, that of walking past military forts, only to have them enter into an even greater difficulty: they are surrounded on three sides by a massive and angry army with a sea blocking any path for fleeing the other direction.
Israel’s immediate response to this difficulty was not faith. It was not to remember how the flies had not caused them harm. They didn’t say to each other, “Hey, don’t forget that when their cattle were killed, ours were spared!” They appear to have completely forgotten that while every single Egyptian household had lost its firstborn sons, including among their animals, not a single Israelite’s household had. So how do they respond to this new tough spot they find themselves in?
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. 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 have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”Exodus 14:10–12 ESV
Their response was, essentially, “We’re all gonna die!” Rather than look to God’s history of faithfulness, they got angry at Moses for all the good things God had done for them. Like us, all they wanted was a life free of trouble, free of difficulty, free of obstacles. What God wanted was their faith, and if making them turn around in the wilderness in order to cause them to camp in a place that offered them no way of escape when Pharaoh would come after them—and he would; God made sure of that—if that would cause their faith in him to grow, then that’s what God would do.
It’s easy to look back on this last year—it’s still 2020, right?—and see all the difficult things we’ve faced. This coronavirus hasn’t slowed down. It has accelerated. The family problems that we had last year are still with us. The struggles we face with our own sin seem to be ever-present. That medical condition that we prayed against fervently still hasn’t magically resolved itself. That difficult person we thought would change hasn’t. Those resolutions we made so firmly a year ago have been anything but firm, because, well, life. (So maybe that difficult person we thought would change was us all this time.) And the icing on the cake? Life may be difficult currently, but at least the exhaustion and the frustration will continue! So there’s that.
What you and I need this coming year isn’t necessarily a change in our circumstances or a removal of our problems. It may not be that what we actually need is a reduction in the complexities of life. Maybe what we need for the coming year is a better memory, a memory that enables us to see again God’s continued faithfulness. Maybe what 2022 should bring is the ability for us to look back at all the difficulties we’ve faced, whether in the previous year or throughout our lifetimes, and see that God has been with us the entire time. Maybe what we need is to remember what the outcome of every trial and tribulation we face will be, whether in this life, or the life to come:
But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.Exodus 14:29 ESV
The time is coming when our problems will be gone. One day the sea that traps us on one side with terrible enemies on the other side will be parted and you and I will walk through that sea, victorious once and for all. That day is coming, even if it doesn’t come in 2022. Faithfulness is not about remembering better times. It’s about remembering that God’s character will be as unchangeable in 2022 as it was in 2002 and as it will be in 2042. Because God’s character never changes, the time is coming when the ground will be dry. God promised.