Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Purpose for Suffering and Humble Pie

Moses is now full-on into his second speech, and two things stand out to me in today's reading.  The first is that Moses seems to have had some time to reflect, and looking back on the last 40 years of Israel's experience, he has connected a few dots for us.  In Deut. 8:3 Moses says:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna...in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Some of you might recognize this immediately as one of Jesus's responses to temptation during his forty days in the wilderness.  You might also connect Jesus's forty days in the wilderness to Israel's forty years in the wilderness, and if you do, you might be onto something...but that's off topic.  What stood out to me is that Moses doesn't see the Israelites' trial in the wilderness as punishment, at least not exclusively so.  Moses sees it as a time of formation and of discovering truth, and the truth the Israelites discovered was an important one: God is the sustainer of life.  If the Israelites suffered in the wilderness, and I think one could make an easy argument that wandering in the wilderness is not a pleasure cruise, Moses sees an important purpose behind that suffering.

Now suffering is a pretty negative word, and so it is understandable that some might squirm in their seats when considering that God brought his people to a point of suffering.  But if we can put the semantics on the back burner, it isn't hard to think of other examples where someone is made to suffer for their own good.  Making a teen stay home to do homework instead of going to the movies with friends might not be a wilderness wondering experience, but the teen tends to think its the end of the world.  Or even worse, a legitimate grounding or taking the car away...or even the cell phone, why would parents do such a thing?  Oh my.  Those might be silly comparisons, but here's the point.  People don't grow or mature unless forced to.  Some call this the process of differentiation, others the process of moving from orientation to disorientation to reorientation.  Call it what you will, but unless we are unsettled, made uncomfortable, even suffer, we never mature.  We never learn.  Israel had quite a bit of learning to do.  They needed to suffer.  In so doing they had the opportunity to see something that they otherwise would have never seen: God provides.

In the Kingdom of God, suffering has a special place.  Paul puts this susinctly in Romans when he says:

[W]e also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

As Christians, and as Israelites, suffering is not something to run from, to deny at all costs, but something to embrace.  Suffering is God teaching us to rely on him, and he will not fail us.

But enough about suffering, Moses also feeds the Israelites a little humble pie.  In three verses, Moses repeats three times that God is not leading the Israelites to the land he promised them because of how righteous the Israelites are.  In fact, he spends the next twenty-three verses describing just how stubborn and hard hearted the Israelites have been.

It's easy to forget that the blessings we receive are not do to our worthiness.  It's not easy for we Americans to acknowledge that manifest destiny is nothing other then this very idea, that we get what we get because we deserve it and more than someone else, in the spiritual realm as well as the physical.  But reality checks can be quite brutal, which is why we need them.  As was the case with Israel, it is often times the least worthy that feel the most entitled, and so Moses gives Israel a strong warning, one which we still need to hear.  God's gifts come to us because of God's righteousness, not our own.

So here, have some humble pie.  You'll be glad you ate it.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 10

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