Somehow we all fall into this trap. It starts slowly. Most of the time, we don’t even sense it’s happening, but it almost always follows a predictable pattern. Things begin to go our way. We have a decent job, the kids are doing well in school, the bills are being paid on time and everyone is healthy. We are even doing more work for the church and it seems everyone is heaping praise on us. Life is good.
Don’t ask me why, but whenever things look the easiest and most comfortable, that’s when the greatest risk exists for us to fall flat on our face. You and I both know how it usually unfolds. Our hands turn soft from pampering, our minds wander towards pleasure, and our hearts desire strays away from God. Joy is found elsewhere. We quickly forget that all the good stuff that we have is just borrowed from God. Nothing, and I really do mean nothing, is ours.
If most times you find it easy to forget this, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. Take a look at the Israelites. No one had more than they did and the apostle Paul does a good job of highlighting it all for us:
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, what happened to our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. God guided all of them by sending a cloud that moved along ahead of them, and he brought them all safely through the waters of the sea on dry ground. As followers of Moses, they were all baptized in the cloud and the sea. And all of them ate the same miraculous food, and all of them drank the same miraculous water. For they all drank from the miraculous rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4 NLT).
The Israelites lived every day of their lives under the sheltering cloud of God’s presence. God was always visibly with them, guiding them when to move on and when to stay put. They didn’t worry about their next move. God provided for everything and did all the planning for them. In fact, not only did God tell them about the Promised Land. He took them there himself.
Now if that wasn’t enough, they also walked on dry land in the middle of the sea with walls of water on either side of them. Recall that famous scene from Cecil B DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” and you get the picture. These people saw some pretty incredible things. They were “under the cloud,” experiencing the presence of God.
It doesn’t end there. St Paul goes on to remind us of the rest of the story from Exodus. He recalls how God gave the Israelites food enough for the day and fresh, cool water springing out of a rock in the middle of the desert. Imagine it! The Israelites walked, ate and drank with God. They lacked nothing. Surely, they knew how good they had it? Or did they? Again, Paul writes, “after all this, God was not pleased with most of them and he destroyed them in the wilderness” (v.5).
Truth be told, the pages of the Old Testament are filled with story after story of disobedience, of turning away to phony gods, and of seemingly endless accounts where God feels let down by the very people he personally looked after, protected, fed and loved.
I know it’s easy to read all this and think that the Israelites were an ungrateful bunch. After all, they had everything done for them. Food and drink catered everyday; a safe place to stay; a flawless GPS and the best bodyguard on the planet. What more did they want?
Getting Too Comfortable
Let’s leave this remarkable story for a moment, and fast-forward the tape to God’s chosen people in the 21st century. The Christian church is the community of believers that are led by the same God that led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. We too are under the cloud of God’s guidance and deliverance. Except this time, God has freed us not only from the vice grip of sin but from death itself. And God still gives us food and drink, except this time it’s his own flesh and blood. Surely, we understand how good we have it? Not! We have everything done for us but sadly we too, like the Israelites, have forgotten God. Not surprisingly, not much has changed in the several thousand years since that marvelous group of people walked under the cloud.
I don’t think we’ve learned anything from the mistakes of our forefathers. We, too, are guilty of the one thing God despises most: idolatry. We’ve made gods of all the gifts that God has given us. We don’t have time to worship God anymore because we’re too busy worshipping the shopping mall, our kids’ sports league, and our precious leisure. God is just a quick afterthought, except when things go wrong, of course. Then we like to do what the Israelites did so well: grumble. It’s always God’s fault. If only he looked after us better, if only he listened to our prayers, if only he blessed us with more stuff. You know exactly what I mean. Maybe you’re there right now.
If you can identify with all this, don’t feel bad. We’re all in the same boat on this one. St Paul warns that “if you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12 NLT). I lost count many years ago how many times I’ve been through the vicious cycle of feeling close to God and treasuring my relationship with him, only to slowly watch that love wither away. Too many other priorities get in the way. I’m having too much fun “enjoying” life. And then I wake up one day and the mirage of my perfect world comes shattering down. That’s when I grumble.
God’s Justice is Injustice
Now don’t misunderstand. I don’t doubt God’s love for me. But like the Israelites, I forget that love the moment things don’t go my way. Likely, it’s the same weak nature that keeps most of us from realizing what a great God we have. It’s also why we’re still wandering in the desert of this life. We still haven’t learned that getting to the promised land is not easy. It’s hard. And it’s also not God’s fault. So how do we get out of this trap? Well, are you ready for it? The answer, simply put, is the hard way, because it’s the only way. Paul Evdokimov in his excellent book Ages of the Spiritual Life quotes French author Leon Bloy: “we enter paradise today when we are poor and crucified.” Humility, obedience and love are never acquired on a bed of roses. They come to us when we are pierced by thorns. God did not spare his own son from this lesson: we are told that Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). It was so with the Israelites and it is the only way for us, as well.
Now, I have to tell you I am always amazed at the mercy of God. It doesn’t make sense in human terms, but thankfully it’s God’s way of doing things. St Isaac the Syrian explains it best when he writes: “never say that God is just. If he were just you would be in hell. Rely only on his injustice which is mercy, love and forgiveness.” It’s clear to me that I deserve to be dumped for the way I treat God. You don’t need a fancy diploma to know that loving someone only when you need them or only when times are good does not make for a real or lasting relationship. Who wants a relationship like that? And yet, God still sticks around. He still loves us and never fails to be the friend we need. Even when we think he’s given up on us, God will never, ever let go of us. All that’s left for us to learn is to be satisfied with God and with him alone because when we do that, we’ll have finally broken free from wandering in the desert of false hopes to see that God is the Promised Land.
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.