The Obstacle to Change. Removing the primary obstacle to change: us
Numbers 13: 25 – 14: 12
In January of 1971 I found myself on a plane flying to Vietnam. I was an infantryman and anticipated a year in combat against a formidable enemy. I faced a daunting change with no guarantee I would come home a year later. There were two truths I knew. First, I faced an unknown future, and the second was that somehow this was in God’s plan for me and that he would go with me every step of the way. As I reflected on our story of Israel anticipating taking the Promised Land, it reminded me of how I felt while on that plane. Israel’s situation was no different than mine. How we approach that change makes all the difference.
Change is something we face that requires us to do something we have not done before. Whether chosen or thrust upon us, we face challenges we’re not sure we can meet. We become anxious. What if we don’t like the outcome?
A blog by Joni Erickson Tada speaks to this dilemma. In 1967 as a teenager Joni broke her neck in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic for the rest of her life. She commented, “Lying in the ICU, I was so fearful of the future. The whole idea of sitting down for the rest of my life without the use of my hands or legs overwhelmed me. What was God doing? What was his plan?
If only he would explain the blueprint of my future, then I’d be able to understand, and so trust him.”
A life-changing event thrust itself upon her and, she could not predict the future. Uncertain of how her life would turn out, she spoke of being overwhelmed with fear.
Like Joni, when we contemplate an uncertain future, our imaginations can prove unhelpful. We tend to assume the worst focusing on perceived negatives.
I am aware of several tendencies we have when going into something we’ve never done before. As I pointed out,
- uncertainty leads to apprehension, which
- leads to unwarranted conclusions that may not be based in facts.
- two tendencies may reflect this:
- we may overestimate the challenges, see them more difficult and daunting than they in fact are
- we may underestimate our abilities to meet those challenges
- This can lead to a fear response that shrinks back rather than confidently moving forward.
Fear is the obstacle to change as it causes us to focus on the problems and to disregard and not see the solutions.
This is what Israel did at Kadesh. They allowed their fears to cause them to shrink back, and they failed to receive God’s promise, a promise that would change them from wanderers in the wilderness to settlers at home in a land flowing with milk and honey. They gave over to their fear of change and that fear distorted their focus, their ability to see that anticipated change clearly and completely. The text clarifies how fear distorted their focus.
First, fear gave the Israelites a false estimate of the obstacles they faced. All they focused on was the perceived strength of the opposition.
- 13: 28 But the people who live there are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.
- 13: 32, 33 The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there.
The spies looked at the cities they would have to take, and the people they would have to fight against,… and they are too big and too strong to be defeated. They concluded, given the strength of the opposition, it was a fight they could never win. The Hebrew word for fortified here has the sense of impregnable and therefore inaccessible.
The mention of the Nephilim is interesting. The Nephilim were mysterious, fabled giants mentioned in Genesis 6. We know nothing about them other than they were of such supernatural stature that they were singled out as different from ordinary men. As no other mention of them follows anywhere in the Bible, they obviously did not exist at the time of Moses. The spies identifying the descendants of Anak as Nephilim is an obvious exaggeration, to emphasize the fear-driven point they wanted to make. They could not see any way they could overcome the forces opposed to them and wanted to make sure the Israelites agreed with them. Fear often exaggerates the problems we encounter.
Fear is a strong emotion. It releases stress hormones designed to prepare our bodies for fight or flight. As such, those hormones send most of our blood to our limbs strengthening our muscles and quickening our reflexes. This is a good thing when the fearful threat is physical. The downside to this is that less blood goes to our brains. This significantly impairs our ability to think clearly. In the face of a fear inducing threat, what little energy the brain has left is totally focused on dealing with the perceived threat. In that moment, we see nothing else. This is exactly what the spies experienced. Their fears gave them a false estimate of the obstacles they faced, because they did not focus on and include in their estimate all the facts in that situation.
Second, Fear gave them a false estimate of their ability to meet the challenge. All they could see was their inadequacy to meet the challenge.
- 31 We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.
- 13: 33 We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.
They looked at themselves in light of, in contrast to, their overestimate of the opposition and concluded they were woefully inadequate to meet that challenge. We are weaker than them so how could we ever triumph over them?
Their problem was not based in reality. Their problem was how they saw themselves. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes. If you see yourself as a tiny insect going up against a giant, there is no way you will fight that giant. It did not matter the reality of their strengths or advantages going into that fight. If they saw themselves as weak and inadequate, they would act or not at based on that assumption.
How we view ourselves is critical to our ability to tackle the challenges of life. I worked for several years with a teen boy who had huge inadequacy issues. He had some brain issues that somewhat impaired his performance. He also had a sensory processing issues that caused him to freak out hearing certain sounds. As an infant and toddler, you could not calm him down. He would scream for hours. His father could not handle this and reacted to him abusively. This caused him to believe he could not be successful. Something must be inherently wrong with him, That he must be defective.
As a teen, he still responded as that weak toddler. When I worked with him he was six feet two. I taught him the skills of emotion regulation, and, as he was very intelligent, helped him focus on numerous successes he accomplished, one of which was becoming an Eagle Scout. When his feelings of inadequacy kicked in, I reminded him that, when he was five and three feet tall, to use a metaphor, he had only about three arrows in his handle life quiver. He is now six feet two and has probably fifty coping arrows in his quiver. This simple word picture helped him to stop toddler thinking and reacting and make choices based on who he had become.
What limited my client and what limited Israel was a fear based, distorted estimate of their abilities. They shrunk back, assuming they were inadequate to the challenges.
What made this more defeating is that they assumed their enemies saw them the same way they saw themselves. And we looked the same to them. This was not the case at all. In Joshua 2 Rahab shares the perspective of Israel’s enemies in Jericho.
I know the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.
How ironic. The opposition they so feared and felt inadequate to defeat was deathly afraid of them. But they were so caught up in their own sense of inadequacy that it never entered their minds how their opponents viewed them.
Third, Fear caused them to, not only under estimate the abilities of God, but to factor him totally out of the equation. [The Hebrew word for contempt here means to totally disregard another person.]
- 14: 11 God said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”
This was their most critical false estimate. So caught up in their fears all they saw was how strong the enemy seemed to be and how weak they saw themselves. At no point did God come into view. They completely disregarded him. They completely factored him out of their equation. God’s response to their fears makes it clear that he saw them treating him with contempt, as that Hebrew word means to completely disregard that person. This especially angered God in that he had demonstrated time and again his power and his love for them; from the plagues in Egypt, from the parting of the Red Sea, from all he did at Sinai in making a Covenant with them to be their God and for them to be his people, from water from the rock and manna from heaven; time and again he gave them reason upon reason to believe in him and trust him. And they completely disregarded him.
Because they disregarded their God, every assessment and conclusion they drew about the challenges they faced was false. They were false and distorted as their focus failed to include the God of Israel. The most important fact about the change they anticipate was it was God-ordained, God-planned. God-empowered, and God would guarantee a good outcome.
They failed to size up the opposition in relation to how big their God is. They failed to size up themselves given that this big God was with them and he repeatedly promised to give them the land. As a result, they refused to trust God and move ahead down the path of God’s promises.
The consequences of giving in to their fears were catastrophic and deadly.
- They failed to seize a God-given opportunity delaying it’s fulfillment for forty years.
- What they feared would happen, did. They all died in the desert without gaining the Promised Land.
They did not heed the admonition from the writer of Hebrews:
- Hebrews 10: 35 – 39 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised…But we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who believe and are saved.
Sadly, that generation shrunk back and was destroyed.
So how do we overcome such fears? We reverse the order of our focus. Faith is the Antidote to Fear. Faith reverses the order of our focus.
Faith first focuses on an accurate view of God. Joshua and Caleb did this.
- 14: 6 – 8 The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into the land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and he will give it to us.
Their assessment began with a focus on God, a God who repeatedly proved himself trustworthy. They did not disregard their loving, powerful and faithful Lord. They believed he would fulfill every promise he made, because he always did. He promised to deliver them out of Egypt and he did. He promised lead them to the Promised Land and he did. With manna and quail, with water from the rocks, by pillars of cloud and fire he led them every step through the wilderness. At Kadesh they were on the doorstep of the land God said he would give them.
Faith remembers how God is always faithful to his promises. Moses rehearses this truth to that next generation about to enter the Promised Land
- Deuteronomy 1: 30, 31 The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.
Joshua and Caleb never lost sight of their promise keeping God, so they had no problem believing his promises to give them the land.
Six times in the Book of Exodus God promised he would give them this land flowing with milk and honey. In those promises God named each of the nations he would drive out, the very nations the ten spies named. One example of how explicit God’s promises were can be seen in Exodus 23: 20 and following:
I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you… I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you will encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run…I will establish your borders…I will hand over to you the people in the land and drive them out before you.
Joshua and Caleb responded to the obstacles and challenges with a God trusting faith. They trusted an unknown future to a known God.
Focusing first on God, gave them an accurate estimate of themselves. Faith always starts with God and everything else comes into clear focus. Faith gave them an accurate estimate of themselves. Caleb interrupted the tale of woe and disaster,
- 13: 30 We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can surely do it.
They understood that one man, trusting God and following his leading, is more powerful than a whole nation. This is apparent in how the Northern Kingdom of Israel responded to the prophet, Amos. Amaziah, the high priest of the kingdom complains to the king about Amos:
- Amos 7:10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.
Amos with his God outweighed an entire nation and they could not stand against him. Joshua and Caleb knew that Israel, trusting God and following his lead, could not fail. They clearly appreciated how many God arrows they had in their quiver.
Again, the issue is how we see ourselves. So many people I counsel see themselves as so far less than they truly are. Like that teen I worked with, they see themselves as so less capable than they actually are. They feel they have little value and not much to offer others. The need is to change their perspective. What changes their lives is to stop seeing themselves through the lens this troubled world gave them, and to see themselves through God’s eyes.
Isaiah 41: 14 – 16, gives God’s perspective:
“Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away. But you will rejoice in the Lord and glory in the Holy One of Israel.
We look at ourselves and see a worm. God looks at us and sees a threshing sledge. We believe the best we can do is burrow in the dirt – what a worm does. God believes we can thresh and remove mountains. To see ourselves through God’s eyes changes us and we can then make the changes we need.
Joshua and Caleb saw themselves through God’s eyes. This gave them faith in God and faith in themselves to accomplish all God called them to do.
Focusing on God first, therefore, gave them an accurate estimate of their opposition and obstacles. Faith that begins with God always does this.
14: 9 Only do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.
The land the ten spies feared would devour them would be easily swallowed up by Israel. Joshua and Caleb knew this. They remembered all the promises God made to give them the land such as spelled out in the Exodus 23 passage I read earlier.
Once you recognize who the God is who is with you; once you see yourself through God’s eyes; the size of the opposition shrinks to a proper perspective. The question to ask is; who is really the giant in this picture and who is the grasshopper?
This leads to the Big Idea from this story. What is the obstacle to change?
The obstacle to God-purposed change is not the specific challenges we face out there, but the fear inside us that causes us to shrink back.
So, we reverse that too often followed sequence of seeing the obstacles first, and then evaluating everything else in light of them. We rather see God first and, therefore, we see the challenges of change in a whole new, God empowered light. In doing so our fears are replaced with faith.
How Do We Exercise Faith When Confronted with Change? We heed God’s instructions to and through Joshua to the generation about to take the Promised Land.
Joshua 1: 2 – 9: Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
We need to take Joshua 1 to heart. These instructions from the Lord were written to the generation that followed the one that refused to go into the Promised Land and died in the desert. The Book of Numbers, and especially the story it tells, was written as a warning to their children. The story of how their parent’s generation gave into fear highlighted the terrible consequences of not acting in God trusting faith.
God’s word to Joshua and Israel tells us how to exercise faith when confronted with the uncertainties of change. Five key points in this text that enable us to act in faith:
- God knows the full extent of the promise he intends to give us.
Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west.
God describes the borders of the Promised Land he will give them. While Joshua may be unclear as to exactly how much God is going to do, God knows perfectly well all he intends to make happen.
- It takes strength and courage to step out in faith.
Three times God commands Joshua to be strong and courageous. These qualities must have been essential to gaining the promise. When faced with what seems humanly impossible, courage has the strength to go ahead and step out in faith with a willingness to do whatever it takes. What is so encouraging here is that, for each command to be strong and courageous, God gives the reason they can strongly act with courage and faith. He will be with them wherever they go.
- God’s part is to give us what he promised.
The God, who will always be with them as they take on the changes, makes it very clear what his part will be.
Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.
It is not their responsibility to take the land. They are not to seize it, God will give it to them and he knows exactly all that is involved in making it happen.
- Our part is to just take the next step.
I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.
If God is going to do his part – making sure everything he wants to give us happens, we do not have to know how to make it all happen. That is his job. This verse clearly tells us what our job is. We simply take the next necessary step. We step. God gives. Figuring out everything to achieve the desired change is way above our pay grade, but not above God’s. Seeing the next step we need to take to gain what God promised is within our pay grade. We can do it. It is simple enough so we can visualize us taking that step and God acting in our behalf so we gain that part of God’s promise. It is a faith-sized step. God always acts on our faith and it is not that challenging to have the faith necessary to take that next step. And it is one God led, God accomplished step after another that takes the whole Promised Land.
- Every step of the way we need know and carefully do God’s revealed will God’s way.
Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
God is our God and we are the people of his promise. We have to go about our days living out those promises understanding we have obligations to him. Our lives are to conform to his expressed will for us. In this text one primary obligation stands out. We are to obey his revealed will in all its aspects. We are to do so with no compromises, here called turning off the path of his express will to the right or the left. How do we insure we do not stray? We meditate on his Word day and night. It is the time we spend prayerfully in God’s Word that causes us to be careful to do everything written in it.
Two major outcomes happen when we give this kind of priority to God’s Word. First, we fully understand all that God wants for us and requires of us. We are able to do his will because we know his will. Second, and more importantly, we get to know our God better and appreciate him more. There is no better recipe for success, as God here promises. Time spent with God in prayer and study strengthens our connection with him, consequently, when we go out from our time with him, we are conscious that he indeed is with us wherever we go and into whatever change we face. We will never disregard him.
Joshua and Caleb gave a priority to staying that closely connected to their God. That is why they were able to immediately see the obstacles of the Promised Land presented through God’s eyes. And that is why they could respond in faith and not fear.
If you read the whole Exodus account, it is obvious that the Israelites only turned to God when they needed him. The rest of the time they acted as if he wasn’t there. They did not make a priority of spending time with him and making him the center of their daily lives. It is no wonder that they disregarded God and could not, therefore, see the challenges of change through his eyes.
The Take Away: Israel gave way to fear because they did not take the time each day to better get to know their God.
Time in the Scriptures and in prayer not only gives us confidence in the promises of God, but more so in the Promiser.
Joni Erickson Tada has been in a wheelchair for fifty years. Over those years she became a world renown artist drawing only with a pen held in her mouth. She used her fame to develop a tremendously effective Christian ministry to the disabled. To see her today is to see someone glowing with the joy of the Lord.
She commented further about the challenges she faced:
We may think we cannot move forward without the blueprint, but as Oswald Chambers says, “God does not tell you what he is going to do; he reveals to you who he is.” When it came to accepting my quadriplegia, it began with trusting Jesus. I could almost hear God saying, ”Joni, I will personally go with you.” Jesus is not only the Way, after 50 years of living in this wheelchair, he is still the plan. It’s all I need to know.
God’s angry comment to Moses: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” makes it clear God revealed who he was, his character, his intent, his power, time and time again to Israel, but that hardly made a dent in their thinking and how they approached change. Joshua and Caleb took time to get to know their God, and when facing daunting change, that was all they needed to know.
Faith in him and that he will do his part enables us to take that simple next step of faith.
On that plane to Vietnam I was able to view that unknown future with God in the center of that picture. I could do so because for the last three years the most important reality in my life was knowing him and I majored in time in the Word and prayer. No matter what would happen he was in charge of my life and would advance his plan for my life, even in a war zone.
When I arrived at my division, the 101st Airborne, I was even more anxious as they were the most heavily engaged Army unit at that time and took the most casualties. Shortly after arriving God presented me with that next step of faith he was asking me to take. The replacement unit chaplain, shared a few words from the Lord with us, as he did with every incoming group of replacements. After he finished, he mentioned that a fellow chaplain needed a new chaplain’s assistant and were any of us interested. The step of faith God asked me to take was to raise my hand and give the chaplain my name. In a wonderful way God gave me that job. Later that afternoon, I went over to his chapel just to spend time with the Lord. For some reason, I felt the need to be alone with the Lord. I walked into the chapel and the chaplain just happened to be there and recognize me. He invited me to sit down and talk to him, which we did for the next two hours – just two brothers in the Lord enjoying fellowship and celebrating Jesus. At the end of that time, he picked up the phone and called his chaplain friend and said, “Frank, I think I found your new assistant.” God engineered that moment and all I had to do was take that step.
I spent that year in Vietnam doing ministry. Near the end I came to realize God was calling me into full-time ministry. I tell people I started serving the Lord full-time in January of ’71 and have not stopped since.
God knew the full extent of what he wanted to do in my life. He would do his part and all he needed from me was to take that next faithful step. Because I actively focused on him through prayer and study, I was able to see and follow his lead and take each step till I am here with you today. God has given me every place I, in faith, set my foot. For Joshua and Caleb, for Joni and for me; Jesus is the only way and he is still the plan. It’s all we need to know.