The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel….” [So,] Moses sent them [saying], “Go up into the Negeb and go 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.”
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses … and they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large…. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “[This] is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. There we saw [giants]. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
—From Numbers 13, emphasis mine
This was the story we discussed in children’s church a few weeks ago, where I volunteer as the modern evangelical equivalent of a Sunday School teacher. The goal of the lesson was to teach the kids to trust God, even when we’re afraid, even when the odds (humanly speaking) seem to be stacked against us.
It was a great morning. The kids asked all sorts of questions (some of them really good) about the story. To help them understand and apply it, I found myself searching for analogies centered in their worlds… What if big kids took your bike? What if you had to go to a new school? What if someone was mean to you on the playground? Etc.
I typically teach the kids during the first service, and attend adult church the second service an hour later. This was no exception. But for whatever reason, during worship in second service, I found myself dwelling on this story from the life of Moses — about Israel’s fear of the giants in the land. The kids had had a hard time relating to it at first, but we were ultimately able to work through it in terms children could understand. But what about us adults? We don’t typically get bullied on the playground or have our lunch money stolen. We look at new jobs way differently than kids look at new schools. We have a different kind of stress than kids have, and most adults would certainly feel (probably justifiably, at least most of the time) that what stresses us out are more important things — mortgages vs lunch money, careers vs kindergarten, etc — but I wonder what the average North American Christian would consider to be a “giant” in their world. What are we really afraid of? And how do we typically respond?
For Israel, the giants were literal. God had told them to move in and possess the land that He had given to them, and the spies they sent in for reconnaissance reported back that there were literally giants living there. Some Bible scholars believe that these may have even been men descended from women who had intermarried with angels — at least that’s one theory in reading Genesis 6:1-4, where the same term for “giants” is used: “nephilim”. In any case, they were evidently very large and very scary. The spies reported, “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33)
Imagine you are a nomadic vagrant, wandering around the suburbs, homeless, with your extended family and friends (a couple million of them, in Moses’ case). But God appears to you in a vision, and explains that the sub-division on the other side of town — the really nice one on the right side of the tracks, off Park Street, with the flowering cherry trees by the road and the three houses with in-ground pools … and of course a Taco Bell and a
Costco less than a mile away — has been earmarked just for you. All you have to do is go over and take the subdivision by force, because God has told you it’s yours for the taking. But the catch is that your cousins are all 5’9″ and haven’t seen the inside of a gym in a while, and the folks already living in your future home all seem to be descended from WWE superstars and NFL linebackers. Not one of them weighs in under 280, start at about 6’7″, and bench electric cars rather than drive them.
You seem like grasshoppers in their eyes.
Okay, that’s a little hard to imagine, I get it. And that’s my exact question… What wouldn’t be hard to relate to? In our comfortable Western culture, what do we fear?
(Before I get into a list, please permit me to make it clear that every single one of the following fears comes from my personal experience at one point or another. So if you think my goal in listing them is to sit in a place of strength and abstractly pass judgment on those inferior to me, then… well… you’ve missed the point. We’re all the same. My hope is that each of us, starting with me, would look at ourselves here and be open to what God might have to say to us.)
In our culture, we believe we should always be able to accomplish whatever we set our minds to. Some of us are more ambitious than others, of course, and on the whole I think ambition is a good thing. We should strive for excellence. But I think the relative ease with which our lives generally function makes us confident in our own ability to achieve what we want for ourselves. And if that confidence falters and we become afraid, it’s often a fear fundamentally centered around an inability to fulfill our (predominantly self-centered) dreams. Even when we want something passably noble for someone else — our spouses, kids, friends, etc —, our desires are typically self-generated. We’re the ones who typically decide what noble dream should be chased. And it’s scary to think we might fail to attain them.
I have to take this promotion to meet my financial goals; if I don’t I might not be asked again and we might not have enough to … whatever. I know I’ll be even busier, but…
Of all the terrifying notions in our culture, the fear of being exposed has to make the top-5 list. What if they see through me? What if I fail to portray the right image? What if they don’t like me? What if something or someone makes me look stupid? For me personally, this has been a particular struggle my entire life. We want to manage our images. We want to appear to have it together. And most of us will do just about anything — from buying keep-up-with-the-Jones’ lawn gnomes to putting another pair of shoes on the credit card to lying about our sin at small group to deflecting watching eyes to some other ostensibly weaker party (via gossip, passive aggressive comments, jokes, sarcasm, even open hostility) — in order to manipulate for our benefit the way people see us. For most people, real authenticity is just flat-out terrifying.
If I tell them I’m struggling with that, they won’t like me anymore, but no matter
how often I swear things will be different tomorrow, they don’t change.
They say confession and accountability will help, but I can’t risk it…
Self-determination is as American as apple pie. Freedom. Controlling my own destiny. The power to direct my life wherever I want it to go. We used to view ourselves as blessed by God with the right to pursue happiness; now many of us leave God and hard work out of it, and simply expect to always be happy. For a vast (and still growing) portion of society, the fundamental assumption is that if I can dream it, I deserve it. And if I’m smart, hard working, well-connected, or have a little more cash than the national average, then I really deserve it. For many, it’s outright terrifying to contemplate falling short of the expectations we imagine everyone around us to have of us — husband, girlfriend, parents, teacher, boss, friends, even total strangers. What if they think poorly of me because I … whatever … or fail to (wasn’t strong enough to) whatever else? Notice how similar / related this is to the first two in the list. I’m too weak to pick that up, so I’ve failed, and now I’m shamed.
What if I don’t get an A on this test or absolutely rock this work assignment or plan the perfect party or get the raise? Does that make me less worthy of love?
We viciously protect what’s ours! It’s not just the 2-year old who maintains a highly developed sense of “MINE!”. For some people, that’s clearly very stuff-oriented, but even if you can honestly say that you’re not gripping your possessions with a kung-fu death grip, what about your time or money or health or friendships? How does it make you feel, really, that God could take any of that away at any time? Would you risk a “friendship” to tell them the truth they need to hear? (I put the word in quotes, because I question if true friend would really abandon you if you lovingly tell him/her the truth.) Do you feel wronged by the universe if the light turns red when you’re rushing to get somewhere? And many live (frankly) in abject terror that the current administration or some radical, wacko terrorist group or an economic downturn might somehow interrupt my daily freedom and comfort, or reduce the power base of my hard-earned bank account, or otherwise sap my power to instantly turn my (nearly) every whim into reality. We fear that life would be made hard (the loss of ease and comfort). We expect to be able to do or be or have whatever we want, in many cases immediately when we want it, and I think we’re threatened by anything that might get in the way of that.
I can’t believe politician X is pushing for another law that will raise my taxes and cut deeper into my paycheck. If they keep this up, I’ll have nothing left. Then what will I do?
If life inAmerica (especially middle-class and up) is anything, it’s comfortable. Extremely comfortable — even for those who would swear life is pretty hard. I would argue that for most of us it depends on perspective, and on definitions. Poverty here isn’t like poverty elsewhere. Hunger and sickness here aren’t like hunger and sickness elsewhere. Bad healthcare here isn’t like bad healthcare elsewhere. Etc. Sure, we experience legitimate and sometimes even horrible pain, but for most of us, that’s very rare. The vast majority of us spend our lives in fairly easy circumstances, and as a result, the pain most of us fear is pretty minor by global standards, both modern-day and historic. We fear the pain of interrupted schedules and inconvenience, long lines and traffic jams, lost jobs and failing health, bad grades and broken arms, damaged relationships and high tuition bills. And again, it’s not that these pains aren’t real or legitimate, it’s that (if I might be so bold) I think many of them are seen in a fairly narrow frame of reference. But regardless, we fear and will go to great lengths to avoid what we perceive as painful, especially given how pain-free we generally expect life to be.
I know I’m “supposed”  to be bold and free in talking about what God in Christ has done for me, but what if people think I’m some kind of fanatical religious nut job…
That stuff doesn’t make me afraid, it makes me mad!
One more thought about this list before we move on… Remember that, much of the time, anger is simply our reaction to or insulation against fear. Run a quick experiment and re-read the last couple paragraphs with that thought in mind. Substitute “afraid” for “angry”. Does that make anything resonate a little more clearly? If you’re anything like me, it might help explain a few things that have seemed a bit illusive about why you react the way you do in certain circumstances. It’s at least worth a quick second pass.
So, did you notice that there’s an awful lot of “me” in the above list of fears? When I read thought it, I see a lot of my goals, my rights, my strength, my ability, my plans, my provision for the future, etc. Me, me, me. That’s also pretty typical of our culture.
Which leads me to my point…
What if we’re afraid of the wrong things?
Failure, shame, weakness, loss, and pain … Are they legitimate fears?
Well, it depends. Sure, there is a real potential for all these things in life. And some trials in life are quite serious, and a healthy fear of them can drive us to God, which is a great thing. It’s easy to dream up examples… cancer, a lost job, the death of a loved one, a horrible car accident that leaves me disabled, terrorists blowing up another building, etc. But, these potentially serious, even devastating, possibilities in life aren’t what most of us worry about. Most of us spend a ton of calories on the smaller “me” stuff — the inconveniences. And even for the “big” stuff, should we really “fear” them? Or is it a question — for all our worldly concerns, big and small — of taking those concerns to God in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7)? Of, like Jesus, continuing to entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23)? And if we are experiencing hardship, Peter exhorts us to suffer according to God’s will, while entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator and doing good (1 Peter 4:19). James says we should count even our suffering as joyful, because God’s perfecting love is at work in our suffering to make us “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-8). As another quick exercise, ask yourself / dwell for a second on what you think Jesus would say about your fears.
For most of us, the things we fear and the way we fear them doesn’t honor God. Maybe that’s because most of what we fear aren’t the real “giants”. I content that much of what we burn calories being afraid of is, to be blunt, a by-product of selfishness. Maybe the giants in the land are actually closer to the opposite of what we fear. Is it possible we’re looking 180 degrees in the wrong direction? Maybe the “giant” is in fact the very lie that somehow failure, shame, weakness, loss and pain should be avoided at all cost. Maybe the exact problem we face — what stagnates our ability to really glorify God in our everyday lives, to walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day — is that we need a little more of the stuff we’re afraid of, and a little less success, positive image, self-possessed strength, and comfort.
Maybe what we call rights and ambition and freedom aren’t really helping us as much as we think they are. Maybe our fat wallets are producing lean souls. Maybe it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24) — and I really don’t think Jesus was just talking about money here. Maybe the sons and daughters of God would be more closely identified with their Father by their suffering and weakness than they could ever be by their self-generated “strength”. After all, for those who claim the name of Christ, we serve and worship the only God with wounds — the great priestly King (Isaiah 9:2-7), but also the suffering Messiah (Isaiah 53), who because He humbled Himself, was exalted and glorified (Philippians 2:5-11). Perhaps we should not expect to be so comfortable, popular, strong and pain-free, when the Master, though He was in His very nature God, suffered so greatly.
What if we could re-calibrate our fears?
God is calling us to take possession of the Promised Land. But this land has nothing to do with wealth and security. It bears little resemblance to the American dream. It doesn’t necessarily have a two car garage and a picket fence. It probably won’t involve a vacation home or a boat. It isn’t about short lines or modern convenience, faster operating systems or quicker access to data. Is that really all it takes to please us? Instead, the Land of God’s Promise is the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a pearl of such great value that anyone, Jesus says, with wisdom and the eyes to see it would sell everything they had to possess it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
- If it costs us worldly success to be more like Jesus, then perhaps we should be afraid that too much worldly success would rob us of who we were created to be.
- If it shames us / costs us our pride to obey Jesus, then perhaps we should be afraid that being too easily recognized by, too similar to, too friendly with this world might cost us the next.
- If it makes us look weak to humble ourselves before God, then perhaps we should be afraid that too much strength would deceive us into believing that we don’t need God’s saving grace and transforming mercy as much as we really do. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
- If we lose this world to gain the next, then we lose next to nothing to gain everything. If however, we are holding fast to the things of this world, then perhaps we should be afraid that we could end up keeping those things instead of heaven. Keep in mind that Jesus said you cannot have both. (Luke 14:25-35)
- If it’s painful to die to ourselves (with Jesus) that we might also live and reign with Jesus, then perhaps we should be afraid that, in our ease, we would become unrecognizable as a child of the King and therefore be mistaken as an orphan.
I think these are the real giants. And I thank God that He’s been teaching me to fear them. Jesus commanded us to count the cost of following Him, and He was quite upfront that it won’t be free or easy. The apostles encountered this first hand, and I doubt that a single one of them would be able to reconcile our laundry list of earthly fears with the life hidden in Christ. (Colossians 3:1-4)
They feared God more than man. They feared missing out on heaven more than missing out on anything this world has to offer. And they knew, and we need to know, that life is too short and the stakes are too high — “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) — to be afraid of the wrong things.
And Jesus called the crowd to him with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
 — In any case, don’t share Christ with others because you’re “supposed” to. Those who love Jesus will have a story to tell about Him. God demands testimony in His person more than in His commands.
Related post: On Enemies [March 31, 2015]