There was a time in my life when what I wanted in a spouse was – essentially – a female version of myself. I would never have described what I wanted this way but it caused all kinds of problems when – while in college – I was spending a lot of time with an incredible young woman who – though she liked me and I liked her – didn’t fit that picture I was carrying around of what I wanted. About a year later – after that girl finally had enough and told me to never talk to her again – I met someone who fit the image I had in my mind, this female version of myself. She was driven, spontaneous and a little bit of a troublemaker. I asked her out the same night I met her. What I hadn’t realized is that this perfect picture I had subconsciously modeled after myself would most likely come with some of my same issues as well. She was fickle, narcissistic and pretty antiauthoritarian. Within about two weeks I had to cut all communication with her, and a month later, she was married to another guy. The moment I heard she had gotten married destroyed that image of the girl I wanted that I had been carrying around. I finally realized that my ‘wanting’ was absolutely broken.
As we are reading through the Bible together, we are now in Deuteronomy, which is the last of the five books of the Torah. And – as we heard in the video – Deuteronomy is Moses’ speech to the Israelites just before he dies and they go into the Promised Land. The speech hangs on two moments when Moses gives the Israelites a choice: to choose a Blessing or a Curse. We read the first of these two moments in Deuteronomy 11:26-28
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
Straightforward, right? Moses set up the two options the new generation of Israelites had in front of them: to pursue God’s blessing or retreat to the curse.
Why make such a big deal about this? Because of what happened 40 years ago in that same spot. Turn to Numbers 13.
Forty years before Moses speech and the words we read in Deuteronomy 11, the Israelites had arrived at the edge of the Promised Land after a journey that began with God rescuing them from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, a year spent at Mt. Sinai, and a grueling trek through the dessert God that included a number of attacks from opposing tribes that saw their exhaustion as a perfect time to wipe them out. After all of that, they had arrived at the edge of this land that God had promised their forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Once they arrived, God told Moses to send 12 spies into the land, to evaluate the land and the people that lived there. Let’s read what happens when the spies come back:
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 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. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “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, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and fall the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
The spies come back and they give their report: “Sure enough, it IS a land flowing with milk and honey” which is a phrase that means almost nothing to us. One of the best responses I’ve heard came from Pa’ Grape on Veggie Tales: “Sounds sticky!” A number of Rabbis have pointed out three important qualities of this phrase:
1. That it was ‘flowing’, meaning there is an abundance.
2. That milk symbolized rich nourishment.
3. That honey represents sweetness.
So the goodness they saw was both nourishing and pleasant and it saturated the land. BUT they didn’t spend their time describing the goodness of the land “Oh man, there were like the fattest cows you’ve ever seen. We were eating some grapes and Shaphat (which is the only name of the 10 other spies I remember because it sounds like ‘Snapchat’) Shaphat spit out the grape seeds and I swear I saw a grape vine sprout up immediately!” Nope. Instead, what do the spies spend their time talking about? All the stuff that scared them: the fortified cities, the different tribes that lived there, and this ancient dynasty of giants that made them feel like grasshoppers. So instead of following God into the land, the Israelites rejected God’s blessing and the Promised Land. They rebelled and sinned against the Lord – opposing Him and His Story to His face – and retreated into the curse.
This likely happened around 1444 BCE. 3433 years later – give or take a few years – in 1989, this guy Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his assistant Judith LeFebre – researchers at the University of Chicago – published this paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure”. This was their report on a study where they followed 78 adults with a diverse set of jobs for 1 week. Each person had a pager that was programed to go off at random times throughout the day. When the pager alerted them, the person would fill out a short report about what they were doing and how they felt. The main questions Mihaly wanted to answer was whether the quality of people’s experiences were greater at work or at leisure, and what effect doing something challenging had on that experience. Their results showed that the great majority of what people reported as “high quality experiences” came when working, not during their free time. And yet, when asked, most of those same people said they would much rather ‘enjoy’ their free time than go to work. Though – by their own account – the quality of their experiences was greater at work, they thought they would be happier pretty much anywhere else. This phenomenon became known as “The Paradox of Work”.
Now, there is a lot more to this than just work or play. Mihaly went on to connect the quality of experience to a person’s opportunity to get engrossed in what they are doing, having a task that challenged them in some capacity no matter where they were. But this paper started a whole string of research into our human desires. And, several years later, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert described what Mihaly had first discovered as *miswanting*. Gilbert explains that miswanting is the lack of coordination between what we want and what actually makes us happy. What we want and what is good for us. Since January, we’ve been talking about how human beings are storied. We are shaped by and caught up in our individual stories, collective stories, and one universal story: God’s story. Because of this, we are constantly imagining how our story will turn out – “how will work go tomorrow when I give my presentation, how will dinner with my in-laws go, how will I feel about myself if I don’t go to the gym.” We are constantly trying to read our future story and we make choices based on that future. But, according to researchers like Dan Gilbert, we are terrible at imagining our future story, which is what leads us to ‘miswanting’. And, if we take some time to think back, we don’t need Dan Gilbert to tell us that this is true. We have all chased after things that were not good for us. For example: an idea of girl that is essentially a female version of yourself.
Just for fun, I thought I’d pick out a few examples of collective miswanting from our own American history:
- The Atkins diet – popular in 2003/2004 – involves limiting carbs to switch the body's metabolism from burning glucose for energy over to burning stored body fat for energy. The diet was so popular it was blamed for large declines in the sales of foods like pasta and rice and even blamed for a decline in Krispy Kreme sales. This is when companies started offering ‘low-carb’ product lines. What happened? As far as people’s waist lines, a whole lot of nothing and within 2 years the Atkins Nutritional company filed for bankruptcy.
- Beanie Babies. Take some bright colored furry material, fill it with beans and name it something cute like Patti the Platypus and what do you get? A toy empire larger than Hasbro and Mattel combined. They never advertised their products or sold them in major chain stores, which made the toys harder to get and therefore more desirable. People collected them, insured them and – the height of their popularity – people would flip Beanies for as much as 1,000% of their original cost on eBay. Lasting from 1995-1999, the beanie baby frenzy was so large nothing would rival it until the launch of Pokemon Go. Now everyone acts like it never happened…
- Drugs. In 1810, morphine was developed from opium as a concentrated pain killer. It was considered a wonder drug because it eliminated severe pain associated with medical operations or traumatic injuries. By the mid 1850’s, morphine was available in the United States and became more and more popular with the medical profession – in no small part thanks to the Civil War.The problem? 10 years after its arrival into the United States, the country was plagued with a major morphine epidemic. Doctors had no clue how to treat this powerful addiction. Luckily, in the late 1800’s a German chemist developed a cure! Heroin. From 1898 through to 1910, heroin was marketed as a “non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant.” It would take another 10 years before we realized that this was false.
It can be fun to look back at some of the things people wanted and the now obviously ridiculous choices they made but let me ask you this: Did anyone here think once about the possibility that something in their own lives might be the next one of these stories? Did anyone look down at their phone, think about the way you eat or what you spend your money on with a little bit of skepticism? Probably not, because no matter if it is 1444 BCE, 1910 or 2017, we are still prone to miswanting. This doesn’t mean everything about what we want is wrong. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to be healthy, make money or help people avoid pain during surgery. The problem is our conviction that – with sufficient data, skills, knowledge, resources and/or time – we can take care of ourselves. We think we can write a great story on our own. This is what GK Chesterton calls the “Insanity of Self-Confidence”. The most self-confident people are the people in the insane asylum.
So maybe we aren’t so different from the Israelites after all. Right? Israel did the same thing. Read Numbers 14:2-4 with me:
>“Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
They knew what was in Egypt. It wasn’t good. Exodus 1:13-14:
”[T]hey ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
That’s what they had back in Egypt. Slavery. Treated as property with no value except their ability to get work done. But the Israelites looked at the Promised Land and decided they wanted what Egypt had to offer over and above God’s plans and purposes.
Compare the majority of Israelites and their response with the lives of Caleb and Joshua. Go back to Numbers 13. Remember, Caleb and Joshua are two of the spies sent into Canaan. They spent 40 days looking around, seeing the same things the other ten spies saw. But when they come back and the other ten spies say “it’s great, but…” read Numbers 13:30 to see what Caleb does:
>”But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”
And continue in Numbers 14:5-10
“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.”
Imagine the emotional intensity of the moment. When we read “Caleb quieted the people”, this was not a group like us sitting around, peaceably hearing people’s different opinions. This crowd is fired up. Caleb does not just say “Um guys, please quiet down, ok thank you.”
Then, as Moses and Aaron are overwhelmed by the intensity of the crowd, Caleb and Joshua give it all they’ve got to try and help the Israelites see things rightly. “Why would we go back now? Why would God bring us here if He didn’t have a plan? Don’t let your fear lead you to rebel and sin against God! God is with us! We are a part of His Story and His Story always wins!”
But as heroic as this sounds, do you think Caleb and Joshua were THAT different from the Israelites? Don’t you think they weren’t every bit as surprised or even disappointed by what they saw while spying out the land as the other ten guys? They’ve been part of the same year and a half to two year journey out of Egypt as everyone else. They’ve sat around at night dreaming about the Promised Land like everyone else. My guess is, while everyone was dreaming about a land flowing with milk and honey that they could just walk right into, Caleb and Joshua were not imagining five other tribes and an ancient race of giant warriors. Caleb and Joshua’s picture of the Promised Land was any different than the rest of the Israelites. The difference was that the two of them had a picture of the Promised Land that included God, the rest of the Israelites did not. Caleb and Joshua look around and probably thought “Man, this kind of sucks. This is going to be way harder than we thought. But God is still in control and He’s bigger than this, so if this is part of His plan, let’s do it.” They had a picture of the Promised Land where God was at the forefront – where He was the main character and was intimately including them. Everyone else was infuriated because they had created a vision of the Promised Land that didn’t need God. Their Promised Land included the gift but not the Giver.
That’s the primary issue: we are storied people but we were never meant to write our story on our own. Because of our miswanting, not only to do we rebel against God and His story but we trade His story for a weaker and lesser story.
The Difficulty of Active Trust
And – like Israel, we all are prone to choose lesser stories because they seem easier. True belief is not passive. We cannot remain neutral.
“There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.” – C.S. Lewis
There isn’t a blessing, a curse and “waiting room” in the middle. But we know that trusting God and His Story will require a sacrifice of our time, our money, our comfort, our security and our sense of certainty in what to do. Whether you claimed God as King in your life when you were five or just yesterday, as we hear about God’s story and look at the stories we are a part of in our city, we can tell that we will have to risk discomfort and failure in the “good” or “successful” stories we’ve created for ourselves.
But if you’ve been reading the daily Psalms, I hope you’ve seen that God doesn’t ask us to ignore that active trust in Him is hard. David in
Psalm 56 is a great example:
Psalm 56:3-4 – ”When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust;”
Psalm 56:8 – “You’ve kept count of my (tossings) wanderings, put my tears in your bottle.”
David wrote this psalm when he was running away from the king – Saul – who was trying to kill him. In his fear and difficulty, David trusted in who God is and what He is doing, but it didn’t change the difficulty for quite a while.
The trap for us is that we – like the Israelites – see the difficulty and think the Promise and the God who gave the Promise isn’t good. We are faced with this choice every day. Even for us as a church family: we might come to think that living into our purpose to glorify Christ in the everyday until He cannot be ignored is too hard, confusing, etc. Figuring out how to spend our time, our money, our emotional energy to participate in what God has invited us into in our everyday roles and relationships doesn’t seem like a ‘good enough promised land’. And our minds start to wander: “Man, I remember what it was like at a church where small groups were just about us and my, I mean, our needs…”
What is sad about the story of this generation of Israelites in Numbers 13-14 is how simple it would have been to begin reshaping the way they saw the Promised Land: remember how God brought them out of Egypt, set up a covenant (a binding promise) with them to be their God, provided food and water for them in the wilderness, etc. They had enough to convince them that God would be good going forward from what God had already done leading up to that moment.
David – in Psalm 27 – uses a phrase to describe this that I love:
”I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
This week, share with your GC/DNA group two things:
- What is your Promised Land?
- When have you seen God’s goodness in the land of the living?
We are going to end our time together this afternoon with Communion, remembering that our greatest hope – which we will talk about more in two weeks – is in Jesus. We deserve to be left to our own devices, left to retreat to the curse and never get another chance. Because failure to enter the promise is sinful, an opposition to God and His Story. But – unlike the Israelites in Number 13-14 – we live on this side of God sending His Son to 1) take on our sin and rebellion as His own 2) bring us into God’s family so we don’t just take orders we get to be a part of what God is doing WITH Him and 3) give us His Spirit to transform even our miswanting.
Let’s stand read Deuteronomy 30:19-20, I'll pray for us, and we will recieve Communion together.
”I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
Now – in and through Jesus Christ – we are free to choose life in the blessing of God’s story instead of retreat to the curse of our own.