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Spying Out the Land

One of the thoughts that has been bouncing around my mind over the past few weeks is this: So much of what I do in life, so many of the decisions I make, are driven primarily by considerations of my own comfort. I do what I do because it is more comfortable than the alternative; I choose to go this way instead of that way because the opposite looks like it may just bring too much discomfort. I’m kind of a coward, I guess, and kind of consumed with keeping life safe and easy. Just like Jesus. Or not.

I think it’s more than coincidence that as I’ve been considering my own comfort, I’ve kept coming across the story of the twelve Israelite spies who were sent to scout out the Promised Land (Numbers 13). You know the story, I’m sure. Moses commissioned these twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel and told them,

Go up into the Negeb and go up 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.

For forty days these men did just what Moses asked. They scouted the land and returned with encouraging reports: The land was “flowing with milk and honey,” and was flush with produce. It was every bit as rich and verdant as the Lord had promised. Each of the twelve men agreed on this. But then ten stepped forward and said, “There’s just one problem: We could never take this land. The people there are strong and scary and will destroy us.” Obviously when God had promised them the land, he had forgotten to account for the people who lived there–people who weren’t quite ready to give up their homeland without a fight.

Only two of the twelve, Joshua and Caleb, took a dissenting view and said “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.”

Despite what Joshua and Caleb claimed, the people of Israel believed the other ten spies and grumbled against the Lord. The Lord responded with justice, saying that of that entire generation, only Joshua and Caleb would ever enter the promised land. The rest would be forced to wander until they died; only when the generation was gone would God allow them to cross the river.

I can identify with this kind of fear. It’s the fear that comes when God’s promises seem to conflict with the evidence before us. Each of us encounters times in life where we are forced to decide whether we will trust God despite what appears to be evidence that his way just won’t work, that it’s foolhardy, that it’s impossible. Before us we have the giants and the promises of God; we respond with fear of the giants (which is to say, with comfort) or with faith in the promises.

I look at my salary or my bank account and ask, “How will I ever pay my bills if I give this much of it to the Lord’s work?” The Lord tells me to give and to give generously, he assures me that he will provide, but my eyes tell me that it’s impossible. The promises and the giants come into conflict and I have to choose. Too often I choose what is comfortable.

Where I’ve seen it most clearly, I think, is with my children. There is part of me that longs for them to have friendships only with Christians, to live their lives inside a safe little world of my own creating where every family is Christian and every parent shares my values. I want to bubble-wrap them spiritually, emotionally, physically, relationally. But then I have to remember that the Lord has called us to live in this world, even if we are not of this world. I have to remember that we are to be light, and that light is not given so that it can be hidden away, suffocated under a basket. I have to remember that the Lord really is sovereign, that he really does reign and rule in this world, and that his purposes will prevail, even in the lives of my children. Those giants are terrifying and can so often look much bigger than God and his promises. It takes no faith at all to believe in the giants, but it takes a great stretching of my faith to believe in the promises.

I was recently reading a book titled The Art of Neighboring (I will have more to say about this book soon) and it helped put one more piece of the puzzle into place. When that generation of Israelite doubters had died and the Lord was ready to lead the people into the land, two spies went on ahead to scout out the land and to take a look at Jericho. They met a woman named Rahab who told them that all those years ago the two had been right and the ten had been wrong. The people had heard what the Lord had done to Egypt and “as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”

The assessment of those ten spies was dead wrong. They saw the giants in the land and assumed far too much. The giants were quaking in fear, knowing that they could do nothing before the power and the promises of the Lord. The pagan giants had more faith than God’s people did. Forty years and an entire generation was wasted because fear and a desire for comfort overcame trust in the promises of God. I wonder what opportunities I have wasted already, and what opportunities I will be tempted to waste today, all in the name of comfort.

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