Wilderness #4: Avoiding Wrong Turns in the Wilderness

This is not something you want to see when you’re traveling. How many of you have used a GPS while traveling? We had one once and every once in awhile, we would hear the GPS voice say, “Recalculating.” Because we didn’t take the suggested directions. Sometimes this would mean the drive would take longer. It’s also possible to take wrong turns in life. We all know that too. This is also true in the wilderness. This morning we’re going to talk about avoiding wrong turns in the wilderness.

Don’t we all feel this way sometimes? Aren’t there are times when we want to complain about life in general? Who can we complain to about life? Well, most of us probably do our complaining around one another. Don’t we wish there was a complaints department for life? Ever feel tempted to complain to God about life? About your life? The first wrong turn we need to avoid is complaining about having to be in the wilderness.

A couple of months into their wilderness journey and after being miraculously delivered from slavery, the Israelites came to Moses and complained (Exodus 16:7—8): Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. But then Moses says: For what are we, that you grumble against us? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.

Let me ask: How long were the Israelites in the wilderness? 40 years, right? How long should their journey have been? The length of the wilderness journey should only have been a few months. But because of the Israelites’ wrong turns of disobedience and lack of faith, they were in the wilderness for 40 years.

Frank Viola writes: “The wilderness is temporary, unless you choose to build a home there. God will eventually make a way out of the wilderness. But when that day comes, your faith will be tried.” Now, here’s the thing: there is a difference between being honest about our pain and struggles and complaining about them. It’s healthy and right to be honest about ourselves and our lives, to be transparent before God and others.

But a complaining spirit can keep us from the life God has in mind for us because it reveals a hardened heart. And when our hearts are hard, it’s difficult to receive the grace or learn the lessons God has for us and that will help us to emerge from the wilderness healed and whole.

Rob Renfroe says: “When we get into that place of self-pity where we are complaining and grumbling, very often what’s beneath our words is anger with God for allowing us to go through the very trials we need in order to become more like Jesus.” Now, the flip side of this is that we should bring our hurts and struggles into God’s presence. And we should also be able to reveal these things in a Christian community. We shouldn’t keep our struggles to ourselves.

So let’s ask:Do we ever find ourselves thinking, saying, or praying that we shouldn’t have it so hard? What’s the difference between complaining about our struggles and being honest about them with God and others?When we find ourselves tempted to complain and grumble about our struggles, what else can (and should) we do instead?

Bill Brinkworth writes: “The Bible repeatedly warns believers to be careful of the company they keep.  The wrong influences often point a Christian in the wrong direction and quite often hurt a Christian’s testimony and closeness with the Lord. What we learn, or are told, by the wrong pressures can direct us into making wrong decisions that we may regret.” Proverbs 13:20: Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.

Numbers 11:4—6: Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

What we have to understand here is who the rabble is. Who was this group among the Israelites? These were Egyptians who left Egypt with Israel, others who had been mistreated by Egyptian rulers. Seeing the Israelites escape, they saw their chance to get out as well. The rabble didn’t worship the God of Israel. And they didn’t want to learn his ways or follow his laws. But when they complained about how God provided in the wilderness, the Israelites eventually complained too. The second wrong turn we need to avoid is turning our ears to the wrong people.

Renfroe explains the rabble this way: “They will not know God or his grace or what is required to walk faithfully with him. Like the rabble, they may be camping with you. They may be members of your family or friends who care for you, or even members of your church who haven’t progressed in their faith.”

The real point is this: our wilderness might involve the breakdown of a relationship, the temptation to deal with our pain in unhealthy ways, and even the temptation to think that we don’t deserve the struggle we’re in and if God isn’t getting us out of it then he must not really love us. And if the people we turn to encourage us to take the easy way out, to give up on God, to give into temptation because we deserve to feel better, these are not the people we should be listening to. The right way out of the wilderness is never the easy way.

Following Jesus, learning to trust God in all the mess and struggle of life, is hard, it’s a process of learning self-denial, and of taking up our cross. “There may be shortcuts to happiness, but there are no shortcuts to holiness.” So, don’t listen to the rabble. Listen instead to those who went through the wilderness the right way, not the easy way.

Let’s ask ourselves: When you’re going through an especially difficult time, who has your ear? Who are you listening to? Whose advice are you taking? Who can you turn to who’s been where you’ve been and has learned to trust God even more because of their struggle? Are you sometimes tempted to take the easy way out of your pain and struggle? How does that usually go? Does it help you to trust God more or less?

In one of the Charlie Brown comic strips Linus and Charlie Brown are talking together. Linus says, “I don’t like to face problems head on. I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them. In fact, this is a distinct philosophy of mine. No problem is so big or complicated that it can’t be run away from!” Well, the people of Israel, hearing the report of the 12 spies and the people of Canaan, also wanted to run from what they saw as a big problem.

Numbers 13:30—31 says: 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.Caleb saw what the rest of them saw, but his perspective was very different. The eyes of his heart were focused more on God than on the obstacle in their way. The people, however, were more focused on their problem than on God. The third wrong turn we need to avoid is focusing more on our struggles than on God.

I know this isn’t easy. Our problems and struggles can feel overwhelming. It can feel like we have no choice but to focus on them, to try and solve it ourselves. I think we all know that this really drains us.

Maybe you’re like me. When I face anxiety or stress or a problem that I don’t know how to solve, it’s like I’m on a hamster wheel I can’t get off. Ruminating endlessly doesn’t make me feel any better. Endlessly going over and over the issue doesn’t make it better or make me feel better. Here’s a suggestion: the next time that happens to you, give yourself five minutes to dwell on the problem. If after five minutes it’s no better, focus on something else.

As Renfroe says: “There are many things in life you can’t control. You can’t control your spouse. After they reach a certain age, you can’t control your children. You can’t even control your cat. You can’t control cancer. You can’t control the drunk driver in the lane next to you. You can’t control whether people like you. You can’t control the stock market or the economy. Most things in life you cannot control. But you can always control what is most important in life, and that is where you choose to focus the spiritual eyes of your heart.”

Psalm 34:3 says: Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! And Psalm 69:30 says: I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. John Piper, in a devotional on Psalm 69:30, writes: “When David says, “I will magnify God with thanksgiving,” he does not mean, “I will make a small God look bigger than he is.” He means, “I will make a big God begin to look as big as he really is.” We all need for God to look as big as he really is. And notice how the Psalmist magnifies God: by worshipping him, focusing on him, praising him, and thanking him.

The truth is: there are times when sitting down and praying and focusing on who God is and seeking his presence is, on the one hand, the best thing we can do, and, on the other hand, the most awkward and unnatural and difficult thing to do.  We need to ask God to help us have perspective, to see him as infinitely bigger and greater than our problems.

When it comes to the wilderness, it is important to understand this: more important than what happens to you is what happens in you. This means that God is more interested in changing you than in changing your circumstances.

So let me ask: What’s bigger: God or your problems? Does your way of approaching your struggles reflect this? What are some ways to re-direct your attention to God when your problems threaten to become overwhelming? Is it possible that you focus on your problems more than God because you want to control your life rather than give God control?

The question is: where do we want to end up? How long do we want to be in the wilderness? While we may not know how long God intends us to be in the wilderness, we can definitely make our stay there longer by making wrong turns. Because the wrong turns we have talked about effectively lead us away from rather than closer to God. You see, the destination is not ultimately having a pain-free, struggle-free life in this world. The destination is God: his presence and his purpose for us. In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples: I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. May this encourage us to trust God and to avoid taking wrong turns when we’re in the wilderness.

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