It is tempting to think that we have it hard. That our lives are particularly difficult. That is, the sense that life is not always fair and that no matter what we do things just do not seem to get any better. As well, in this season of Lent, for those who have entered into it intentionally and are, in fact, observing it by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial, then there is a real sense of difficulty and struggle. Life is not always easy and by adding an additional measure of self-sacrifice in our lives we feel doubly burdened. For now we are tempted to say, “Life is hard and difficult and on top of that I must engage in repentance, fasting and self-denial. When will Easter arrive so life can get back to normal?” Of course, life can be difficult and practicing spiritual disciplines is often a difficult challenge. But we must be careful, lest we find ourselves in a position similar to that of the Israelites in the desert where we are complaining.
As we read in Exodus 17, the Lord directs the Israelites to Rephidim where they are to set up camp. The only problem is that Rephidim has no water and without water the Israelites know that they will die. They then demand from Moses that he give them water to drink. They immediately go into a mode of quarrelling with Moses. Moses tells them, however, that their quarrelling actually shows that they are testing the Lord. It would appear that Moses himself was not too concerned about Rephidim having no water. In Exodus 16 we can read that just previous to settling in Rephidim the Israelites had been in the wilderness of Sin. While there they realized that they were running short of food so they accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. God’s response to this first round of complaining was to provide manna, the bread of heaven. It is clear, then, that God was able to provide for the Israelite’s needs even when it was unclear how he would provide. That should leave us asking the question, why did the Israelites doubt that God would provide them with water despite being in waterless Rephidim? He was already providing bread miraculously, what would stop him from providing the necessary water? Nothing, because we see that God did provide for them by producing water from a rock. The point is this, however. When life was difficult for the Israelites they took to complaining instead of trusting. It was apparently easier to think that life was difficult and hard and to grumble than it was to trust. And this in spite of the fact that they had already seen God work miraculously in giving them manna for food!
Now, lest we blame or judge the Israelites for acting sinfully and for not trusting God, let us take a moment to think of our own lives and our own selves. In what areas have we failed to trust God in recently when life got hard and/or difficulties arose? The reason to bring this up is to recognize that we are not likely too far removed from the Israelites in our behavior. I am not asserting that we are all grossly sinful people (though that may be the case) but rather that we often fail to trust God, that we often examine our life microscopically to see where it is difficult. I am certainly guilty of this, are you? If so, what are we to do about it? How do we not act like the Israelites in the wilderness of Sin or at Rephidim? Perspective seems to be all important.
It is sometimes or, perhaps, even oftentimes thought that theology is simply the activity of people who think too much. I have even heard it stated that theology is mere hair-splitting and that what Christians should really be doing is studying their Bibles and evangelizing the lost. And that is certainly true; we should be studying God’s word and evangelizing the lost. Yet, theology is what guides us as believers into correct thinking and into correct living. The need for good theology is the reason that many Christians confess our common faith at each Eucharist with the Nicene Creed and at each morning or evening prayer with the Apostle’s Creed. Therefore, let me suggest that there is one particular theological point that we must always bear in mind. It comes to us from the New Testament– Romans 5:1-5: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
There are several things to notice here. First, we have been justified by faith. The church is made up of all those who are justified, not by our actions, but by our faith. Second, because we have been justified by God, we have access to his grace. Third, we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Our faith gives us an eschatological perspective. We do not only live for today, but we see everything in the light of God’s ongoing work in his creation. Fourth, because we are justified by faith we rejoice in our sufferings because these produce endurance, which produces character, which results in hope. Fifth, we have been given the Holy Spirit; therefore God’s love has been poured into our hearts. I believe that these verses tell us everything that we need to know so that we do not find ourselves behaving in a similar manner to the Israelites in the wilderness. What the Israelites failed to remember was the promise that God made to them in Genesis 12 – that they would be a great nation, that God would bless them and make them great and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them. The Israelites forgot this essential truism of theology. In order for us not to make a similar mistake we must believe and have faith in God’s promise to us as given in Romans 5.
Through our justification by faith we are in a relationship with God and it is an intimate relationship, so much so that God gives us his grace, his very self. We are not on our own; we are not lost in the wilderness left to die. Rather, God is in us and we are in him. Whatever it means to have God’s grace, it certainly means that we have been given the means, by grace, to be assured of God’s love and presence to us so that when we find life hard and difficult we can be assured that this is merely our perspective. Though life may certainly be hard and difficult, God has given us the means to overcome these difficulties and troubles. By giving us his grace we are able to rejoice in all of life’s circumstances. Through this rejoicing we are then able to withstand the sufferings that come our way, and no matter how long those sufferings may last we develop an endurance that will not fail. This endurance in turn produces character. The English word “character” in the Greek has the meaning of “being approved” by these enduring trials. This character, then, is the result of testing and trials. To have character is to be able to withstand the difficulties that are sent our way. The Israelites in the desert lacked this but we are able to attain it when we steadfastly endure trials and sufferings. Lastly, this approval in character results in hope. The Israelites of Exodus 17 showed themselves to be hopeless. Our justification, however, results in hopefulness. As Psalm 43:5 says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God.” And as we anticipate and await our Lord’s resurrection on Easter morning, may we hope and be hopeful.