Moving Forward by Looking Back
He struggled to gain his balance as another blow landed upon his back. His body lurched forward, and he fell to the ground, blood dripping from his nose. Without pausing, the Egyptian taskmaster again brought the rod down hard upon him. He tried to crawl away to avoid the blows, but the taskmaster only smirked and hit him again. The beating was merciless. The Israelite foreman didn’t know how much more he could take. He lay exhausted on the ground, gasping for air. Every fiber within him burned. Finally there was a pause. A sickening silence hung in the air. At last the taskmaster tossed the rod aside. It landed beside him with a thud. The foreman lay shuddering on the ground. From his swollen eye, he watched as the taskmaster turned and walked away.
His spirit was crushed by the blows. He lay broken on the ground. The cruelty of the beating clung to him, and he could not escape its grasp. It was unfair. He had done nothing wrong. He had attempted to execute all the wishes of Pharaoh in regards to the making of bricks. The Israelites in his care had worked hard to complete the work, but the requirements of the Egyptians were impossible to fulfill. No one could do it. It was hopeless. The taskmasters had stopped providing the straw they used to make the bricks, but still required the same number of bricks as before. In spite of this, they had labored with all they had to please their masters. The reward for this effort was the beating he had just endured.
To make it worse, Moses had promised them that God was going to deliver them from this cruel slavery. He had placed such hope in those words. His hope now turned to anger. As he lay on the ground, bitterness swept over him, and he sobbed uncontrollably.
When finally he had the chance to confront Moses, his words were not kind. “May the Lord look on you and judge,” he sneered, “because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
Moses winced. The words stabbed him to the heart. The foreman gave Moses one last look of disdain and then turned and hurried away.
Moses watched him as he left. His mind was reeling from the exchange. The words echoed similar concerns in his own heart. Hadn’t God promised to deliver them? Why on earth would God bring such cruelty upon those he promised to set free? Finally, in frustration, he turned his gaze heavenward. “O Lord,” he cried, “why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”
(Adapted from Exodus 5:6-23, ESV).
His words echo across the centuries to us today. “Why, God, after all you have promised, why…”
This is one of the greatest challenges we face when we are living by faith. We step out in faith to trust God. We believe he is going to provide. We feebly trust his promises. We wait patiently for the provision, and then nothing happens. Or worse, the situation deteriorates. The beatings commence. You’re left holding onto a scrap of hope as you lift swollen eyes to the heavens and ask, “Why?”
Herein lies the quandary. God promises to be faithful. He promises to provide. But what do you do when the provision is slow to come, or the situation gets even worse? What do you do? What will you do if this happens to you? How do we proceed? The answer is that we move forward by looking back. When your present circumstances are devastating, and the way forward is unclear, look back to the place where you last heard from God.
God had promised that he would deliver the Israelites from the cruel grip of the Egyptians. He had clearly communicated this to Moses, and then through Moses and Aaron to the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt. When they heard the news, “the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exodus 4:31, ESV).
Their belief led them to a place of worship. But then the fulfillment of the promise was slow to come. In fact, their situation got worse. Then, when the promise seemed so distant, their unbelief led them to a place of despair. If we are not careful, the same thing can happen to us.
The reality is that God’s promise had not changed. The problem was that they had not anticipated that the fulfillment of the promise might lead through horrible circumstances. This is where many of us stumble. We know what God has promised, but we are unaware that the fulfillment may come through a devastating trial.
Most of us have heard incredible stories of God’s miraculous provision. We celebrate these moments. But if we are not careful, we can miss the multitude of unspoken stories of times when living by faith led to moments of great trial. We do not celebrate those quite as much. But they are both from the hand of the same God.
Personally, I can relate to the situation with the foreman and Moses. I’ve lived by faith since January of 1997. I’ve had times of miraculous provision when God showed his glory in my circumstances. I’ve celebrated those moments. I’ve also had times when I have felt that all was lost. I have questioned God. At times I’ve struggled greatly. I’ve labored. I’ve felt the loneliness of the desert. I’ve lifted my eyes to the heavens and cried, “Why, God? Why did you ever send me?”
Thankfully, God is still faithful, even when our humanity blinds us to his faithfulness.
It is okay to ask God, “Why?” God can handle it. I appreciate that Moses lifted his eyes to God and asked, “Why?” We know the end of the story because it is recorded for us in Scripture. We know that God eventually set his people free and showed his glory in the process. But Moses did not have that luxury. He was living out the story for our benefit. God did not condemn him for asking, “Why?” God loved him. God understands our humanity. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14, ESV).
The foreman did not have the luxury of hindsight either. In the moment he felt the rod slamming against him, he had no idea his story would be recorded for our encouragement thousands of years later. He had no way of knowing he would be an example of enduring in the midst of devastating circumstances. All he knew was that he was hurting from one end of his body to the other. He could not process that God was faithful. He was simply hurting and angry with Moses for telling him that God was going to set them free. He is an example of our humanity, and we benefit from his trial.
In these moments of confusion when the way forward seems unclear, look back and cling to the promise of God. We have no way of knowing the beginning from the end, but God knows the whole story. Continue to persevere, even when hope seems lost. We have no way of knowing if our trial will be an example to others. We are not able to see the bigger picture. That is okay. We may falter, but God is faithful. God’s ways are not our ways. He exists in a realm that we cannot even comprehend. But he is faithful.
God eventually fulfilled the promise to Moses, the foreman, and the rest of the people of Israel. Some carried scars from the journey, but all were set free.
Look back to the promise when the way forward is unclear.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 Newsletter.