Responding to Setbacks (Exodus 5-6).
Things were not going according to plan. Here was Moses, back in Egypt, newly come from the amazing experience of the burning bush, freshly appointed by God to rescue His people, and things are going wrong. Not just wrong, but worse than before.
Chapter 5 sees Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh for the first time. It sees them make the first plea for Israel’s release. It records Pharaoh’s first refusal and also the consequences of that refusal. Pharaoh doesn’t just refuse, he also takes umbrage at the impertinence of these slaves asking for their freedom, and makes their lot harder. They have to make bricks without straw.
That doesn’t sound too bad does it? Being deprived of a little straw. We might easily miss the significance of this in the 21st century, for we don’t need straw to make bricks nowadays (nor do we often have to make our own bricks for that matter). But in ancient Egypt it was vital, for otherwise the mud bricks had nothing to hold them together. So although the daily quota for the slaves wasn’t increased, the existing target was just made much harder. As well as actually making the bricks, the Israelites now have to go and find their own straw – ‘the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble for straw.’ (5:12). Imagine having to do any full-time job whilst also having to source all your raw materials. Nightmare.
Thanks Moses. It would have been better if you hadn’t said anything. No wonder the people were angry with him (5:21). This is strike two for Moses. He killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew and barely escaped the country with his life. Strike one. Now he’s confronted Pharaoh directly and only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. The modern day equivalent would perhaps be a well-meaning activist demanding a rise in the minimum wage, only to trigger a decrease instead.
Yet Moses blames God: “why have you done evil to this people?” (v. 22). Can you believe it? Probably, because we all do it. We’ve got a bit of a blame culture as a society. Not just passing the buck generally but also a growing tendency to scapegoat immigrants/minority groups or label everything we don’t like as ‘fake news’ or a betrayal. We blame others and we blame God. I’ve blamed God for an endless list of things, ranging from the trivial to the serious, all equally without justification. When things go wrong, we blame God. He’s in control right? He’s got all the power, so it must be His fault. Never mind the fact that it’s us that has messed up. Never mind the possibility that God is still fully in control, regardless of seeming setbacks.
What makes it harder to bear is when the setbacks occur in a God-given mission or ministry. We could be forgiven for thinking that that’s precisely when things are supposed to go smoothly. Problems in daily life are annoying enough, but for things to go wrong when we’re doing something God has told us to do, that truly is tough.
But you see, that was never part of the bargain. God never once promises us an easy ride, a comfortable life and no pain, no opposition. In fact, sometimes the opposition increases precisely because we’re doing God’s work, because that opposition is driven by an enemy who hates God. Pain and trouble and opposition are part and parcel of serving God in a fallen world. They’re also how He teaches us to rely on Him. Setbacks, especially those encountered in God’s service, are all part of a spiritual learning curve. Faith is easy when everything’s ok. Faith proves its value in the tough times.
How does God respond in chapter 6? He doesn’t get angry with Moses for falsely and sinfully accusing Him of evil. He doesn’t cast blame like everyone else. He doesn’t need to rethink or acknowledge mistakes, and He certainly doesn’t waste time dwelling on the ins and outs of Pharaoh’s edict.
He points back to Himself. “See what I will do…” (6:1). Moses was looking at the problems; God focused on the solution. Moses still thinks that it’s down to him. God reiterates that it’s actually about Him and what He will do. Because of who God is, because of what He will do, the Israelites will be redeemed. It doesn’t matter what Pharaoh does or doesn’t do. God will prevail.
Like when Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus across the water, we only begin to sink when we take our eyes off Him. Focus on the problems and they will grow in our eyes and seem insurmountable. Focus on God and the problems shrink into insignificance. It’s not about whether Moses can persuade Pharaoh or protect the people from harsh treatment or convince the despairing Israelites. The answer lies in God’s ‘outstretched arm’ and ‘mighty acts of judgement’, in His adoption of the Israelite nation and in the fulfilment of His promises (vv. 6-8). It depends on God’s will (notice how often God says ‘I will’ in this passage – eight by my count – showing God’s personal stake in this and His determination to see it done).
We all need to learn this lesson of relying on God and not trying to do things in our own strength. We must to learn how to handle disappointment and failure and not let them shake our faith. We need to learn that it’s not all down to us. We need to learn that setbacks can make us stronger. We need to learn to trust that God will do what He says and overcome any obstacles in the way. The alternative is to cast blame and get bitter. The Israelites responded to the setback of Pharaoh’s response by being discouraged. In the ESV this is even stronger, where it says they had a ‘broken spirit’. We can’t live like that. If we allow ourselves to get into that way of thinking we could easily waste our lives blaming God and never grow. The task before us might depend on God’s strength, but we still need to take responsibility for how we respond to troubles along the way.
To take away:
What setbacks or obstacles have you encountered recently? Is it time to focus more on God than on the problem?