In recent days you’ve probably heard people around you say and found yourself repeating, “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” Without question, these are uncertain times in which we’re living. Many of us feel that our nation, our world, is standing on the brink, but of what we don’t know.
Researchers tell us that all this stress created by our sense of uncertainty is not only unsettling, it’s unhealthy. It is slowly and quite literally killing us.
Some years ago, Dutch researchers conducted an experiment in which they told one group of people that they would receive 20 strong shocks. They told a second group they’d receive only 3 strong shocks along with 17 mild ones, but the shocks would be administered randomly. Those researchers discovered that the second group sweated more and experienced faster heart rates than the first. It was the uncertainty that caused their discomfort, not the intensity of the shocks.
In another study, colostomy patients who knew their colostomies would be permanent were happier six months after their operations than those who were told there might be a chance of reversing their colostomies. Once again, uncertainty caused the greater pain.
Commenting on these studies, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert concluded, “An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.” That’s as true today as it was over a decade ago when those studies were done. It was just as true over 3,000 years ago, when Moses told his people that he was dying and they’d have to go on without him.
Worn out from 40 years of wilderness wandering, Moses admitted what many already suspected. I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, “You shall not go over this Jordan” (Deut. 31:2). We can imagine a collective gasp arising from the people. Could such news have come at a more inopportune time? They stood on the very brink of that land God had promised their fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—some 700 to 400 years earlier. But before they could call that promised land their own, there was a wild river to cross, walled cities to storm, waiting armies to battle, and a wide array of unknowns to face. An uncertain future threatened to leave them stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.
Moses, though, did not want them to wait, to muddle about in the mire of the unknown for the foreseeable future. Instead, he summoned the people and in their hearing charged his successor Joshua with these words: Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (vv. 7-8).
Part of what makes uncertainty so stressful and potentially debilitating is it pushes like Samson against the twin pillars on which life and faith rest—the pillars of trust for today and hope for tomorrow. When those pillars begin to shake, fear fills our hearts, clouds our judgement, and weakens our resolve. Instead of allowing uncertainty to freeze us in place, we do well to recall and act upon Moses’ reminder to Joshua. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. In these uncertain days we’re living, you’ll find strength and joy if you will …
Trust in the precedence of your Lord.
It is the LORD who goes before you. Yahweh, the covenantal name of God. Yahweh is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, and he is absolutely trustworthy.
It is this LORD who goes before you. No godly guide but God himself. Thank God for godly guides like Moses, who had been Israel’s guide and Joshua’s mentor. It was Moses who marched into Pharaoh’s court demanding his people be set free. It was Moses who lifted his staff over the Red Sea and the waters parted. It was Moses who crossed that line and climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. It was Moses who had led his people safe thus far. Thank God for godly guides like Moses; like your Christian parents, if you were so blessed; godly guides like faithful pastors; and believing friends, neighbors, and coworkers!
Realize though there comes a time when godly guides must go. There comes a time when the training wheels must come off. The purpose of training wheels isn’t to train you to ride on training wheels. Their purpose is to train you to ride a bike unassisted. So it is with godly guides. They are given for a season, given to help you outgrow your dependence on them, given to help you look for yourself to the Lord who goes before you.
It was Yahweh who went before his people when they came out of Egypt. Yes, Moses was the man-on-point, but he was only following God in the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. It was God who was the “first man in,” not Moses.
In the New Testament Jesus is called the “firstfruits” of the resurrection. The Book of Hebrews refers to him as the pioneer, the trailblazer of our faith. He entered into heaven’s holy of holies first so that we might follow after.
When you’re feeling uncertain, trust in the precedence of your Lord. He precedes you so that he might prepare the way before you. Wherever he guides, he provides. Trust that. Trust him.
Rest in the presence of your Lord.
He will be with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. People in the ancient world believed in provincial gods and territorial spirits. In their minds, to move into a foreign land was to take up residence in another god’s back yard. It was an act of trespassing, and it was seriously scary business.
Now, before you dismiss that as so much superstition, realize that the Bible appears to give some support to that belief. In the tenth chapter of his prophecy, Daniel recalls a deeply troubling vision he once had that drove him to God for its meaning. For three weeks he fasted and prayed. After 21 agonizing days, a glorious messenger appeared to Daniel bearing that vision’s interpretation. He said, From the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia (vv. 12-13). The “prince of the kingdom of Persia?” The “kings of Persia?” Who were these people? Were they really people? That it took Michael the archangel’s intervention to free up that heavenly messenger so that he could come to Daniel suggests those Persian kings and prince were spirits that reigned over Persia in the unseen realm.
Jesus once met a man inhabited by a multitude of evil spirits. “Legion” was his nickname. When our Lord threatened to expel those spirits from their poor beleaguered host, Mark tells us that the man speaking on behalf of those vile spirits begged Jesus earnestly not to send them out of the country (5:10). Apparently, they felt at home in that region and weren’t inclined to leave!
I’ve not travelled the world, but I’ve walked the Las Vegas strip, toured the French Quarter, and spent an afternoon in Salem. In each of those places I felt slightly uncomfortable. Was it because of my knowledge of what went on in those places, or was it something else? Some spirit there perhaps?
It would’ve been natural for Joshua and those ex-slaves coming out of Goshen in Egypt to wonder if their God of Goshen would go with them into the land of Canaan’s gods. Could he, who had brought them safe thus far, cross that border with them?
Had they forgotten? Had they forgotten they carried the seat of their God wherever they pitched his tent with its Holy of Holies? All they had to do was lift their eyes to the center of camp and see their God was with them.
When you’re feeling uncertain, you need not worry that the God who has brought you safe thus far can’t or won’t take the next step with you. All you need to do is look down to the center of your chest, to your heart, his throne, and remember he goes with you. One of our Lord’s names is “Emmanuel,” meaning, “God with us.” Jesus promises to go with us to the ends of the world. True to that promise, Paul testifies as to how he sensed the Lord’s presence when he stood on trial in Rome, even though everyone else had forsaken him (2 Tim. 4:16-17).
Unlike what the ancients believed about their gods, Yahweh doesn’t tie himself down to a single place but to people. Throughout the Pentateuch he identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—people!—never as the God of Goshen or Lord of Canaan. He ties himself to people, and he does it one person at a time by what preachers of yesteryear called “the scarlet thread of faith.”
If you’ve placed your faith in Jesus, you can rest in the assurance that he will never leave you or forsake you. Your God doesn’t run before you so that he can run out on you later. He goes with you. When you’re feeling uncertain, trust in the precedence of your Lord. He goes before you. Rest in the presence of your Lord. He goes with you.
Proceed in the peace of your Lord.
Do not fear or be dismayed. “Fear”—the word is yaw-ray. To me, that sounds like the kind of sound you’d make to scare away an animal—like saying “ssssk!” to a cat or “git!” to a dog. Yaw-ray!
We understand what it’s like to fear, but what does it mean to be dismayed? The Hebrew word is khaw-thath. It means to break down as a result of confusion or fear, or to become discouraged, to have your heart ripped out of you.
What happens when your car goes khaw-thath or, as we say today, kapoot? You’re immobilized. You can’t go anywhere. You’re stuck. That’s what it’s like when you’re dismayed. You’re frozen in place. You can’t advance.
Please don’t misunderstand. Fear and trepidation aren’t altogether bad and to be avoided. Quite the contrary! Fear is a God-given alarm to alert us to potential harm. Fear is a powerful and much-needed alarm, but it makes for a terrible control.
On the walls of your home you likely have a smoke detector and a thermostat. One is an alarm; the other is a control. That smoke detector can’t control smoke. It can only alert you to the presence of smoke. The thermostat, on the other hand, cannot only detect the temperature of the room, it can control the temperature by turning your heater and air-conditioner off and on.
Pay attention to your fears, just like you do the wail of a smoke detector, but don’t let your fears become your thermostat. How do you do that? The way to keep your fears from controlling you is to keep them in proper perspective. That’s different from ignoring the alarm or simply dismissing it.
Thankfully, every time the smoke detector has gone off in my home, it was either because of something cooking on the stove or our natural gas heater had come on for the first time in the fall. It has never gone off because our house was actually on fire. But that’s not to say that house fires aren’t real, or that my house couldn’t catch on fire. Therefore, it would be foolish of me to ignore the smoke detector or dismiss it the next time it goes off by assuming there’s no fire. There very well could be! The wise thing for me to do would be to check it out, to put that alarm in proper perspective.
Don’t you hate it when you’re concerned about something, when there’s an alarm going off inside you, and you tell it to someone, but they tell you it’s nothing. “Don’t worry about it.” “Forget it.” I hate that because it tells me they’re not really listening to me. They’re not taking my concerns seriously. They’re treating me as if I was a silly child afraid of the dark.
The Bible doesn’t do that. The Bible doesn’t try to convince us our fears are unfounded or that what we perceive as dangerous really isn’t dangerous after all. Instead, the Bible helps us address our fears by putting them in proper perspective.
Moses didn’t tell his people that the opposition they’d face in Canaan posed no threat. That would’ve been foolish! Instead, he put that opposition in perspective by reminding them that their covenant-making, covenant-keeping Lord went before them and that he would be with them.
Jesus does the exact same thing for us in Luke 12:4-7. There he tells us not to fear men who can kill the body but are powerless to harm us beyond that. Instead, he says, fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Some fears are greater than others. Viruses are fearsome. Lockdowns are fearsome. Economic depressions are fearsome. But God is to be feared above all.
What did Daniel Gilbert say? “An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.” What did Moses say? It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. I choose to believe Moses. How about you?
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.