Is there any greater lie that we tell so routinely as: “I accept these terms and conditions?” Every so often one of my computer programs will undergo some routine software update and, after finishing, will ask that I reaffirm my commitment to their terms and conditions. Except, like most sane human beings, I have no time whatsoever to scroll through the multi-page document. I just hit “accept” so I can keep on truckin’, as if Steve Jobs is working from beyond the grave to make liars of us all.
No one reads those terms and conditions. I think technically the Apple corporation has power of attorney over me. Except I wouldn’t know, because I just hit “accept” without ever reading the agreement.
God is ferociously and wonderfully holy. His righteous character provokes our allegiance. In the story of the exodus, God uses Moses to redeem his people from Egyptian captivity, and uses Moses to lead his people to the Promised Land. This, as we said, is the central focus of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Old Testament.
Along Israel’s journey, God provides for his people, often using Moses as his instrument for doing so. In one scene, God commands Moses to strike a rock to produce water for the people (Exodus 17:5-6). Later, God issues the same command, though with a slight variation:
2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. (Numbers 20:2-9)
Moses is now commanded not to strike the rock, but to speak to the rock. But here’s what happened:
10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. (Numbers 20:10-13)
Moses did not adhere to the terms and conditions. He struck the rock, contrary to God’s earlier commands. His penalty? He would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. The penalty sounds devastating, until we again consider the ferocious and awe-inspiring character of God, a God who offers grace yet still demands obedience from his followers—especially those he uses as leaders.
In fact, if we look closely, we find that Moses drifted off course in several areas of leadership:
- He rebuked the people harshly (v. 10)
- He took credit for what God was doing (v. 10—“shall we bring water…?”)
- He lost his temper (v. 11)
- He disobeyed God (v. 11)
The sum total reveals a lack of trust and a lack of acknowledgment of the true holiness of God.
C.S. Lewis once famously wrote that when we stand before God, there are two and only two kinds of people in the world: those who humbly say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those who proudly say, “My will be done.” Though a faithful servant, in this moment of his life, Moses took the latter course. And there will be times when we do the same.
It’s easy to drift into selfishness, isn’t it? If you’re wondering what this might look like for you, think of it this way: have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking one of the following?
- I expect credit for my accomplishments.
- I wish other people wouldn’t get in my way.
- What I ignore today can be handled tomorrow.
All of us are prone to moments of selfishness and weakness, but the cumulative effect of these thoughts causes us to drift away from holiness and toward our own happiness. And there is no greater tragedy than self-interest.
And here’s where it gets a little more frightening: Moses’ way of doing things didn’t result in immediate failure. He was successful. Water really did come out of the rock. His consequences lay ahead of him. I think what this means is there will be times in our lives when we are operating outside the boundaries of God’s character—and things will go just fine. People may even speak well of us. But inside we will be sickly and selfish, the consequences of which will eventually leave us desiccated and empty.
This is why the idea of “drifting” is so important. No one drifts toward holiness. All of us, on our own, drift toward center, drift toward self. This is why we need the gospel. The cross shatters our illusions of greatness; it reveals to us the ugliness of our deepest depravity. But when the cross shatters our wrong self-image, it replaces it with the image of the Son. In Christ we are granted the power once again to be bent toward God and toward neighbor; we are set free to serve a greater master, and once again experience the power to love someone else. The cross beckons us to surrender the idol of self-interest, and enables us to finally utter, “Thy will be done.”