God, do right! Answer when I call. When my hands were tied, you gave me wiggle room. Now, listen to what I have to say.
As for you people, How long must I endure you? How long will you continue to be taken in by smooth talkers? God will stick with those who stick with God. When I talk, God listens.
When you’re desperate, don’t do wrong. Better to keep quiet and sleep on it, Offer what’s right, Trust God.
Lots of people say, “If only God would give us something good! We wish we could see God’s face!” You’ve given me more happiness Than they have when their investments all pay off.
I can sleep at night, Because I know God keeps me safe.
This poem is about grace under pressure.
Rather than take matters into one’s own hands, this poem’s advice is to take a step back, count to 10, sleep on it. Don’t take the first quick deal that comes along, just because it sounds good. And, above all, be true. In return, the wisdom of the poem offers divine protection, guidance, blessing, and peace.
The caveat is that sometimes one must wait quite a long time for divine vindication to come, and the longer the wait, the harder it is to resist the urge to react in unhealthy ways – letting anger get the better of us, taking a bad deal, losing our cool.
That doesn’t mean that one always remain passive. Rather, it means being responsive rather than reactive. It means acting in a way that remains true to who you really are, with intentionality, with authenticity. After all, when you go to sleep each night, how peacefully you sleep depends on how well aligned your actions are with what your dreams reveal to you.
When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron, saying, “Make some gods for us, something we can put on a flag-pole. Moses brought us out of Egypt, but now he’s disappeared.”
Aaron said, “Rob your own family members of all their money, and give it to me.” So they did. They brought it all to Aaron, and with it he designed a logo. It was a fancy calf on a gold background. When they saw it, they all exclaimed, “Here it is: we work for this now. And this logo stands for our freedom.” Aaron set up an altar under the logo and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow there shall be bread and circuses!”
Early the next day, they all brought everything they had and gave it up to the new corporation. And they partied.
Meanwhile, back up on the mountain, God said to Moses, “You’d better get back down there. Those people of yours from Egypt have sold out. They’ve broken their contract with me, and they’ve designed a new logo, given up their freedom to a false god, and credited an imposter for all that I’ve done.” God said, “If this is the way its going to be with these turncoats, get out of my way: I’ll nuke them right now and we can start over with you.”
But Moses replied, “Why are you so angry? You’re the one who picked these people from Egypt! And if you do what you say, everyone will (rightly) say that you’re a pretty lame-ass God to bring a no-account people out into the wilderness and annihilate them. Chill out! Don’t do it! Remember how you promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that you would do right by their descendents and get them to the promised land.”
So God didn’t nuke them after all.
It’s hard to say whose behavior is worse in this story.
Is it Aaron, who sets himself up as the CEO of the world’s first Halliburton?
Is it the people, who willingly sacrifice their freedom and prosperity for a false sense of national security?
Is it God, who – let’s say it – really ought to know better?
As great as freedom sounds, the reality is it’s not so easy. Not even for God.
It’s much easier for Aaron to replicate the familiar oppressive religious-economic-political system where manipulating a logo and charging a lot of money (or collecting everyone’s earrings) gives the appearance of knowing what you’re doing.
It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to ask them to live with uncertainty.
It’s much easier to give people a prefabricated symbol than to help them forge their own identity.
It’s much easier to pacify people’s desires with bread and circuses than to engage their creativity to form a meaningful community.
The story of the people’s complicity in the disaster is a parable of the last 10 years of American life. And the depiction of a God tempted to take the easy way of oblivion rather than the hard way of engagement is the temptation of those in power. Indeed, Moses speaks for all of us who are disgusted by those who insist that God must be nothing more than a child-despot with a finger on the red button.
There comes a moment of truth in every freedom story – whether it’s in the Old Testament desert, in the modern United States, or in an individual life – when the uncharted territory of real freedom appears so dark and terrible that any excuse to turn away, to recast God into our preferred image, to pretend life can be orderly and secure regardless of the cost, becomes alluring.
Mortal or immortal, it’s in that moment that we stand on the razor’s edge between new life and utter annihilation.
What happened with them goes to show us how not to make the same mistakes:
Don’t sell yourselves to false gods like they did. Remember the story about how they had a gluttonous orgy. 23,000 people died because of that. Don’t demand that Jesus cater to your whims like they did. It ended up with a lot of people dying of snakebites. Don’t be constant complainers like they were. It was a path of senseless destruction.
Like I said, these stories were written down so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past when it seems to us as if the world’s coming to an end. So when you think everything is going well, watch out not to get tripped up. Your troubles aren’t much different from anyone else’s. God won’t give you more than you can handle. Remember, the nature of temptation is that there is always a right way and a wrong way.
I’ve heard this phrase, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” misused by well-intentioned people to say that real hardship and tragedy isn’t really so bad. “Suck it up,” they say. “If you weren’t able to handle it, God wouldn’t have let it happen.” Hogwash!
A hurricane blows in. An earthquake happens. A wildfire burns. Life happens. We don’t get any choice about a lot of things. Sometimes they are terrible things. Without ever having smoked a cigarette you get cancer. These are not God things, they’re life things. And they happen whether you’re Christian or not. They happen whether we’re “good” or “bad.” Sometimes we survive them, and sometimes we don’t. It’s not about deserving or handling.
But Paul is writing about temptation, not about bad things happening out of the blue. And that’s something we all have to deal with every day. Every temptation involves a choice. If there wasn’t really a decision involved, it wouldn’t be a temptation. Plain and simple. And there are lots of stories (Paul’s come from the Exodus) that serve as lessons about choosing wisely (and the hazards of choosing foolishly).
Paul’s suggestion from the Exodus story is that when you feel like the world is falling apart, three things are essential:
being true to yourself and what you, at your core, believe (instead of numbing yourself with food and sex),
taking responsibility (instead of waiting for someone else to do what you’re responsible for and then blaming them when it doesn’t happen), and
doing something (instead of bringing others down with complaining and nit-picking).
But the world doesn’t have to be falling apart for these things to be important. Temptations come every day. Do your best work, or piddle about on Facebook. Spend quality time with your spouse, or play yet another hand of solitaire. Pass the buck to the person at the next desk, or do your job. You get the picture. It’s always choosing. And with each choice, you wouldn’t be at that particular juncture – it wouldn’t be a juncture – unless you were really capable of making the right decision about it. This is what Paul means by, “It’s not more than you can handle.”