by: Joel Bates
“If you’re going through hell….keep going.” They were powerful, prompting words when Winston Churchill spoke them to his beloved Englanders at the height of WWII; they are no less pressurized and prudent for us today—dramatic words for desperate times.
Their import came to mind midsummer when one of the Discovery Ministries’ wilderness instructors came to me after a long series of retreats and expeditions and with many more still slated on our summer calendar. He asked, “How do I do the middle?” I felt confused at first until he explained further, “I love new beginnings, and I feel the euphoria of finishing, but how do I keep going when I’m tired, there’s so much left to do and, frankly, I feel like giving up?”
Maybe you can relate. As I thought about his question, my mind went quickly to the life of Moses. Of all the great characters in the Bible, Moses may have had the longest “middle” to deal with. Think of it, he led all those grumbling Israelites for over 40 years! They didn’t know how to fight their enemies. They didn’t have a form of government. They had no economy, no real laws, and no true identity. They were a people who only knew how to be slaves.
Moses was called by God to lead them, teach them, and show them the way across the desert to the land flowing with milk and honey. Boy, did he have his hands full! So much so, that more than once he shook his fist at them, wrung his hands of them, and asked God to just kill him to make it all stop. It had been a tough existence to be sure, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. They would send spies into the Promised Land, mount an offensive, and take possession of their new homeland. Great plan, terrible execution!
Once these former slaves saw the size of their opponents, they completely lost sight of the enormity of their God. Though Moses prodded them and Joshua and Caleb pleaded with them, they acted like a stubborn mule refusing to obey. That’s when “the middle” happened--the long years of wandering in the dry and withering wilderness.
Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and I’m betting that Moses felt downright nauseous after being within grasp of fulfilling his difficult calling only to watch it slip away like an apparition. Sadly, the people’s spiritual sickness would last for forty more years as God remained faithful to the children, but firm in barring the rebels’ way to their own country.
It’s a melancholy outcome with which I’m sure your familiar, but what’s the point? Fast forward a few decades, four to be exact, and witness Moses giving his great farewell speech to the children of those disobedient slaves. Moses knows he’s not going with them, but his parting words as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy are nonetheless poignant and powerful for both that generation and ours. He is at his end, and he’s exhorting the people as they face a new beginning, but some of his finest entreaties come from his experiences of living life through the long, hot, mundane desert days, the seasons where the answers came in vague, intermittent whispers while languishing under the pressures of leadership and preservation--in essence, “the middle.” Moses gives hearty advice for doing more than subsisting through the mundane.
It’s the second, most commanded duty of the believer as recorded in scripture, and Moses referred to it over 14 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone. “Remember!” Moses unpacks this key ingredient for making it through by reminding us of the importance of looking back. Remember where you came from. Remember who you used to be. Remember your first encounters with mighty God. Remember what it was like to be enslaved. Remember what God has promised. Remember who is in control. Remember how God has proven his faithfulness to you. Remember, remember, remember! Times of remembering are a powerful catalyst, especially when they help aid your forward momentum.
However, remembering former experiences can cause one to dwell too much in the past. So, another essential ingredient for making it through “middle” times is to remain in the present. I’m not talking about honing in on the present circumstances with a fixation that gives you tunnel vision. That is not living in the present; that is paralysis. I’ve led a lot of challenge expeditions in which the participants set themselves up for failure simply because they lose focus on the present challenge, going instead to one of two rooms: a happy place where they escape to comforts and securities or a dark place where they obsess about their sufferings and discomforts. Neither place leaves them with the truth.
No, Moses says to stay focused on what’s real, right now. He utters the word “today” over fifty times in one speech, “I have commanded you today,” “You are alive today,” “You will cross over today,” “I warn you today,” “God goes with you today,” “You are standing today,” “The Lord has made a covenant with you today,” “That He may establish you today,” “See, I have set before you life and good, death and evil today.” When going through “the middle,” we must discipline ourselves to accept today, rejoice in today, grieve about the losses of today, count up the blessings of today, live hopefully today with expectations of the good that will come tomorrow.
Moses doesn’t just look back and look around, he is also looking ahead. The children of Israel have endured a long, arduous “middle,” but there is hope on the horizon. Soon they will walk across the Jordan’s parted waters, conquer the land, and settle in their promised inheritance. It is an already-but- not-yet moment. The plan has been laid, the promise given, and now all that awaits is the faithful people of God to live it out. Moses appeals to their future as he exhorts them to look back at how far they’ve come, look around at the facts of Yahweh’s faithfulness, and charge ahead for the conquest of a blessed home and a bright future. For believers, our hope is always right in front of us.
At the heart of all his yearnings for the people, Moses simply wants them to choose life with God, to fix their eyes on Him, to follow Him faithfully and find relationship with Him as people with a special name and a favored identity. Sound familiar? Hebrews 11, 12 and 13 remind us—the people of promise—to remember the valiant from the halls of faith, to throw off the hindrance of sin as we run forward in our race of faith, and to fix our eyes on Jesus and think ahead to that great day when, “Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” makes us permanent citizens of a city that will never fade, all because we “did the middle.” Today, if you find yourself “stuck” in the middle, lift your head and count your blessings, for it is often the case that after we finish the journey and complete the task when we look back on the story it’s in the middle where we find that God was closer than ever, carrying us through.
“For no prophecy was ever produced
by the will of man,
but men spoke from God
as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
2 Peter 1:21
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.