Stories From the Wilderness: The Fears We Face

Scripture: Numbers 13:1-33

I don’t know if this will sound familiar to you, but I’ve been noticing a kind of pattern in myself lately: during the day, I’m mostly fine.  I’ve more or less settled into the way life is these days – the balance of work and family while all of us are home, the virtual preschool sessions, Zoom yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is stressful and exhausting, but it’s easy enough to let the reason for all of this fade into the background. For the most part, during the day, I am not actively afraid.

But then night comes, and I’ll spend a few hours catching up on work, and then instead of going straight to bed I’ll scroll through Facebook one last time, and I’ll inevitably see some headline about the latest newly discovered way Coronavirus is killing us, or a first-person account by a healthcare worker in New York, and I know I shouldn’t click on the article, it’s not going to tell me anything helpful right now, but I do, I click on it anyway, and that’s when the fear spiral begins.

I am working on being the kind of person who can just give all her fears up to God and be done with them. I regret to tell you that I am not there yet.  From what I understand, though, I’m not alone.  Fear is part of finding ourselves in the wilderness.

In today’s story from the wilderness, God instructs Moses to send spies on a little recon mission into the land of Canaan, which is the land that God has promised as a home to the Israelite people now wandering somewhere east of the Jordan River.  God tells Moses to select a leader from each tribe to go, and Moses does.  Moses tells them to inspect the land.  What is it like? What kind of food is growing there? What about the people, do they seem strong? All of this information will be relevant when the Israelites finally do cross over the river and attempt to take the land for themselves.  So the leaders go, and they find that it is indeed a good land, flowing with milk and honey just like God promised them, and they load up their arms with grapes and pomegranates and figs as they prepare to head back.

Forty days after they left, they arrive back at the wilderness camp, and they make their report.  There’s good news and there’s bad news, they say.  The land really is flowing with milk and honey. But also, there are people there. Strong people, descendants of the legendary warriors the Anakites. And their cities are like fortresses.

You can imagine that the second part of this report is not what anyone wants to hear.

A couple of the leaders try to be encouraging but the others are just getting started, and their story seems to grow each time they repeat it: “The land devours its residents!  We saw giants (the Nephilim) there! We’re like grasshoppers compared to them! We can’t go fight them!” And I think I get it, because this feels like the old familiar fear spiral.

And, the story goes, “the entire community raised their voice and the people wept that night.” Because fear is contagious, isn’t it?

Well, as I told you last time, a huge theme in Numbers is the people complaining and God getting mad that the people are complaining, so maybe you can guess what’s next: the people wish they were back in Egypt.  God tells Moses that God is inclined to just wipe everyone out and start all over again.  Moses manages to talk God down, but there will still be consequences: none of the people who doubted and tested God will get to set foot in the Promised Land.

As per usual for Numbers, the punishment seems pretty harsh, and I don’t think we need to apply it too readily to ourselves: there are plenty of other times in the Bible where people are afraid – think of the disciples, freaking out in a boat in a storm with a sleeping Jesus.  When Jesus wakes up, he’s disappointed that they’ve been so afraid – but he also calms the storm for them.  The God I believe in, the God we meet in Jesus, can handle our fear. But God also wants better for us than fear.

There is a difference between acknowledging the reality of a given situation, and fear that spirals and consumes us and makes our enemies out to be giants. Scoping out the reality of the situation is what the Israelite spies were instructed to do, so they could be prepared. We should be afraid enough of what this virus can do to care for our neighbor’s life and not be reckless with our own.  What God doesn’t want is for fear to get in the way of the promise of abundant life that God offers us, which is what it does in Numbers, for the people who no longer want to enter the land they’ve been journeying toward this whole time.

I know from experience, though, that it can be hard to discern the line between acknowledging reality and getting sucked into the fear spiral.  Is wiping down your groceries with Clorox taking reasonable precaution or giving in to fear? Is disinfecting the outside of your hand sanitizer bottle with hand sanitizer reasonable precaution or living in fear? (Asking for a friend.)

I am reasonably young, healthy, working, and able to mostly stay at home: surely there are others who have more right to their fear than I do, if fear is something that can be earned.  Still, what is there to say when the report comes back and the enemy really is formidable, and there’s no dismissing it or minimizing it?

“The Lord is with us,” Joshua tells the Israelites, “don’t be afraid.” And, the story goes, the people tried to stone him, which says something about how we try to hold on to our fear.

Not too long ago I read the same question in a letter to my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax. The letter writer had one parent with a terminal illness in an assisted living facility, and another parent calling in tears about what Covid-19 would mean for the first parent.  The letter writer worked in public health, and they wrote: “My parent wants me to tell them it’s going to be OK.  But what do I say when I look at the numbers all day long and it’s clear it’s probably not going to be OK?”

Carolyn said first you acknowledge the pain. But then, she says, you “promise what you can still promise: that you and your healthy parent will get through this together, emotionally if not physically; that you all love each other and always will. It [may not] all be OK, but in time, you as people and as a family will be OK.”[1]

I thought that there was an echo of the Gospel in that: that it is true that any one or many of my fears might come to pass; nothing is guaranteed, except that God is with us and loves us, and because of that, no matter what happens, we, as God’s people, will be OK.  Death is real, but it doesn’t get to win.  Death is powerful, but it’s not the biggest or most powerful thing there is.  There’s an empty tomb that promises us that.

I know from experience that the wilderness is a place where fears tend to find us, where they wrap their tentacles around us.  It’s the newness of the terrain, the uncertainty of how long it’s all going to last, the provision that comes only day to day.  The wilderness makes our enemies out to be giants, and they only get bigger each time we rehash the story.

But God wants more for us than fear. The wilderness is also a place where God leads us, and loves us, and where we learn to trust, little by little, that God is bigger than the things of which we are afraid.

I, for one, am trying to remember that.


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