At the command of the Lord the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the Lord and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the Lord they remained in camp; then according to the command of the Lord they set out. And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. At the command of the Lord they camped, and at the command of the Lord they set out. They kept the charge of the Lord, at the command of the Lord by Moses. Numbers 9:18-23
In our culture today, the epitome of success is the driven person who is the “go-getter” who dreams big dreams and sets out to climb every mountain to make them real. We are taught from a young age that we can do anything we put our minds to.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“We need a plan for work and we need to work the plan.”
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
Whole industries of motivation and coaching are built around telling us that we are the powerful, self-motivated centers of the universe. It is aspirational, captivating and sells lots of books and self-help programs, but there is (at least) one problem with this teaching:
It. Isn’t. True.
In fact, it is wicked in its deception. The Great Lie of our age is that we are not accountable to anyone but ourselves, and this is followed quickly by a second lie: we can be and do whatever we want.
Any thoughts to the contrary are scorned as the self-limiting whispers of a coward.
So when I read a story like the one above from Numbers 9, I wonder.
I wonder what it was like, every day, to wake up as an Israelite on the Sinai peninsula and look to a cloud to see what my day would hold. What must it have been like to subordinate all of one’s own daily desires and plans to the daily activities of God?
The entire nation’s tempo was set by the leadings of God, as indicated by the activity of His presence, manifest in a shining cloud that rested over the large tent they called, the tabernacle.
When the cloud moved, they moved. When it stopped, they stopped.
Every day. Every month.
Were they restless with this? Did they ever wrestle with their own ideas of direction, pace or purpose? Did it ever begin to make sense and feel . . . natural? Was it a topic of talk at supper or the teasing thoughts in a sleepless night?
Lots of grumbling with these people, and we know that they made mistakes in their obedience and understanding of the new relationship with God. But the historical record indicates that they fell in line and they followed God’s leadings.
In between the camp movements, they waited and watched and waited some more.
And it seems that in between the regular “check-ins” with God, the people were learning an important, life-giving lesson: they were learning that they are not the center of the universe. Their ways were not the better ways. God, Himself, was the way.
He was regaining His rightful role as the Initiator in their lives, the One who sets their direction, pace and purpose: the Provider, the One who makes their lives happen.
He was teaching them the Great Sequence. When He moved, they moved. When He was still, they rested.
Like all great leaders, He goes first.
I am not in the Sinai today, and the tabernacle with its shining cloud are long gone. But my need for direction and purpose remains. His Spirit remains, and the Great Sequence still stands to mark not the coward, but the wise.
I think God wants me to pay attention to this sequence. He wants me to know that I can trust Him to be the Great Initiator in my days. He wants me to look to Him daily for the direction, pace and purpose of my life, to see where He is moving or resting.
He wants to take me on a sure and certain journey through the mapless wilderness of the 21rst century.
He still leads, and wherever He leads, He wants me to be there fully, with all my heart.
Where are you going?
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Matthew 6:31-33 (emphasis added.)