Moses and Moaning

I listened to a talk about Moses in which his reluctance to heed God’s call was highlighted. The speaker suggested that five times Moses tried to evade God’s instruction, despite hearing from God direct at the bush that burned but was not consumed (in Exodus chs. 3-4):

  • 3:11 Moses said ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…’
  • 3:13 Moses said ‘If I go to the Israelites … what shall I say to them?’
  • 4:1 Moses answered ‘Suppose they do not believe me…’
  • 4:10 Moses said ‘I have never been eloquent…’
  • 4:13 Moses said ‘Please send someone else…’

The point the speaker made was that Moses moved ‘from weakness to strength’ when he did eventually respond to God. But I was much more struck by reflecting on the process by which Moses reached that point.

What sort of reaction might you expect or imagine from someone who has a strange experience – when they think that they hear the voice of God calling them to do something? I tend to think of two typical responses: either with complete obedience out of awe and wonder, in reverent fear of an almighty God; or with complete disdain/disbelief, perhaps dismissing the experience as a bad dream, or some such.

In that context, Moses’ response to God strikes me as being between those two. If he was so unwilling, why didn’t he just walk away? If he was so doubtful, why wasn’t he more dismissive? ‘Nah, sorry mate, you’ve got the wrong guy.’ [Moses exits stage left, whistling.]

Instead of that, the story tells of Moses entering into dialogue with God and expressing his doubts and his fears. God seems ok with that and goes along with the process. Only after these five hesitations does God begin to get a bit narked (see 4:14), and even then is willing to accede to Moses’ self-doubt in order to get him to do something rather than nothing. The narrative continues immediately with Moses getting on with it.

The way I read the story, it was necessary for Moses to engage with his misgivings and to express them openly to God, in order to bring him to the point of being able to respond obediently.

I think there is a broader principle here. If we conceive of responding to God as a black-and-white issue, we may be both missing out on something, and also being too hard on ourselves. If we think of ‘obedience’ as ‘either you do or you don’t – no in between’, we may well be setting the bar unreasonably high. More significantly, if we do not allow the space for dialogue with God about our genuine concerns and innate unwillingness, we might miss out on the very dialogue with God which will provide what we need to overcome them.

If obedience to God is a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’, then God becomes remote, cut off, and by implication, unconcerned with our realities. My sense is of a much more present and involved God, who so cares about the way I experience life – including how I experience God – that it rightly shapes and is fully part of my relating to God. Good, healthy relationships always depend on open and honest expression – warts and all.

Here’s a possible example from the New Testament. The Apostle Paul described a chronic affliction as a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and then wrote:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor. 12:8-9)

I’ve heard many lovely and encouraging things said about the phrase ‘My grace is sufficient for you’, but never anything about Paul appealing to the Lord about his affliction three times. Three times! Not once, not twice, but three times. And here’s what strikes me: that perhaps it was only because he appealed three times, that he got to hear the response ‘My grace is sufficient for you’.

Here is no simplistic ‘either God has answered prayer or has not’. Instead, there is the revelation of something God-glorifying and life-affirming that arises out of relationship – and relationship that consisted mainly of moaning!

This phenomenon is exactly what we find in many psalms. They often express negative feelings and even complaints about God. I’ve unpacked those ideas and offered ways of making use of them in Song for Suffering. Chapter 1 deals with the importance of open and honest expression to God in prayer; chapter 3 specifically considers the idea of complaining – moaning – at God.

I wonder what words of grace we might hear, when we moan openly and listen attentively?

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