Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stillness: Standing Back

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.” (Exodus 14.13)

The Obvious Option

Anyone who’s seen The Ten Commandments and then reads this verse can’t help but flash on Charlton Heston’s clenched jaw and fierce glare while delivering the line. He throws his arms into the air with the pomposity of a conductor—which is all too perfect, as an orchestra surges and the Red Sea parts behind him. The instruction and gesture appear premeditated, as though Moses had waited for the perfect moment to use them. But, God bless Cecil B. de Mille’s efforts to mold Moses into an epic hero, nothing could be further from the truth. If we could talk to Moses, he’d tell us he had no idea what he was saying or what to anticipate.

Moses has uncannily managed to sneak tens of thousands of slaves out of Egypt while their owners grieve the sudden loss of their eldest sons. By the time the Jews reach the Red Sea, news of their flight reaches Pharaoh’s attention. He heads into the desert to stop them and when they see his army barreling toward them, the Israelites lose it. There’s nowhere to go. If they turn back, they’ll be massacred. The sea’s too wide to swim. “Did you bring us out here because there weren’t enough plots in Egypt to bury all of us? We were better off where we were!” they shout at Moses. Their panic is piffle next to his, though. He’s lost control of his people. He doesn’t know what to say. Then his mind fixes on the obvious option. Moses orders the people to get a grip. “Stand firm and see the deliverance of the LORD!” What that is he can’t say. But his faith prompts him to add, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14.13-14)

Now Isn’t the Time

The King James Version translates Moses’s command as “Stand still,” which gets closer to what he means. If he were speaking to a modern crowd, he’d probably say, “Stand back”—or in military parlance, “Stand down.” The message is emphatically clear: not knowing what they can do at this point means now isn’t the time to do anything. The Israelites need to stop worrying and arguing and moving and thinking. They need to stand back and watch God work everything out as He sees fit. What other choice do they have, anyway? There are no Plans B, C, and D. He’s the only hope they have, and they need to calm down, stand back, and trust Him to work wonders on their behalf. He hasn’t brought them all this way to abandon them to Pharaoh’s army. He’ll fight for them; that’s His job. Their job is only to be still.

One of the hardest skills for us to master is standing back—practicing complete stillness when trouble bears down on us. Our human instincts offer two choices, flight or fight. With neither a viable option, knowing there’s nowhere to run and our adversaries can overpower us, we lose it. We start asking crazy questions and wishing we’d never ventured from the life we knew, forgetting it cost our freedom and self-respect. The moment we realize there’s nothing we can do is the moment we ascertain now isn’t the time to do anything. It’s time to stand back, get out of God’s way, and watch Him take our situation in hand. He’ll fight for us. We need only be still.

But But But But But

“But but but but but,” we say, considering how impossible the situation seems and how simple this sounds. Yet if we pause to think it through, we see how utterly sensible it is. Since there’s nothing we can do, we really have no alternative except placing our entire trust in God and what He can do. At best, all Moses knows is the Israelites have to get across the Red Sea. And frankly, that was going to pose an impossible problem even if Pharaoh’s army hadn’t pursued them. Left on their own, they very well could have died of starvation trying to find enough materials in the desert to construct seaworthy vessels. What’s more, since not one of them has any boatbuilding expertise or sailing experience, it’s probable they’d drown in spite of themselves.

Generally, when standing still becomes our sole option, it’s because strategies we’d devise in less dire circumstances would end in certain disaster. So often we don’t learn how little we know and how incapable we are until we go too far. And even then, that lesson doesn’t prevent us from trying a similar maneuver the next time we’re in trouble. If what we’re challenged with seems too hard to handle on our own, odds are it is too hard for us. By saving the Israelites from Pharaoh, God also saved them from themselves. He made a way where there was no way. Reaching a place where we have to stand still can be terrifying—until we see what’s actually taking place. God brings us to stillness to draw our attention away from our self-reliance so we can stand back and watch Him do what only He can.

Please comment: Has God proven His power in your life in a situation(s) where your only option was standing still and allowing Him to work?

When we feel trapped with no way of escape, we need only be still.

(Tomorrow: Stillness: Always)


Steven Overman said...

I am in "standing still" mode right now. And God shows up everywhere I look as I do. In people, in text messages of support and coaching, in the color of the leaves on the tree-lined streets of London heralding the season's change to the darker time, and burnishing it with gold. And of course, in your amazing blog.

I love your exegesis of the oft-told flight and plight, Tim. Moses has so much to offer us in this moment of enormous change, but I'd overlooked this particular marvel of basic wisdom. Thank you.

Tim said...

Steve, first I am so thrilled (and it's just so perfect) you're here. At the risk of embarrassing us both, I hope you know how much I love and admire you as my brother and colleague.

Knowing you as I do, I am confident in heart, spirit, and mind, God is indeed doing great things while you stand still. What you're seeing--and that rumbling of expectation you feel down in the depths--are early signs of seas parting. You've been on the sea-brink before; you know how He does things. Bit by bit, the signals start to coalesce into something beyond anything you imagined to become a thing greater than you ever anticipated.

Here are two favorite verses that always keep me encouraged when I'm in standing still mode:

"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43.19)

And, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Romans 11.33)

While we stand still, mysteries swirl around us and our eyes of faith see God's handiwork even in the most inscrutable of them. It's a magnificent sight to behold--as wondrously strange as the leaves changing colors before our eyes. (I love your imagery of "the season's change to the darker time, burnishing it with gold," BTW.)

I'm standing and watching with you, Steve, knowing the day is soon coming when we'll say, "It's the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes!"

Blessings always,

PS: No plans right now on the books, but the next time Walt and I are in Paris, we'll have to figure how we can get together.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent theme this week, Tim. You have reminded me of Psalm 46.10--I once saw a very moving little prayer/meditation based on this verse:
"Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
When I didn't have enough teachers this year I put it in God's hands--told Him it was His program--and then they fell out of the sky. :) Well, something like that.
It seems, actually, that much of my life these days can only be placed in God's hands.

Tim said...

I'd never seen that prayer, Missy. Thank you for it. It's so true and lovely--and easy to remember.

As i was writing this, I kept trying to avoid saying God "forces" us to the edge of the sea. (I need to go back and look at it; I probably said it anyway.) Some of us get uneasy attributing moments of hardship and helplessness to God. Yet I believe He often leads us to places where He's the only place we can turn--places like where you were with finding teachers.

I think putting our problems in God's hands is the key to stillness in this regard. I requires great discipline though. My pastor in California used to tell us if we give things to God, panic and take them back, panic because we've got them again and give them back to Him, and so on, eventually we'll drop the problem in the shuffle and wind up with a bigger mess than when we started. As your example points us, once we give Him our problem, best to let it be and let Him handle it.

Thanks so much for this.

Be still and blessed,