Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Deadly Snakes and Oddly Answered Prayers

There's a story in the book of Numbers of the Israelites after they had been freed from Egypt. They're traveling through the wilderness, and (as is the theme for Numbers) they get cranky about what is going on. They're angry, bitter, impatient and even declared that they'd rather be in Egypt instead of the newfound freedom that they have.

God reacts in an interesting way, here's the story from Numbers 21: 4-9:
They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Now, all that bit about God sending the snakes to the Israelites aside; I'm interested in what happens in the 2nd part of the story.

The people (and Moses on their behalf) prayed to God for a very specific thing. They realized they had sinned, they were sorry, they were "repentant" as we like to say in Christianese, and they were begging for God's forgiveness. They prayed to God to take the snakes away.

The snakes stayed.

Could God have removed the snakes?

Oh sure.

Why not? He's God.

But he didn't.

Instead he had Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. This healed people when they looked at it...but it didn't stop them from getting bitten in the first place. God's solution did fix the problem...but it didn't stop the problem from happening.

It stopped people from dying. But it didn't remove the pain from happening in the first place.

Jesus references this passage in the Gospel of John. Interestingly enough, directly before the most famous verse in the Bible.

It's John 3:14-15
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
I believe that Jesus is very deliberate about the words that he says, the references that he makes, and the correlations between them. I think that it would be appropriate to look at the crucifixion in the same light as the incident with the snakes in the desert.

The solution God gave in Numbers stopped people from dying, but it didn't remove the snakes. The solution didn't remove the pain, it didn't immediately fix the problem. The Israelites still were bitten, still felt the pain...they just didn't die. The persevered through it.

The solution God gave in Jesus mirrors this story. We've attached this "1-stop-shop" mentality to belief in Jesus. That if you just believe that he died & was resurrected that everything is going to go great in your life.

You'll be fine, you won't get injured, you won't go bankrupt, you won't feel pain, you won't have heartache, you won't suffer, you'll end up with complete happiness, an awesome family, a dream job and ride off into the sunset towards a giant castle.

We've turned Jesus into a Disney movie.

But I don't believe that's an accurate picture. Even though you believe in Jesus, you're still going to get hurt.

You're still going to feel pain. There are still going to be consequences for actions, and a boatload of suffering in your life. Life is full of pain; physical, spiritual, emotional, & relational pain. And belief in Jesus isn't going to magically make it go away.

It was never supposed to.

Instead, Jesus gives you the strength to persevere through it. That if you do focus on him, he'll help you. He'll comfort you. He'll give you eternal life.

But he's not going to take away the snakes. 

Even if we're sorry.

Even if we're sincere.

Even if we're specifically praying for it.

Even if we get some big shot spiritual leader like Moses to pray for it too.

God is not going to take away the snakes.