Only If God Is With Us
“We must embrace God’s will for Hong Kong through God’s way.”
In early 2019 my father passed away after a short and sudden battle with liver cancer. I struggled to reconcile my pain in losing my father with my faith in a good and caring God. I had worked hard to build his church. I had sacrificed time and even some close relationships to be a pastor. Like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), I was filled with resentment. I had slaved away all these years. Where now was the father’s blessing? Why wasn’t God on my side?
Like the Israelites ready to enter the Promised Land, I found myself defeated by giants—in my case the giants of disease and premature death. I could have repented for my lack of faith. I could have reached for the grapes of God’s promise. I didn’t face my fears. I just worked harder to be a good pastor, and hoped no one would notice that I was just going through the motions. My heart was broken, but I would just work that much harder.
On the far side of Jordan, the Israelites are angry and disillusioned. They are unwilling to face the giants in the land and the giant of fear inside themselves. On the verge of mutiny, they are ready to kill Moses and go back to slavery in Egypt.
God is ready to destroy these people and build a new nation with people like Moses, Caleb and Joshua (Numbers 14:12). Moses begs God to forgive the people for their rebellion. “What will the Egyptians say? With signs and wonders you delivered your people from slavery. You took them through the wilderness, defeating their enemies along the way. But you were unable to bring them to the Promised Land!”
God listened to Moses and forgave Israel, but the 10 spies who returned with a bad report are struck down with a plague and die. When Israel hears of this a new fear sweeps over them. They understand they have sinned, and in the hopes of winning God back to their side they decide to take matters into their own hands and enter the Promised Land. “We sinned, but now we’re ready” (v 40). They think that their right actions will repair their wrong hearts. They think they can achieve with their strength what could only be achieved through their humility. They naively assume that as long as they act in the will of God then their relationship with God will be repaired.
That was me a couple of years ago after my father died. I redoubled my efforts as a pastor. Even though I was disillusioned with God, I would work even harder. I would preach better sermons. I would be a better pastor. I would prove to God that I could still do the things he had anointed me to do. Since God didn’t defeat the giant of cancer, I would just have to power ahead on my own. Even though I couldn’t tackle the giant of fear inside me, I would face the giants outside. My Christian activity would have to bring my deliverance since I couldn’t trust God to be my saviour.
Moses knows the people have not faced their fear and disobedience. And now they want to enter the land on their own, without listening to God or to Moses. “Why are you disobeying the LORD’S command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies.” (vs 41-42). God was not ready for the people to attack their enemies in Canaan. And the Israelites would have known this if they had been in right relationship with God.
They know they have upset God, and in their guilt they try to win back God’s favour by acting on what they know is God’s will. They think that if they just do God’s will, God will be happy with them and grant them success. They are trying to buy God’s favour through their actions. But instead they encountered great defeat (vs 44-45). They had not fully repented from their self-centred rebellion. They still wanted to do their own thing, independent of God and Moses.
It is not our activity that creates our relationship with God. It is our relationship with God that directs and empowers our activity. We must not allow our activity for God to undermine our relationship with God. If it does, like Israel, we will run ahead of God and position ourselves and our community for defeat.
We cannot do God’s will our way and hope to have God’s blessing. It is God’s will in God’s way. It is in relationship with God that we come to understand not just his will but also the way in which he is working to accomplish this will amongst us. And when we see that, we respond by partnering with God in his will, his way. If we don’t, we will be defeated. Indeed, when we make a futile attempt in the flesh to accomplish what we have already rejected by faith, it will always end in defeat.
May I humbly suggest that this is the great danger for the church in Hong Kong in this important time. Hong Kong is God’s promised land, flowing with milk and honey. Even in the midst of some massive giants, the land is still exceedingly good. We must have a different spirit to stand up and stand out in this time, offering the gospel with courage and faithfulness. But this will only happen if we make our relationship with God more central than ever before. We must embrace God’s will for Hong Kong through God’s way. And we will only come to know this way if we are tied closer and closer in intimacy with him. Our authority comes from an always deepening relationship with Christ. In the words Moses said to God near the beginning of the journey to the Promised Land, “Only if you are with us!” (Exodus 33:15)
Two years ago I was struggling with bitterness toward God. I was acting like a Christian even though I was distant from God. During the months of a sabbatical I wrestled with God. I attended different churches but had little desire to connect with God. But then God began meeting me in smaller and larger ways. Perhaps most dramatically he touched me through an old rancher in the United States who told me how he had found God’s grace in the midst of the most devastating experience of his life—his wife’s suicide.
And I remembered the gracious words of a mentor as I was leaving Hong Kong. “Do you know how the Bible ends?” he asked. Yes, I replied, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!” The Bible concludes with an invitation: ‘Come, Lord Jesus’. An invitation to a life changing relationship with the one who embraced our sin and suffering, our violence and injustice. “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!”
Out of my struggle and that simple invitation came a healing and transformation that has given me a Caleb spirit for Hong Kong in this hour. I faced my fear and my sin. I finally said, “Come Lord Jesus!” And he came with incredible grace and power to forgive my rebellion and transform me from the inside out. I am no longer afraid. I am full of hope. Because Jesus is with me, with us.
The Israelites failed to listen to God before marching into battle, and they were defeated in the very land God was gifting to them. God was not with them, because they were not with God. May we not make the same mistake in the land God is gifting to us. Let us rekindle our relationship with God, embracing his presence in ourselves, in our churches and in our city.
Come Lord Jesus! May our heart’s cry be like Moses, “Only if God is with us!”