So he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
This wonderfully challenging verse occurs within the context of Moses drawing water from the rock. This simple fact has always struck me as significant. I cannot help thinking of the Living Water and of God as our Rock. The first, of course, talks of life. The second speaks of God’s faithfulness, security, and eternal nature. Add to this the fact that Jesus – our Living Water – came out of or is the Son of our God who is our Rock, it all fits together in a profound way. But the challenge lies in the matter of testing God and quarrelling with Him. It’s a sobering contradiction to those other wonderful truths and so highlights the futility of our murmuring against Him who gives us life and is eternally faithful – even when circumstances suggest the opposite. It also reminds us that all of us fall prey to this same foolishness.
Testing God comes from human expectations and weakness.
It’s a sad reality that our expectations usually define our weaknesses. Right now, I sit here with my spiritual hand up. When I think back on my life, I’m humbled by the number of times I dared to quarrel with Him, testing God in my trials and difficulties. The real truth was, most of them were created – or at least helped along – by my own weaknesses and wrong decisions. For many years, I lived with an expectation of God that was the product of my own weakness. I decided He needed to do things in such a way that my perceived needs were met. At the same time, however, I lacked the faith in the Rock. It was a case of my demands vs the purposes of God. I needed to be liberated, justified, and restored on my own terms. When He didn’t comply, I responded with quarrelling.
I am immeasurably grateful for His grace, mercy, and patience. So much had happened in my life that was tragic, unfair, unjust, and simply cruel, I somehow felt that I deserved some divine acknowledgement. If God truly loved me, He would provide abundant redress for all I had suffered. God does want to restore and heal, but it’s seldom along the lines that we expect. I struggled for years to understand that He first wants to change us. Forgiveness seemed unreasonable, irrational, and unfair. Through it all, I tested God, trying His patience and quarrelling incessantly with Him. Until I fully received forgiveness, I went through a barren time of cringing when I recalled my accusations against Him. I also know that I’m human, not exceptional. My weakness is shared by many. We all have a moment when we rail against and question God when things don’t go our way.
Testing God reveals our ignorance and lack of faith.
It’s an amazing truth that we can walk with God for years and still remain ignorant of who He is and of His purposes. This is partly due to erroneous teaching – like the ‘name it and claim it’ or ‘prosperity’ gospels – which create the perception that God is some kind of supernatural vending machine for our self-gratification. Another reason is incomplete teaching. It’s a tragic reality that true, one-one-one discipleship is rare, especially in many bigger churches. Believers focus more on what they get out of the kingdom that what they give into it. Whatever the reason, wrong perceptions mean that we spend more time testing God than we do trusting Him. What’s important here is that we are responsible for our own ignorance. Our pastor is accountable to God for what he teaches. But, at the same time, we are accountable for what we learn or don’t learn.
Consider these Israelites for a moment. God delivered them from the judgement upon the first born of Egypt. He parted the Red Sea and swept away the pursuing vengeful armies of Pharaoh. Thereafter, He led them by pillars of cloud and fire, His presence and guidance shrouded but present and visible. Yet one obstacle later, they are quarrelling with God and testing His patience by questioning His presence and faithfulness. We can very smugly understand Moses’ impatience with them. But how are we different? It takes the proverbial to hit the fan, or things to get a little rough, and we’re yodelling our protest with the best of them. Something has gone wrong and God’s to blame. If He truly loved us, He wouldn’t allow this to happen. We reveal our ignorance of the completeness of I AM and the inherent arrogance of self. God is somehow always to blame.
Testing God and His supernatural response.
In this particular situation, God was merciful. He instructed Moses to strike the rock, which brought forth water for them to drink. This is a telling supernatural response. It reveals His infinite patience and how He teaches us. By His grace, He met their need. In retrospect, however, His patience did not last forever. We need to remind ourselves, with hindsight, that He did not allow that rebellious generation to enter the promised land. They finally tried His patience one time to many. The message here is that testing God challenges who and what He is. It casts doubt on His power, love, mercy, grace, provision, protection… There aren’t enough words to fully define the I AM. When we quarrel and accuse Him of uncaring neglect, He will always respond supernaturally, but it may not always be what we expect or desire.
He will, however, reveal our ignorance and weakness. God does not have to prove Himself to us. I AM that I AM is – or should be – sufficient. This was the name by which He revealed Himself to them. It means He is all, and that all is everything we ever need. He is able to supernaturally supply every single human need. At Massah (which means testing) and Meribah (which means quarrelling or strife), God chose to reveal two significant truths. The first was that He is the giver of life. Water is the symbol of life. It is the one thing every created thing cannot do without. The second was His faithfulness. He is the Rock that can never be broken, shaken, or defeated. The very clear message was not that they could manipulate Him into aiding them. It was that they should have had faith rather than testing God.
Testing God reveals our lack of faith.
By this time, it’s perfectly reasonable that God should have expected faith from His people. His supernatural deliverance on more than one occasion was more than sufficient proof. Like every single one of us, the Israelites had one fundamental problem – self. While things were going well and God was moving in amazing ways, faith was easy. When things are going well, we convince ourselves that God is working and our faith is strong. The problem, though, is that faith only operates when it’s needed. When we have visible evidence, we have no need of faith. While we might perhaps have no evidence in our own lives of the supernatural intervention of God, it exists in the lives of others. If all else fails, we have a rich resource in every single book of the Bible. If anything, we have less excuse than the Israelites for testing God.
Today’s verse adds to our understanding of what testing God means. It’s revealed through the words ‘is He among us or not?’ Our fundamental error is questioning the faithful, supernatural presence of God. When things go wrong, we immediately assume that He has withdrawn from us. Yet His Word says: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you (Isaiah 43:2). It does not say the trials and difficulties will not happen. We are told that He will be with us – among us – when they do happen. Ultimately, this same question kept them from the promised land. They lost faith in the truth that God would be with them when they faced the giants.
Testing God is avoided by thanking God.
Because faith – or rather, our lack of it – is a central issue, thanksgiving is the best way to avoid offending God. Testing God reveals a lack of faith but thanking God builds faith. It’s a simple spiritual fact that when focus on what He has already done with thanksgiving, we will find ourselves believing for His daily presence and supernatural intervention. But it’s also important to be alert and to recognise when we slide into quarrelling with God. The moment we question His presence is the moment we need to begin to give thanks. It requires discipline because human nature somehow always looks for the negative. A heart that give thanks daily as a routine way of life will find it easier to avoid and escape the dangerous place of testing God. Expectant faith and thanksgiving is our way to dodge the dangers of Massah and Meribah.
Lord, we acknowledge how like the Israelites we are – a ‘rebellious and stiff-necked people’ who too easily quarrel against You and test Your patience. We choose today to become a people of thanksgiving, to keep Your grace, mercy, love, and faithfulness before us and to remind ourselves daily of Your blessings and power that have worked in our lives. Help us to guard our thoughts and our lips and especially in challenging times. Give us the grace to praise You and glorify You through thanksgiving in every situation.