How do you develop trust when all you have known is abuse?
How do you accept kindness when all you have experienced is cruelty?
How do you receive love when all you have known is domination?
How do you live in freedom when all you have known is slavery?
These deeper struggles churn within the hearts of the Israelites as they journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai desert. Their constant complaining has worn out Moses and Aaron, who day by day seek to manage their needs in an arid, hostile climate. God keeps showing up for them, and Moses and Aaron keep leading them, but it is never enough. They eat manna every morning; they dine on quail every evening—God remains true to the promise to provide for them. God even continues to appear in the pillar of cloud and fire to lead them toward Sinai—what more do they need?
Apparently, they need more—a lot more. The Israelites need a new identity because they have not figured out yet who they are when their lives are not structured by enslavement, domination, and abuse. They do not know how to trust God, much less any human leader because they have never trusted anyone before. They cannot rely on any human kindness, because in their experience, it is always self-serving, turning to violence at any moment. They cannot receive love and mercy from God because all they had received from Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods were control and domination. They do not know how to live in freedom because someone has always told them what, when, how, and where to do everything. Manna and quail are here today, but what about tomorrow? We may have food, but we do not have enough water! When is the other shoe going to drop? When is this all going to turn south? At least in Egypt they knew what to expect. That gave them a measure of control. Out in the wilderness, all bets are off. They do not who they are, they do not know what to think, they do not know how to act. So, they revert back to the one behavior that sustained them in Egypt: complaining about how bad things are. The Israelites are expert grumblers.
Out in the wilderness, away from Egypt, the Israelites are living in freedom, but they have an enslaved identity. This is why it can take years for women to leave violent men, for survivors of childhood abuse to seek help, for victims of any trauma to achieve healing, or even why people who have lost large amounts of weight often gain it back again—because without changing our identity and how we think about ourselves, we live with old thought patterns, even in new circumstances. We live in freedom but with an enslaved identity. It’s all about what happens in the 6” between our ears.
Whereas Israel’s survival in Egypt relied on distrust and suspicion; their survival in the wilderness demands trust in and reliance upon God—which is for them, a complete change in identity. In Israel’s case, it is the work of generations because what we do not transform, we transmit. We pass onto our children and to others our unresolved pain and trauma. It is painful work to unlearn the habits of domination and victimhood, the thought patterns of subjugation and powerlessness, and to replace them with habits of trust in God’s presence and provision, transforming hearts from skepticism to optimism and from suspicion to gratitude. God knows that such a change in identity requires time, patience, consistency, and steadfast love.
It can be hard to let go of a former identity, even a negative one, when we do not know who we are without it. As a pastor, I end up in a lot of groups where we are asked to introduce ourselves and share—it happens at conferences, continuing education events, Synod workshops and so on. It took about 5 years before I noticed that I stopped including “breast cancer survivor” as part of my introduction. “Breast cancer survivor” was a hard identity to let go because I did not want to stop being diligent about my health, nor did I want to lose the spiritual lessons I learned. But I also did not want people to expect too much of me, so I had adopted a victim-mentality, and I finally had to let go. I realized I had to stop clinging to cancer as part of my identity, as an excuse for limitation. Now, cancer is something that happened to me that is part of my story, but it does not define who I am—and God gave me patient, steadfast love and a good trauma therapist, until I got there.
God offers this patient steadfast love to Israel in the wilderness in the midst of their Massah which means “testing” and Meribah, which means “grumbling.”
First God goes ahead of Moses—which has been true every step of the way. God has been going ahead of them, but here, God again reminds Moses and the people that God is with them and goes before them. God instructs Moses to bring the elders with him to the rock at Horeb, so every tribe has a storyteller to convey the miracle and constancy of God’s presence and response. God instructs Moses to take his shepherd’s staff which God turned into a divine instrument when Moses was first called, proving God was with him in the Exodus. Now in the desert, God uses the staff to cause life-giving water to flow from a rock—a sacrament of God’s presence attached to an earthly gift that nourishes the Israelites in body and soul. Their thirst is quenched, and their identity begins to be reshaped by this God who transforms their ways of thinking by washing them through with streams in the desert.
God loves them, even while stuck in their complaints and grumbling, transforming them with visible signs of a God whose mercy and love they are learning trust. In the water that freely flowed from the rock they begin to learn that their identity is rooted in God! In the wilderness, their spiritual work is moving mentally from an enslaved people to a trusting nation, “Israel”—a people who has wrestled with God and prevailed—always and ultimately receiving their blessing, like water from a rock.
So, too, our identity is rooted in God—we are washed through and through in the sacrament of water that comes with God’s promise of life, forgiveness, and hope. Our identity is the same from the moment the water first splashed upon us in Baptism: “child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Child of God. That is our identity. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing else is needed.
We have all experienced some form of trauma, illness, or loss—and some of us, all three. But they do not need to have the final word over us. With the Israelites, our patient, steadfast and loving God invites us into healing, into letting go of old ways of thinking, anger, or being a victim, and washes us through and through with a love that says, “You are precious to me, I love you, and you are mine.” God quenches our thirst, body and soul, giving us love and a holy claim on our lives for eternity. Hearing these words is especially important now when past experiences of trauma may be triggered during this pandemic. I invite each of you to reach out to me for support—that’s one big advantage of having a pastor with some of my experiences—I have been in trauma therapy, I have had PTSD, I understand what it’s like. Dan and I both have mental illness and addiction in our family trees, and after nearly 60 years of ministry between us, you will not surprise me.
Moses was surrounded by elders and community as the water flowed from the rock and so are you—you are surrounded by love—the love of God, the love of your pastor, the love of this community which desires your best and highest good, and the love of the saints who have gone before us and built this church so you can have Christian community in this time and place. We are the storytellers for each other, always standing at the miracle of grace in Jesus Christ, reminding one another of Who and Whose we are. We are God’s church, baptized into one people for life together, and there is no pandemic or trauma, no election or point in history that can change what Christ has done for you, and what God is doing to bring life and salvation to all of us.
You are a child of God—live in this freedom—for this is your true identity.
Reflection Questions and Resources
Deeper struggles churn within the hearts of the Israelites as they journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai desert.
• Are there experiences from your past that continue to affect your ability to trust, receive love, kindness, and forgiveness?
The Israelites are expert grumblers.
• Last week we learned the importance of bringing our complaints to God. At what point does your healthy acknowledgement of hardship and grief turn into unhealthy grumbling?
• When do you need to turn your complaining into a willingness to change what you think and how you act?
It’s all about what happens in the 6” between our ears.
• In what area do you have an “enslaved identity” or need to let go of old thought patterns and identity that no longer serve you or apply to your life today?
Patterns of survival that help us get through a traumatic childhood, event, or timeframe, serve us well in crisis, but become problematic as a life pattern (e.g., control, distancing, suspicion, hyper-responsibility, anger, aggression, sarcasm, addiction, chaos). We engage in these to avoid feeling pain rather than working through it and releasing its power to determine our behavior.
• Can you identify behavior and thought patterns honed during a crisis that no longer help you experience connection to others, relationship with God, meaning, or joy?
• Psychologist affirm that what we do not transform we transmit—we pass on to others our own unresolved pain (see the list of some of our survival traits above).
• Can you identify pain from your parents’ experiences that still affects you? Can see you see how your traumatic experience and survival behaviors affect your children and/or other relationships? Read these related articles: Related Articles: How Childhood Trauma Can Affect Your Long-Term Health; Healing the Whole Family. This is why it takes 40 years for the Israelites in the wilderness to be reformed into a trusting relationship with God.
God knows that such a change in identity requires time, patience, consistency, and steadfast love—the law points out our sin, but only love and grace transform the heart, mind, and soul.
• What are visible ways God shows love to you today?
• Can you think of ways that God is present in daily life that you have not thought of before? It does not always have to be a big miracle, but small moments—any time you experience love, peace, or calm—a good nap, a bird singing, a hug, daily gifts of shelter, family, a true friend, tasty food, unconditional love from someone, even our pet, and many more.
• If you would like to explore recovery from a past or current trauma, read about EMDR therapy which helps release traumatic memory stored in the brain. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/. I am happy to share my experience of how it works, and a referral to a counselor skilled in trauma recovery. I am your #1 advocate for emotional, psychological and whole-soul healing!
Image: Moses Strikes the Rock, Chabad.org