Except for the most abusive or negligent parents, we all want our children to be safe. When they are babies, we check their breathing at night. We buy outlet covers and baby gates in the early years, helmets and knee pads a few years later. We try to incorporate enough stranger danger warnings to make them alert without causing fear of everyone they don’t know. As much as we wish we could protect them from every physical harm, we wish we could bubble wrap their souls even more.
So I can understand the Israelites’ concern for their children in Numbers 13-14. After being miraculously led from Egypt, seeing God’s provision of food and water in the wilderness, receiving God’s law, and constructing the tabernacle, they were finally at the outskirts of the land long-promised to them by God.
But they didn’t want to go in.
A man from each tribe was sent to spy out the land. They came back with a mixed report. The land was good and fruitful. But the people in it were bigger, stronger, and more numerous than Israel.
Then the people “wept that night” and “grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” They feared they would be killed and their wives and children would become prey. Only Joshua and Caleb encouraged the people to go forward and trust God, who had already told them He’d given them the land. But the people responded by threatening to stone them.
God had enough. He is longsuffering and merciful. But these people had tried Him and refused to believe and obey Him ever since they left Egypt. God wanted to obliterate the people and start over with Moses.
Moses interceded for the people, and God pardoned them. But forgiveness doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. All the generation that complained and would not enter the promised land would die in the wilderness over the next forty years. Only Joshua, Caleb, their families, and the children of the current generation would enter in. “Your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness.” But, ultimately, the children would be the recipients of the promise that the adults rejected.
In our church’s Bible study time in the passage last Sunday, my husband pointed out something I had never thought of. The population of Israel would have numbered over a million by this time—some say over two million. If you subtract an estimated number of children, that still leaves tens of thousands of people to die in the next forty years. Forty years of wilderness wandering, no promised land, just death and destruction ahead. How depressing! My husband commented that the weight of this may have fueled some of the rebellions that occurred in the next few chapters.
But rebellion would only make a bad situation worse. Suppose you’re a parent in this situation. You realize you failed big time in not believing God and obeying Him. But your children that you were so afraid for will go in. The best thing repentant parents could do would be to pour everything into the time they have left with their children, teach them God’s ways, and teach them how to some day get along without their parents.
In some ways, that’s what we all have to do, isn’t it? Pour our lives into our children, teach them God’s ways, teach them to be responsible adults and to stand on their own two feet without us.
In our early married days, I remember a woman sharing during prayer meeting a need for her children and how God answered. She commented, “It’s one thing to trust God for my needs—it’s another thing to trust Him for my children’s.” It’s true: we’d much rather struggle with a need or loss or illness ourselves than see our children do so. But it’s through such things that we all grow and learn dependence on God.
When Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth ministered as missionaries in China in the early twentieth century, the Chinese were intensely suspicious of what they called “foreign devils”—basically anyone who was not Chinese. Plus sanitation was nearly unknown and disease ran rampant. So when Jonathan proposed to Rosalind that they take their children on a ministry tour around the country, Rosalind refused. Four of her children had died already. She could maintain a level of cleanliness in her own home. But out there, not knowing where they would be staying or where they could get food from village to village? It was too risky, especially adding the possibility of persecution.
Jonathan begged Rosalind to reconsider:
Rose, I am so sure this plan is of God, that I fear for the children if you refuse to obey His call. The safest place for you and the children is the path of duty. You think you can keep your children safe in our comfortable home in Changte, but God may have to show you you cannot. But He can and will keep the children if you trust Him and step out in faith (Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China, p. 157).
But she refused. So he left, alone.
The next day, their one-year-old baby became ill with dysentery, with no hope of recovery. She died a short while later.
Was God being vindictive? I don’t think so. In fact, Rosalind writes that as the baby was passing, Rosalind “seemed to apprehend in a strange and utterly new way the love of God—as a Father” (p. 159).
Humbled and softened, Rosalind determined to go with her husband. Years later, at a conference of women missionaries, some wives with similar fears to hers asked publicly if her children suffered as a result of their touring. She responded that none of them had picked up any infectious diseases or come to any harm while they toured. In fact, they’d had two more children during that time. She found she had more time to give them since she didn’t have her regular housework. “And, best of all, God has set His seal upon this plan of work by giving a harvest of souls everywhere we have gone” (Rosalind Goforth, Climbing, pp. 150-151).
Of course, we’re not guaranteed that our children won’t get sick or die while we’re following God. We all know of children who have died of cancer after years of prayer and treatment or teens who had died suddenly in car accidents or of unknown causes even though their parents were faithful followers. Sometimes God delivers by taking children on home to heaven. From our human perspective, that’s a loss. But from God’s viewpoint, He’s lovingly welcoming them home.
Missionary Timothy McKeown takes issue with the statement that the safest place is in God’s will:
After studying Scripture and ministering in this context for many years, I have felt compelled to modify this saying for my own use: “The most fulfilling, joyful, and peaceful place to be is in the center of God’s will.” But it is not necessarily the safest.
It seems to me that the Bible is full of examples of God’s people often—not occasionally—being placed in unsafe, uncomfortable, and dangerous situations. . . .
Most prayers in Scripture focus not on the personal safety and benefit of believers but on the power, majesty, testimony, and victory of God over his—and, of course, our—enemies. . . .
I do not advocate foolish and irresponsible “risk taking.” . . . However, biblical reality dictates that there are, indeed, times in which God will lead us into the valley of the shadow of death, where our prayer needs to be for faithfulness as reflections of his light and saltiness in this needy world.
I want to urge my fellow Christians to use extreme caution in allowing the infectious and deadly “health, wealth, prosperity, and personal comfort gospel” to become our motivator in seeking his will for our earthly lives. The Lord calls us to obedience in spite of the “costs”—not to personal comfort and safety! Oh, how I pray for the Lord of the Harvest to raise up more laborers to go into his fields no matter what the personal costs might be (Peace, If Not Safety).
Missionaries from one of our former church’s were once accused of child abuse for raising their kids in a primitive jungle setting. I loved their oldest daughter’s response here. “A mud hut does not an abusive environment make. . . . Yes, we missed out on many of the materialistic things this world has to offer. And for that we thank God often.”
God doesn’t promote recklessness. Parents and grandparents are supposed to try to keep children safe. But we have to admit that we are limited. We can’t lock them away in a tower for protection. We can’t raise them to be fearful of going forward. We can’t avoid God’s will due to possible risks. We have to do for our children as we do for ourselves: trust and obey. He has determined how long each person’s race will be. What matters most is not the length, but hearing His “Well done” at the end.
(I often link up with some of these bloggers)