BY Stephen A. Treash
`People are getting very diet conscious these days. Many, for example, try to minimize their intake of cholesterolóbad cholesterol in particular. Bad cholesterol is that stuff that sticks on to the walls of our arteries and becomes especially dangerous when it hardens those arteries that are connected to the heart.
The Bible speaks a lot about the heart. It uses the heart as a metaphor to describe that center of our being, that pulsating core of who we are. The Bible even talks about a spiritual disease called the hardened heart. It says that there is such a thing as a spiritually bad cholesterol, which can choke to death our relationship with God.
To find out what this bad cholesterol in the spiritual world is all about, letís look at our text in Hebrews 3. This passage starts by quoting Psalm 95 in verses 7-11:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ìTheir hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.î So I declared on oath in my anger, ìThey shall never enter my rest.î
Now, if you look at Psalm 95:7-11, you would find that this is an almost verbatim quote, except that in Psalm 95, the Psalmist names the place where this rebellion took placeóMeribah and Massah, two Hebrew names for one place. And thatís enough to help us pinpoint where this took place, spiritually as well as geographically.
So, letís go back to Exodus 17 and find out what was the event that caused the Israelitesí hardness of heart. We read in verses 1-7:
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, ìGive us water to drink.î
Moses replied, ìWhy do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?î
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ìWhy did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?î
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ìWhat am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.î
The Lord answered Moses, ìWalk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.î So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, ìIs the Lord among us or not?î
The sequence. This passage tells us that we can develop a hard heart when first there is a legitimate need, then a set of circumstances that call into question Godís promises and His character, and finally a response.
A hard heart begins with a need. What was the need in this case? The need was drinking water. They were thirsty. Could God blame the Israelites for being thirsty? No, He created mankind with a need for water to survive. God didnít blame them for the need that they had at this time.
What was the circumstance that called into question Godís promises and His character? It was the fact that there was no water for miles. There was no water around anywhere to be seen. Could they be blamed for observing that there wasnít any water nearby? No, thereís no glory to God when Godís people engage in a collective expression of denial. ìAre you thirsty?î ìNo, Iím not thirsty!î Denying that a hostile circumstance exists, when it does, brings no glory to God.
The response. What was the problem? The problem was their reaction. For every time there is a need and a set of circumstances that calls into question Godís promises, there is an opportunity for the ingestion of bad cholesterol. The bad cholesterol here is seen in their response.
How did they respond? First, they began to quarrel. They quarreled with Moses and took on a combative attitude. You know, that first Hebrew word for the place where they were was Massah, which is translated directly as ìquarrelî. But if we look a little deeper, weíd find that a more suitable translation would be ìdemandî. They were demanding water.
That place was also called Meribah, which means test. Again, if we look beyond the first layer of that Hebrew word, weíll find that it actually means proof. Thatís why those two names go together. They were demanding proof. ìGod, You say that You are with us, prove it! You say that You love us, prove it! You say that You can meet all our needs, prove it!î
Unbelief. As soon as Godís people stop believing, they start demanding proof. Likewise, whenever there is a demand for proof, there is unbelief. And thatís the bad spiritual cholesterol that chokes oneís relationship with God.
If thereís any doubt about that, turn back to Hebrew 3 and start now with verse 12:And now skip down to verse 19:
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sinís deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.That was the problem. They had a bad case of unbelief. What is it that they didnít believe? The answer is found at the end of the Exodus passage weíve just read. It says there that they were asking, ìIs the Lord among us or not?î They didnít believe Godís promise that He would never leave them nor forsake them.
When the people of God begin to doubt the trustworthiness of what God says about Himself, thatís serious. Why? Because thatís where the whole salvation experience startsóbelieving that God is who He says He is. God has revealed Himself through Jesus. God has revealed Himself through the word, and becoming one of His people is saying, ìGod, I take you at your word. You are who You say You are.î
Constant testing. You say, ìAmen. Thatís what I believe.î But not so fast. You see, we live in a world where every day thereís a set of circumstances that calls into question Godís promises to us.
If you worry, you are in unbelief, according to the Bible, because Jesus says, ìDo not worry. God will care for you.î Whenever we complain, we are entering into unbelief because God has told us that He is going to guide us in faithfulness.
Those are small, you say. But thatís the way bad cholesterol works. A worry here, a little complain there, and our unbelief begins to accumulate.
Bigger Ones. There are those big ones, too. I am talking about the death of a loved one, when you cry out, ìGod, why?î and thereís no answer. Iím talking about the child born with a handicap. You cry, ìLord, take it away,î and thereís no response. Or maybe there is a medical problem that threatens your life. You keep praying, ìFather, take it away,î and it seems as though God has totally forgotten you.
When all of Godís promises seem to be called into question, thatís the time when the danger of bad cholesterol choking off our very relationship with God is the greatest. What can we do in these circumstances? Let me suggest three things that we can do.
1. Know your real need. The Israelites did not really know what was their need. They just demanded, ìWe want water!î True, their immediate need was thirst; but what they really needed was the faith of knowing that in Godís perfect timing, their thirst would be quenched. What they should have asked for was the grace of God that would help them endure their thirst in the meantime.
So many of us say, ìIím tired of my job. Iím tired of the people I work with. Iím dissatisfied with my boss. I need a new job.î But if we remember that God is the Lord who controls all aspects of our lives, then we know that what we really need is contentment.
2. Remain close to God. Even in the midst of pain, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, remain receptive. A hardened heart is one that is in essence unreceptive.
Donít shut God out. Pray to Him. Tell Him whatís hurting you. He wants to share your pain with you. When Jesus showed up at the funeral of His good friend Lazarus, He wept.
Donít shut out Godís word. The Bible is that which the Holy Spirit uses to comfort and encourage you.
And donít shut out His people. So many of Godís promises come through His body, the body of believers. Fellowship with mature Christians.
3. Choose the challenge. You know, the Israelites were ready to die. ìO, you led us here and we are just going to die.î We do the same thing. When serious hardship enters our life, we tend to give up and die.
The people that keep a soft heart in the midst of pain and hardship are those who said to themselves long ago, ìI know something will come along to challenge my faith, because faith isnít faith until itís challenged.î
Remember Job? Remember what was the background of all that physical suffering that Job went through? A spiritual truth, that there was a challenge. Satan came up to God and said, ìYou know what? Nobody can love you for who you are. You know that Job, he loves you only because you give him good things.î And God says, ìYouíre wrong. If you take everything away, Job would still love me. Heíll still trust me.î And Satan says, ìI am going to do just that and prove how wrong you are.î
That was the way with Job. And there behind Jobís suffering was a spiritual dynamic. Something happened, a challenge and because Job didnít crumble, Satan was toppled. And somewhere behind our pain, somewhere behind our disappointment is Godís glory in the balance. Donít just give up. Choose the challenge of facing the foe head-on and still loving God.
Conclusion. Our faith is not seen in the good times. Itís seen in the hard times that come our way. Faith is invisible except during pain.
Beware the hardness of heart. Perhaps you have a problem that defies solution. And all of Godís promises seem to be called into question. For some of you, although things are moving along smoothly, a major disappointment or tragedy may yet be awaiting you, and then your faith will be challenged like it has never been challenged before. You say you know God. You say you believe God now. What will you say then?
There will come a time when bad cholesterol will be served on your plateóa chance for you to question everything about God, about who He is, about His love, about His care and about His presence in your life. Believe! He is faithful. He loves you. He says in His word, ìI will be there, even in the midst of those circumstances that call into question everything Iíve said.î And today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. o
Dr. Stephen A. Treash is the associate pastor of Black Rock Congregational Church, 3685 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT 06430.
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