Lessons for Life Part 1: Facing Change, not with Fear but with Faith

July 9, 2022
Artist’s Depiction of the Spies Returning from Canaan
Artist’s Depiction of the Spies Returning from Canaan, Numbers 13:23-25.

In recent years we have been and continue to be challenged by profound and often highly controversial changes affecting every area of life, such as politics and security, society and health, beliefs and values, education and morals. The prevalence and influence of rampant and frequently inappropriate social media opinions, ‘woke culture’ debates and ‘political correctness’ certainly have not helped. 

We will be helped however when God Himself calls us to make specific changes in life by adopting perspectives that He gives us in His Word. The following thoughts on facing such changes are drawn from the Torah portion ‘Sh’lach’ or ‘Sh’lach Lecha’, which is read on 25 June this year in synagogues throughout the world. 

In my teaching I will be including a number of insights from Jewish rabbis and sages that shed some interesting light on this portion of the Torah. My focus in particular is to help readers learn from and be encouraged by what I like to call “lessons for life.”

A brief overview of these three chapters in Numbers—chapters 13-15—will I think be helpful. This is the familiar and tragic story of a major crisis in the desert—the mission of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan as a future home for the Israelite people, and events that followed their report. 

God instructs Moses to send twelve spies, one from each tribe, to discover what they can about Canaan. They are to report back on the quality of the land, the strength of the people who live there, and whether they live in fortified cities or out in the open. Moses also asks the spies to bring back some of the fruit of the land. 

After 40 days the spies return from their mission and report to all of the Israelites their findings. They report that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and they display samples of the wonderful fruit growing there.

They say that the people who live there are strong and their cities are fortified. But ten of them have a negative outlook, declaring that “all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature… giants…. and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

They strongly discourage the people from entering the land of Canaan. But the other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, disagree and encourage the people to enter the land, telling them that with faith in God they can overcome every obstacle.

Sadly, the people side with the ten spies who give the negative report, even talk about returning to Egypt, and seem ready to stone Caleb and Joshua on the spot. God is angry at the Israelites and threatens to destroy them, but Moses intercedes for them and pleads with God to spare them. And God relents. 

But because of their lack of faith, He tells Moses that the Israelites will wander in the desert for 40 years and only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will survive and take possession of the land.

Our Torah passage concludes with a few additional events and instructions, but we will note from among them only the command from God—in the final verses—that the Israelites wear tzitzit, or fringes, on the corners of their garments.

There are important issues that I want to address in this teaching.  The first is that change is inevitable in life.  This gives rise to the inevitable consequence that change confronts us with challenges.

One of the particular challenges that this story presents us with is the need for us to deal personally with the fear that so often accompanies the inevitability of change. It is then that we discover the truth that God is with us in the experience of change, and through faith in Him and His Word we may experience the exciting future that He has prepared for us. 

Change will come; your life may well be hard; your risks will be great…but your joy will be full!

This Torah portion is perhaps the oldest spy story in history, and it begins with the wandering Israelites moving closer to the land of Israel and encamping in the wilderness of Paran, in the N-E Sinai Peninsula.

It was time for them to move into the land that God had promised them, a promise reaffirmed by the Lord in His reference to “Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel.” The Israelites were now confronted with major change.

Several years ago I spent a week in Switzerland, known for mountains, chocolate, banks, army knives and watches. I learned something from Christian author Dick Innes about their watch-making history:

“From 1900 to 1967, the Swiss were the leading watchmakers in the world. In 1967, when digital technology was patented, the Swiss rejected it in favor of the traditional ball bearings, gears, and mainsprings they had been using to make watches for decades. 

“Unfortunately, however, the world was ready for this advance, and Seiko, a Japanese company, picked up the digital patent and became the leading watch manufacturer in the world almost overnight.

“Fifty thousand of the 67,000 Swiss watchmakers went out of business because they refused to embrace this new technology. It was not until years later that the Swiss caught up and regained their position in the marketplace with the creation of Swatch watches.”

Change is inevitable in life, and it means we must adapt! “Change is the law of life,” said John F. Kennedy, “and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Or as someone else has put it—“Behold the turtle; he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” 

By and large, of course, the future is unknown; and it seems too risky perhaps to stick our neck out and step into the unknown—so we…. hold back. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Luke 5:39—“And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’” 

Neither Caleb nor Joshua could convince the Israelites that change was going to be OK. The people were gripped by the utterly false appeal of an imagined security back in the very land from which they had escaped, the land where they had experienced grinding persecution! 

“Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” At least back there we know what to expect, they were saying. It might not be all that easy, but at least we know what’s there.

Amazing! 

But are we so very different when confronted with significant change? We find comfort in familiar ways and familiar places. We can delude ourselves, however, and comfort turns out to be our enemy: we miss God’s best. 

God’s people were terrified at the very thought of entering the land. Although it was clearly a land of much blessing (milk, honey, grapes), the people’s focus was on their own welfare and comfort rather than the call of God upon their lives. 

If you live totally for God, with the aim of pleasing and blessing Him, and bringing joy and blessing to others (and that pleases and blesses and brings great joy and glory to Him!), then know this: 

Change will come; your life may well be hard; your risks will be great (at times you will fail)—but your joy will be full! You were created for this—to take risks for the cause of God. 

Said the pioneer Christian missionary David Livingstone, “I’ll go anywhere as long as it’s forward.” To baulk at moving forward because it will thrust you into a season of change is to miss the joy that accompanies obedience to God. It’s to miss the joy of living for God!

There was a very cautious man
who never laughed or played;
He never risked, he never tried,
he never sang or prayed.
And when one day he passed away
his insurance was denied;
For since he never really lived
they claimed he never died!

You must get involved to have an impact. No one is impressed with the win-loss record of the referee. But getting involved in the game of life means you will face many unknowns and uncertainties and changes. 

All of our plans for tomorrow’s activities can be shattered by a thousand unknowns whether we stay at home, venture out onto the roads, or sail solo across the world’s oceans. It’s been well said that “you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” (French author—André Gide). 

Jessica Watson is an Australian sailor from my home community in Queensland who at the age of 16 became the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world—a wonderful achievement. She left Sydney on 18 October 2009, sailed eastbound over the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, eventually arriving back in Sydney just before her 17th birthday. 

The reason for her journey? “I wanted to inspire people. I hated being judged by my appearance and other people’s expectations of what a ‘little girl’ was capable of.” This from someone who first had to overcome her fear of high seas. 

My point simply is this. The risks and fears associated with change are built right into the very nature of our all too short lives. But the more you turn your back on the inevitable changes that life brings, the more you die a little inside…. and you’ll never inspire anyone.

Back to our Torah passage. A new chapter in their history faced the Israelites! Changes were inevitable—big changes. But God had given them some even bigger promises, and rock-solid assurances that He would be with them. 

This raises an interesting thought that we will pick up later when we consider the place of faith in God’s promises. You see, our need to check things out for ourselves may in fact reflect an underlying doubt that God really has everything in hand. Our trust in Him is shaky at best. 

When faced with significant change in our lives we are prone to want to have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. And so we organise everything ourselves—and we leave God out of the equation.

Resh Lakish, generally recognised as a giant of Torah study, interpreted the words “Sh’lach Lecha”, translated simply as “send” in Numbers 13:2, to mean that God gave Moses discretion over whether to send the spies.

“Sh’lach Lecha” actually means “send for yourself” or “send on your behalf.” Resh Lakish read Moses’ recollection of the matter in Deuteronomy 1:23 that “the plan pleased me well” to mean that agreeing to send the spies pleased Moses well—but not God. 

God would have known what would be the tragic outcome of the spies’ mission. Certainly He would have wanted the Israelites to advance into Canaan trusting totally in His promises and embracing the changes inevitable in moving forward.

Hadn’t God parted the Red Sea and delivered Israel from the bonds of slavery? He had rained manna from Heaven and poured water from a rock! Hadn’t He led them by fire and by cloud? 

God knows the end from the beginning. And God knows our hearts—intimately. We read in Jeremiah 17:9-10—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”

As a Christian, I for one am grateful that through Jesus God has shown Himself to be a forgiving Father who knows and understands my heart—all my follies, failures and fears—and still loves me! It seems that the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, however, simply could not overcome the fear barrier.

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Keith Buxton

Keith Buxton is the former National Director for Bridges for Peace Australia.

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