I recently returned from a trip to Disney’s California Resort with my family. We had a fantastic time together going on rides, watching shows, eating treats and reminiscing about previous trips there. I love Disneyland, even if it is just the tiniest bit over-stimulating for me.
The only part I don’t like is this little issue I have with motion sickness (and I’m slightly in denial about it). Posted outside each thrill ride is a very clear warning listing all of the horrible things that could happen to people subjecting themselves to it. The signs clearly state that motion sickness will be “aggravated” by the rides. Every time I strapped myself in, I knew what the consequence would be, but I didn’t want to miss out on having fun with my family.
After one ride full of steep climbs, sudden drops, sharp turns and upside down loops, I decided to take a break. I needed to let my stomach and head find their equilibrium again. I waved happily from a bench as my husband and kids headed back for another round. After I’d recovered a few hours later, I got in line with them for yet another roller coaster and walked past yet another warning sign.
My stomach had finally settled, but I didn’t want to miss out on being with them. The familiar queasiness returned as soon as we made the first high-speed turn. At the end of the ride my upset stomach told me it was finished with thrills for the day. I listened to my body and steered clear of roller coasters after that.
Surprisingly, my little adventure with the roller coasters has a few parallels with Nehemiah chapter 9. Like me, the Israelites were given clear warnings, but they failed to heed them and doomed themselves to repeat the same “roller coaster ride” for much of their history. In Nehemiah 9, the Israelites prayed and reviewed the pattern of their people, starting with Abraham. They recognized the cycle that their ancestors followed from one generation to the next:
1) Receive God’s Blessing and Faithfulness
2) Rebel/ Fall Away / Face Hardship
3) Receive God’s Discipline and Repent
4) Reconcile with God/ Receive God’s Blessing
The people of Nehemiah’s time saw how they continued the cycle and realized God’s faithfulness in spite of their faithlessness. They confessed to God and sought His help:
“In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways. But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.” (Nehemiah 9:33-37)
The people were in “phase three” of their usual cycle and trying to move to “phase four” from my list above. Sadly, this would not be the last time the pattern would repeat. Among the many lessons we can learn from the Israelites, two stand out to me. First, they didn’t deal well with difficulty. Second, they didn’t remember God in their times of ease.
Dealing with Difficulty
Kelly Minter explains: “whenever the Israelites faced difficulty in the desert they chose to believe something false about God. Three of the biggies were that He had abandoned them, withheld from them, or wouldn’t meet their needs.” (Nehemiah: A Heart That Can Break p. 125).
Like the Israelites, we can make big mistakes when we view difficulties as unusual or when we expect to be spared from them. Hard things happen, but God is still good. In fact, He often uses hardships to refine our faith and draw us closer to Him. Jesus said it clearly, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
When we have established in our hearts and minds that God is good then the difficulties we face cause us to rely on Him instead of questioning Him. Similarly, when we believe God is sovereign, we trust Him to handle the injustices we experience. Even when we don’t understand the trials we face, we know He’ll use them mature us and refine our faith.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-9)
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Forgetting God in Times of Ease
Nehemiah 9:35 explains that even when the people were enjoying God’s “great goodness” and the “spacious and fertile land,” they failed to acknowledge Him.
Sometimes it is harder to remember to focus on God when life is easy and things are going well. We get lulled into thinking that the ease of our circumstances is our “new normal” or that we’ve done something right to deserve it. We can become complacent, apathetic and spiritually lazy. Our circumstantial peace should allow us time to study God’s word, grow with Him and serve Him. Yet sometimes when circumstances are smooth, we tend stray away and give our time and attention to other things. We take God’s goodness for granted and forget to use His blessings to benefit others and honor Him.
Jesus makes a strong point about this in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. In His story, a wealthy landowner calls his servants to him before leaving on a long journey. To each he gives a sum of money called a “talent.” Each one receives an amount “according to his ability.” To the first, he gives five talents, to the second two and to the last, one.
When the landowner returns, he discovers that the first and second servants have invested the talents wisely and have doubled their amounts. The landowner praises each of them similarly: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” (John 25:21).
The third servant has only the original one talent to return to his master. Instead of investing it, he simply dug a hole and hid it, fearing his master.
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’ “ (Matthew 25:26-29)
The servant given the smallest load to bear failed miserably. My Bible’s study notes put it this way: “The talents represent any kind of resource we are given. God gives us time, gifts, and other resources according to our abilities, and he expects us to invest them wisely until he returns. We are responsible to use well what God has given us. The issue is not how much we have, but how well we use what we have.” (Zondervan Life Application Bible 1991)
When life is going smoothly, it is the time to use our health, wealth, skills, experience, education and spiritual gifts to bless others and honor God. It is not the time to coast and live a life of ease and comfort, but a time to stretch, grow and help further the Kingdom of God.
Let’s choose not to be like the Israelites, continually cycling through obedience, rebellion, discipline and repentance. Getting caught in a pattern like that consumes energy without producing growth or maturity.
It’s a bit like my roller coaster experience. I knew what rides might make me sick, but I went on a few anyway hoping for a different outcome. I quickly realized that not heeding the posted warnings would ruin my day. My body was telling me to stop and if I ignored it, I would have been too sick to enjoy the day at all. I had to break the cycle. Once I did, my stomach settled and I had a great time instead of muscling through more hours of nausea.
If you find yourself stuck in your own version of “the cycle,” be encouraged. You are not the only one! When you’re headed for that roller coaster you know you shouldn’t be riding, pray and ask God to help you step out of line. Click on the link below to hear Josh Wilson’s song “Know By Now.” It will remind you of God’s sovereignty, faithfulness and patience with us in spite of our failings.