Provoking God: The Unconscious Sin of Believers
The dictionary defines “provoke” thusly: to anger, enrage, exasperate, or vex; to stir up, arouse, call forth or incite. What sane believer with even a modicum of self-awareness would ever consider any attitude, speech or behavior that even bordered on the possibility of eliciting such a response from God? Who among us would knowingly conduct ourselves in such a manner as to arouse and call forth the anger of almighty God?
Truthfully, I don’t believe any lucid follower of Christ would consciously commit such an insane act. However, I also believe that Christians are absolutely capable and guilty of provoking the Lord on a regular regimen throughout their walk with God. It goes on without fanfare and awareness and seemingly with impunity throughout the daily intercourse of the believer’s life. It is basically the behavior of persons who fail to assess the commitments of God to his people and his existential investment in their daily lives.
One of the best pictures of this concept of provoking God comes from the Old Testament narrative which depicts Israel’s story at the point where they are searching out and assessing the Promised Land following approximately two months wandering in the wilderness. Moses had selected a representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to enter the land of Canaan and ascertain its values and challenges. We recall from this familiar story the results of their reconnoitering the land. That Canaan was truly a lush land of abundant fruitfulness was unquestioned. However, it was also discovered that the cities were well fortified and that many of the people there were of giant stature. Of the twelve spies bringing back an account on the land, ten brought a disparaging report discouraging the children of Israel while two, Joshua and Caleb, rendered a faithful report calling on the people to trust the promises of God, to take God at his word.
We need to bear in mind that at the point of spying out the land Israel had already begun to build a record with God of his faithfulness in delivering and sustaining his people through great trial and tribulation. They had already experienced the miraculous Red Sea deliverance and the provision for water and food in the wilderness. Now the nation stood once again at the precipice of a great challenge and a great hope. Once again they would be called upon to decide whether God was—anthropomorphically speaking—a man of his word. Consider here that a person’s word is a reflection of that person’s character. To doubt the word of someone is to doubt or cast aspersions on that person’s character and integrity. Doubting the word of someone with whom one had no history or record of performance is one thing. Doubting the word of one who has demonstrated culpable integrity and results is particularly egregious.
Scripture states that ten of the spies brought an “evil report” of the land. The Hebrew rendering of this statement connotes far more than their report being something that was just bad or sinful. It literally means “slander” and “calumny.” The language of the Hebrew text literally means these spies intentionally spread false and malicious statements among the Hebrew children intended to damage the reputation of God. As the nation stood at the threshold of all God promised to them, the discouraging report of the ten spies infamously announced to Israel, “Don’t believe God; he is not to be trusted.” The Bible states that as a result of their evil report, the children of Israel became stubborn and obstinate, that they murmured and complained. They wept and cried, lamenting that they had ever left Egypt. As a consequence of their sinful behavior, the ten spies “Died by the plague before the Lord.”
We next turn our focus to God’s answer to Israel’s faithless response to all he called them to and miraculously made available to them. In Numbers 14:11 we read this—“And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have showed among them?” The optimum word here is “provoke.” For all their doubt, unbelief and outright rebellion against the Lord, they are accused of provoking the Lord.
This is another one of those Hebrew terms pregnant with powerful meaning. In surveying other English renderings of this term, you will find such words as reject, spurn, contemn, and despise serving in place of the word provoke. Strong’s Hebrew lexicon defines “provoke” thusly—to deride, to despise, to reject with contempt and derision. This is what Israel stood guilty of when they chose to accept the godless report of the ten spies concerning Canaan. Rather than standing firm on God’s past performances, his already fulfilled promises and his very nature and character, they heard only the slanderous false claims of the ten and responded accordingly.
When we read an account such as this, it is hard to visualize ourselves being guilty of this type of horrific behavior. Surely believers today couldn’t be guilty of deriding, despising and rejecting God while holding him in contempt. Part of the reason we think this way is because we over-focus on the historical particulars involved rather than seeing the behavior in a more generic manner. It is much like how many Christians perceive idolatry. They read the Old Testament accounts or idols fashioned from stone, wood or some kind of metal and rationalize that they are not guilty of such behavior. However, idolatry isn’t principally about an object but rather about the condition of one’s heart. The object of one’s devotion can consist of many different forms. We can idolize people or things. We can even worship ideas or concepts. There is even such a thing as self-worship. Idol worship ultimately is defined by what in our hearts is illegitimately replacing God.
In studying this account of Israel’s apostasy we have to discover what it is in principle that is transpiring. What is at the root of why Israel reacted as they did to the Canaan report and why did they choose to adopt the evil report of the ten rather than accept the faithful report of Joshua and Caleb? I believe we can identify the fundamental sin in this narrative along with its underlying factors and understand how the same thing can be just as true of believers today as it was in the former nation of Israel. The people’s principal failure in this story lies in their unbelief—at root here is their choosing not to believe God. The Lord had promised Israel that he would precede them in the land and fight for them. He told them that everywhere their foot stepped they would inherit. He promised them a land flowing with milk and honey. Interestingly, they based their belief on what they could perceive in the natural rather than on what God told them. They agreed that it was surely a rich land but faltered in fear at the fortified cities and giants.
It is important to note here that where the real issue of unbelief raises its ugly head is usually not concerning the larger issues such as doctrinal assent but rather in the everyday nitty-gritty essence of our faith walk with God. Because the Christian faith is dynamic and growing by nature, there are always challenges and trials before us. Since we are called to grow up into the full stature of Christ, to be conformed to his image, we are going to be constantly confronted with circumstances which exercise our faith and obedience. Behind all these challenges, obstacles and trials stand the absolutely true, trustworthy, made in heaven immutable promises of almighty God. It is the very nature of the Christian faith that the only way one can be successful is by faithfully believing and following God. This means coming into an absolute reliance upon his life, his strength, his wisdom, his abilities, etc. The Christian life is one that exhibits—when I am weak, then am I strong. His life and strength are perfected in our weakness, our surrender.
When Joshua said—“Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us”—he was expounding an incredible spiritual truth. Given our obedient, faithful responses to the challenges and trials before us, they are transformed into spiritual building blocks in our lives. When it comes to military training or athletic programs we all seem to understand this principle. However, regarding the faith, we too often attempt to use our faith as a shield against the daily turbulence of life. It is so easy to forget such germane passages such as Paul’s ministry to the faithful–Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. When Jesus explained the parable of the sower to his disciples, he said this concerning the seed which fell on stony places—“yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.” This is a perfect description of persons making unbelieving responses to God’s word. This is the story of Israel’s response to the spies’ account of the land.
Why is unbelief so egregious and destructive? It is so principally because it impugns the character of God. But beyond that it removes us from God’s redemptive plan of the full stature life in Christ. Only through obedience and following are we going to continue to mature into all Christ died for us to be. To fully understand all that is transpiring in this narrative of Israel’s failure at the threshold of Canaan, we need to see it within the greater meta-narrative of God. What is the larger, over-arching story within which this chapter is playing out? The true significance is only understood when we realize that God’s whole purpose for delivering Israel from Egypt was so that he might take them into the Promised Land. Israel wasn’t saved just because they were having a bad time in Egypt. They weren’t delivered just to free them from Egyptian slavery. The only reason God brought them out of Egypt was that he might take them into the Promised Land.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God (Lev 25:38 KJV)
God’s eternal purpose for himself through Israel could only come to fruition as they entered and conquered Canaan. God was forming a people, a habitation for himself that could only be realized with Israel in the Promised Land and with the ultimate goal of a dwelling place in Jerusalem. For the children of Israel to balk at the border of Canaan, to rebel and refuse to enter in, to provoke God, constituted an outright betrayal of God’s eternal purpose through them as a people.
Bringing the eternal truths of this passage into our own lives represents a sobering undertaking. We understand that the spiritual significance portrayed in this narrative of Israel has to do with our growing up into the full stature of Christ. Just as God delivered Israel—not just from Egypt—but unto the Promised Land, Christ has saved us unto the fullness of his own life and inheritance. Salvation is not just about avoiding hell and gaining heaven. Far more, it is about the Father’s eternal purpose for himself being worked out through our lives. We are that habitation of God today; a habitation that progresses unto fullness as we are conformed to the image of Christ.
Discovering God’s eternal purpose for our lives through the daily challenges and trials presented us is what constitutes our pilgrimage unto full stature. Consistent with God’s dealings with the Israelites, we also are confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles that necessitate faith in, trust of and obedience to almighty God. When we lose sight of God’s eternal purpose and begin to make decisions that prosper our own ends, we in essence are denying God his purpose through us and are in risk of provoking God. Our lives on planet earth have only one purpose and that is to please the heart of our heavenly Father.