The other week I came across one of those sayings that sticks in your mind and makes you think: ‘An expert hits a target no-one else can hit; a genius hits a target no-one else can see.’ It struck me that there is a third level we could add: ‘the Lord hits a target no-one else can even imagine.’
How often in Scripture and in history does the Lord act in a surprising, unexpected way? His ways are not our ways, and that is not because God is being unpredictable in a random or arbitrary way, but because he is so infinitely greater and wiser than us, so that we simply can’t imagine what is involved in working all things for good. Wisdom means knowing what is best and knowing the best way to bring about what is best. And God does that in everything that he ordains! Just think about that. He doesn’t just do the wisest thing nine times out of ten or ninety-nine times out of a hundred. He always does it every single time.
We have an illustration of this in Exodus 13.18-19, when the Lord brought his people out of Egypt. They come to a crossroads at the border of Egypt and the obvious way to Canaan is north, along the well-travelled Via Maris (‘the way of the sea’). It was the shortest and most direct route. The Israelites would be there in less than two weeks if they had taken this road.
But it must have seemed like God was holding his map upside-down, because instead of telling them to go north he sends them south and east towards the desert. Things will get even stranger at the beginning of chapter 14, when God tells Israel to make a U-turn and go back towards Egypt. It makes no sense at all—it looks like they are hopelessly lost in the desert, going round in circles with no clue where to go!
But of course the Lord knows exactly what he’s doing. The reason for taking the scenic route to Canaan is explained in Ex 13.17—the sea road would lead Israel into a head-on confrontation with the Philistines on the coast.
Isn’t that so touching? The Lord knew Israel was fragile. The people weren’t ready for war just yet. They will face war soon—in about two months’ time against the Amalekites (chapter 17), but they can’t handle it right now. They have just come through a major trauma. Perhaps today many of them would be diagnosed with PTSD. They have lived as oppressed slaves for decades—as long as any of them can remember they have endured the lash of the Egyptian taskmasters. What must it have been like for them to witness the increasingly apocalyptic devastation of the plagues? And now, suddenly, in the course of a single night, they have been set free and had to get up and leave the only home they’ve ever known. They have walked out of Egypt and everyone they pass is involved in burying their firstborn (Num 33.4). They were overjoyed to be free—but freedom can be an unsettling, even frightening, prospect for people used to slavery.
We know from later in the story that Israel was all too ready to think of giving up and going back to Egypt. When they eventually reach the border of the Promised Land they are ready even then to elect a new leader and go back to Egypt! (Num 14.4). It didn’t take much to knock these damaged and fearful people. So God is gracious and compassionate towards them and takes them the long way round.
Not that the way of the wilderness was the easy way! God was leading them into plenty of challenges and trials in the wilderness! To start with, they’re going to be trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea; then there will be the desert of Shur with its bitter, undrinkable water (15.22), followed by the desert of Sin where there is no food (16.1-3); after that Rephidim turned out to be waterless (17.1-3). Serious challenges for two million people in a hot desert!
But here’s the point: God always knows the best way. It may not be the shortest way, the most obvious way or the way everyone else would take. It may seem like completely the wrong way. But the Lord’s way is always the right way—the best way—for his people. He works all things together for their good (Rom 8.28). He carefully, lovingly calibrates our trials to match our circumstances, needs and limits. He spares the Israelites war in these first weeks after the exodus, but he doesn’t spare them all trials. He takes them into the wilderness to expose them to different trials. He is like a wise teacher or coach who knows just how much to push the student or athlete to get the best out of him or her.
We need to learn and re-learn this lesson over and over, don’t we? Why is the Lord leading in the very opposite direction to the one I think I need to be going? Why is he taking me into the wilderness, along this hard road, instead of the one that looks best? Why is this happening to me? Have I taken a wrong turn and lost my way? Why is this happening now? Why is it going on for so long? Why is it so savage? Why is it happening to my child?
This portion of Scripture reassures us. Our heavenly Father always knows what’s best and knows the best way to bring about what’s best. Even when it seems like he’s completely lost his way, when our lives seem like nothing but chaos, the Lord knows what he’s doing.
When we are diagnosed with a debilitating or even terminal illness, when we are bereaved of a loved one, when we lose our job or fail an exam—the way of the wilderness may be hard, but it’s always the best way. We don’t know all things—we don’t know what disaster would have befallen us had we gone the way we thought best. We don’t know what the Lord is sparing us from. This is the essence of faith—‘the conviction of things not seen’ (Hb 11.1): trusting that our Father is infinitely wise and he will guide us in the way that is best.