At the beginning of the Israelite’s wilderness experience – before the commandments, the calf, the manna and quail – there is the first great obstacle. The Passover has just occurred and the people of God have begun their great migration out of Egypt. I can imagine how they might be, dazed and unsure as they follow Moses towards freedom, after hundreds of years in captivity in Egypt. The promise of reprieve in the promised land lies before them. Yet, it is into the desert that they are being led. I can picture the uneasy glances towards one another as they move further and further away from Egypt – “Surely this can’t be right? Headed into the middle of nowhere?”
When they come up to the edge of the Red Sea, things move from uneasy uncertainty to panic. The Israelites find themselves hemmed in on all sides. Pharaoh’s army is rapidly approaching one side, and the vast expanse of the Red Sea is on the other. The Israelites realize they are completely trapped, and their fear becomes resentful anger directed at Moses. They lash out and accuse.
In that moment, when destruction seems imminent and there is no possible escape, Moses speaks these words to the people: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still” (Exodus 14:13-14).
There are three separate instructions Moses gives to the people in this verse: Do not be afraid. Stand firm. Be still. As I reflected on these individual instructions, I can see how they not only apply to the Israelites feeling pushed against the Red Sea, but how these instructions can translate into our context as well. In places where we feel trapped and hemmed in, afraid and angry at those closest to us – perhaps the instruction from Moses can also give us guidance. The following are some brief reflections on the three ways Moses commanded the Israelites to respond in their fear and anger, and ways we might practically obey these instructions ourselves.
Do Not Be Afraid
Fear is a natural response to a perceived threat, and there are many things that threaten our world right now. Financial uncertainty, health risks, social disconnection and ambiguity about the future all combine to create a stress response which is triggered much more quickly and easily than our normal threshold. Our sympathetic nervous system activates when we are afraid and we move into a state of fight or flight. We can feel jumpy, on edge, stressed and nervous. However, research shows that there are simple and practical ways to work with our body and help calm our physical responses.
Exercise: Deep breathing exercises is one of the quickest ways we can regulate an activated sympathetic nervous system. Try using this exercise coupled with prayer – also known as the “Breath Prayer.” In a moment when you feel overwhelmed or afraid, think of a short, simple prayer (“Give me peace; Your love endures forever; Be near to me”). Then, think of one name of God (“Jesus; Prince of Peace; Almighty; Everlasting Father; Emmanuel; etc.”). Combine these together with your breath.
For example: Slow inhale “Emmanuel,” slow exhale “Be with me now.”
Spend time slowing your breathing, and focusing your heart and mind on the characteristic of God in your prayer, and the request you bring to him in that moment.
“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)
As we change our thoughts and beliefs, our emotional and physiological responses will begin to shift as well. This is the basic premise of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). We can learn to control our thoughts and hold fast to who God says he is, and in turn, find that we are not as easily swayed by what is shaking us in the moment.
Exercise: Make a list of the character attributes of God. Who does God say that He is? What are His promises? Who does God say that I am? Record some of these and meditate on them. Listen quietly and notice if you can sense any shift in your emotional response or physiological activation (tension in chest, heart rate, knot in stomach) as you think on these truths.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
In a world overrun with information, constant alerts and never-ending news feeds, it is difficult to find time to be quiet and still. However, the research in the area of mindfulness continues to grow, demonstrating the ways in which being quiet, aware and attuned to the present moment can help regulate anxiety. Within contemplative streams of Christianity, similar practices have been used for hundreds of years to foster awareness of God.
Exercise: Take some time to allow yourself to rest and be quiet. Go outside for a walk and enjoy being in God’s creation. Use all of your senses to notice nature around you. Pay attention to the breeze and sun on your skin, the sound of the birds, the shades of green you can see. Allow your heart to be still and join in the song of creation, all of it reflecting the glory and goodness of our Father. Listen to the Hymn “This is my Father’s World” and invite the Holy Spirit to enable your heart to meet your Father in creation.
“Be Still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
Finally, along with these three invitations as to how we are to position ourselves, Moses then reminds the Israelites of the promise of God’s action. That as we position ourselves to stand firm, be still and quiet our fears, we are reminded that there is someone fighting for us in the battle and we are not alone.
The Lord will Fight for You
Time and again we read in scripture how God intervened in miraculous ways on behalf of his people. Often, it was not in ways they expected. We see over and over that God’s perspective of the battle is often vastly different than our own. The Israelites believed that all was lost, that they were trapped, and destruction was inevitable. We too, can feel stuck in our perspective, overwhelmed by what we see directly before us, and forget to ask God what his perspective is.
Exercise: Sometimes one of the quickest ways to change our perspective of the battle is worship. As we reflect and remember who God is, as we name his attributes, character and love – our perspective shifts. As we move to the vantage point of worship, we remember who God is, and who we are in relation to him. In addition to this, we are reminded in worship that we are not alone. That when hemmed in on all sides, there is One who stands with us. Spend some time in worship with God, in whatever way best connects with your soul. Notice how your perspective of the battle changes as you engage in vulnerable worship, and how you can be made aware of His presence with you in it.
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (Ps 13:5-6)