“And Moses said, Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the Lord? but it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the Lord is not among you; that ye be not smitten before your enemies.” Numbers 14:41

The Israelites had just been through a test, which they thoroughly failed, faltering at the border of Canaan because of fear. They had chosen to believe the 10 spies whose report of the Promised Land focused on the obstacles instead of listening to Caleb and Joshua’s words of faith. Mistrust led to fear, fear became doubt, and doubt turned to insurrection. Lost in their weakness, they missed the everlasting arms that held them and the almighty power that went before them.

“And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would god that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God that we had died in this wilderness!” Numbers 14:2

A Creator who builds everything upon the principle of freedom will never force His people. Abiding by the law of free will, God works within the reality of our heart’s condition. By their own admission, the hearts of the Israelites were not ready for the blessing He wanted to bestow upon them, so instead, He gave them what they were ready for: “Doubtless, ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun….But … your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness….And Moses told these sayings unto all the children of Israel: and the people mourned greatly.” Numbers 14:30, 32, 39

It’s never fun to realize that you actually prefer the wilderness to the Promised Land. (Ask me how I know!) Imagine the mental state of the Israelites: 

A blessing sits before you, one you’ve traveled miles to pursue in response to a call from God Himself. The truth of the I AM was unmistakable—water turned to blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle dying, locusts, boils, hail, darkness, and the death of the firstborn—and the promise of deliverance was music to your ears. You didn’t cross the desert on a whim. You left Egypt behind, crossed the Red Sea, spent a year at Sinai, and now you’ve gotten close enough to taste the fruit of Canaan. 

You think you’re ready for milk and honey. Then the truth hits: pieces of your heart still reside in Egypt. Though your body stands on the cusp of freedom, your soul is still in chains. 

Walking with God is about moving when He moves. If you think the goal is Canaan, you’ve missed the point. To get there, you must learn how to be free. 

The Promised Land belongs to those who are comfortable walking on in. Free in their mind, they don’t hesitate to follow the I AM when His movements call for courage. Knowing the ground beneath them is solid, they are at peace in the simplicity of the moment. Open-hearted, they don’t stop to question whether or not they deserve love. Confident in their birthright, they don’t doubt their heritage as the children of Abraham. 

That’s why an entire race of former slaves could get all the way to the border and refuse to cross the finish line.

The Promised Land is a place where you arrive at last because in your heart you could not be anywhere else. For a nation of former slaves fresh out of bondage, learning how free people think and behave involves a steep learning curve—impossible, in fact, apart from divine intervention. The only way to become truly free from the inside out is to become intimate with the Creator. There are no shortcuts. You can’t force your citizenship or earn your freedom by accomplishing grand things in your own strength.

It’s a hard thing to recognize that the one standing in the way of everything you want is you. It’s heartbreaking to comprehend that you’ve listened to the wrong voices and accepted a lesser outcome because the better one was too far outside your comfort zone. Though I shake my head at the Israelites, I find myself repeatedly in their shoes—still distracted by the obstacles, still focused on my weaknesses and failures, still choosing to believe Canaan is out of my grasp.

Hard as it is to accept, the wilderness is a brilliant setting to unlearn a slave’s mentality and acquire the character of free people. Time, change of surroundings, and plenty of opportunity to commune with God are a gift, not a punishment. It’s a chance to listen because there’s precious little else to distract. In the quiet, you learn how to pay attention. You discover where your heart and mind still cling to old behavior patterns. Most importantly, you learn to trust the right Voice, to develop the kind of intimacy with one’s Creator that heals everything that’s broken. 

Repentance is the ability to recognize this. It’s a posture of humility, of understanding who I am in relation to who God is.

David’s prayer of repentance in Psalms 51 beautifully expresses the position of a man ready to be healed in mind and heart: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me….Behold I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” Psalm 51:1-3, 5, 6 

I find I need to be reminded over and over that repentance—walking with God at the point of failure—means that instead of acting out of desperation, I stop moving. Instead of flailing about, trying to fix my own problems and right my own wrongs, I become still. I let Him meet me where I am. I surrender to the blessing for which I am ready, even if it means a wilderness because it is still an opportunity to walk with God. 

Sadly, the end to this chapter in the Israelites’ story ended in disaster because, after missing an opportunity to follow where God was leading, they doubled down on their mistake. They decided to move where He wasn’t leading and attempt to enter the Promised Land before they were ready, in their own power. Instead of adopting a posture of humility, they assumed a posture of arrogance—“We can do this on our own!”—thus demonstrating that they hadn’t listened or learned in the slightest. 

“And they rose up early in the morning, and gat them up into the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised: for we have sinned. And Moses said, Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the Lord? but it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the Lord is not among you; that ye be not smitten before your enemies.” Numbers 14:40, 41

They didn’t listen, and the result was disastrous: “Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah.” Numbers 14:45