The Real Reason We Don’t Enter the Promised Land

v3 2016 promised land

“We must start with the basic fact that there is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture” declared Lesslie Newbigin decades ago. He continued by asserting, “Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form.” But for many in the church today, these cultural forms have become increasingly threatening in a postmodern, post-Christendom context. Rather than being an invitation for us to reinterpret the gospel for the sake of our own context, we have reinterpreted the culture as hostile territory.

There are giants in the land, beware!
There are giants, GIANTS – everywhere
Big and strong and ten feet tall
Before their size, all will cower
Giants, giants ready to devour
Jeering, sneering as they brawl
They’re out to crush us, see us fall…
Giants, GIANTS – you best take care!
GIANTS, GIANTS – They’re out there! (inspired by Numbers 13, Deut.1)

Can you imagine ten church leaders coming back from wandering the neighbourhood and repeating a chant like that? Of course not, yet here it is, and not just in a fairy tale.

With the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses—perhaps seeking to provide his people with the same kind of assurances that many church leaders want to provide their congregants today—sends out twelve spies to bring back a positive and encouraging word to the people, as God is about to send them into this new place of promise.

But somehow his strategy fails. Instead of delivering assurance upon their return, what the majority report—giants that make them feel like grasshoppers—causes hearts to melt with fear (Deut.1:28).

Do we hear majority reports, see giants and lose heart too?

Haven’t we heard stories of how our postmodern, post-Christendom culture devours its Christian inhabitants?

The Giants of Our Day

Starting with giant-isms like consumerism, materialism, relativism, pluralism, skepticism, socialism, etc., haven’t more than a few churches already been eaten up?

Don’t giants lurk in every business, political party, social agenda and big-box mall just waiting to pounce on innocent Christians?

Isn’t all the talk about mega trends and terrorist monsters rightly definable as “Giant lingo”?

In the midst of a world filled with the towering Amalekites of our time, don’t our hearts melt, too?

How often have our fears betrayed us, stopped us, enslaved us?

And there’s the rub. Perhaps this is more about our fears than those things we have interpreted and categorized as giants. In which case, the Amalekites—and all that you and I might brand as gigantic today—are merely scapegoats that allow us to rant at symptoms while never admitting that our hearts have hardened and gone astray (Psalm 95:8a,10b, Hebrews 3:8, 9). Like the Israelites before us, rather than trust and believe God’s Word and promises, we fear.

And our fear blinds us to the richness and beauty around us—a land flowing with milk and honey and grapes as big as golf balls!

And our fear deafens us to the stories, joys and adventures of the new land and cultural context into which we are being invited—by Joshua and Caleb, and the Holy Spirit!

Is not our fear then the real giant that lives not in Canaan nor our culture…but in our hearts?

“What fear?” you may ask.

I can think of a few.

Giant/Fear #1: Our Fear of ‘The Other’

The majority report has scared us into believing that ‘the other is a threat from which we must protect ourselves. Consequently, we seek to avoid, negate or reject the other. We work hard to keep them out with walls (both literal and metaphorical), laws (unspoken and written) and prejudicial labels. We deny the other a face, a name and a place. We stay in our ‘safe’ Christendom bubble, deceiving ourselves into believing that here we are free of giants.

The Israelites learned the hard, long way that the only ‘other’ they ought to fear was the ‘wholly other’ God. All human others were just like them—made in the image of the same Creator; loved, valued and blessed by the same God; drawn from dust and to return to dust.

So what if we entered in the life of and listened to the heart of ‘the other’ more often? What if we learned from those whose stories, sexuality, skin color or mental capacities are different from ours? What if we embraced the minority report, received the “fruit of the land” with joy and discovered God’s Word and work beyond our Christendom culture and paradigms?

Giant/Fear # 2: Loss of Control

In Christendom, we were in control. We could make the culture and the world, or so it seemed, fit in our box the way we wanted. We knew what was right and what was wrong with certainty. We knew the questions and the answers. We knew what was next, where we were going and how we were getting there—and how we were going to get ‘the other’ there too!

It was a safe, secure, familiar and predictable world in our control. It may not have been perfect, but there was quail in the morning and manna at night; there was a cloud by day and a pillar at night.

The Christendom box, however, is falling apart, and the dangers and risk of losing this control are terrifying, in fact, crippling for many churches. What if what God is up to in this strange new context doesn’t fit our box? What if God has pomegranates and figs for us instead of what we’re used to?

If we were to receive the minority report and leave behind the confines of Christendom, things may get out of control—we wouldn’t be able to manage the outcomes, set the direction, determine the vision, the values, the mission, the mandate.

But perhaps God would. Perhaps then and there we would have to rely on and trust God. You see, I believe that these fears actually betray our lack of faith, and that it was lack of faith, not Amalekite giants, that was the real issue for the Israelites.

Despite the fact that for months the Israelites had been witnessing and benefiting from the most amazing and numerous of God’s miracles (ten plagues, seas parting, water from rocks, bread from heaven), they still didn’t really trust God. There they were, standing on the cusp of inheriting everything they’d ever dreamed of or imagined…and they didn’t take possession.

In fact, they miss it completely for another forty years! They don’t believe it—God and His promises. Somehow, they failed to realize that the incredible presence, power and provision of God, with which they had first-hand experience, wasn’t simply about meeting their needs; it was about forming them as a people who fully and wholly relied on and trusted the Holy One of Israel. As a result they were full of fear, even with the Promised Land so close they could taste it.

How could this be, one wonders. How could the Israelites not believe? How could they not trust?

Then again, how can I—how can we—not believe and trust?

As we stand on the cusp of this strange, new, mysterious, grand and expansive world of ‘the other,’ as we stand so close to a culture beyond our control, are we full of fear or faith? Are we ready and willing to turn our religion into an adventure? Or will our fears blind us to the richness and beauty outside our Christian ‘box’? Will our fears deafen us to the still, small Voice that is with us wherever we are?

The Opposite of Fear

I am beginning to realize that the opposite of fear is not courage; it is trust.

To trust the Lord is to imagine and hope for what is beyond our understanding and control. To trust the Lord is to dream God’s dreams and believe that God can and will make it so. It was such trust that inspired Joshua and Caleb to see, hear, believe and embrace God’s promise as they spied out the land and brought back word and fruit not only for the Israelites, but for us, too, declaring,

Though foreign, the postmodern land flows with milk and honey.
Though remote to us, God is present in the midst of this great unraveling.
Though not tilled in our ways, the fruit is good and plentiful.
Though inhabited by others, we need not fear!
—but only trust, trust that this place is God’s plan and this cultural context is God’s gift!

The Promised Land

Two spies return from Canaan wide-eyed with wonder and anticipation! They have not seen giants—they have seen giant grapes! And they tell us that there is more to life with God than manna, quail and wandering in the wilderness.

They have experienced and embraced God’s promise to prosper His people that they might be a light to all nations. Thus, their report invites us to go to the place which God has already prepared for His people, a place to which He is sending them with His power and authority. There they are sent to tend God’s garden, to receive God’s harvest (milk and honey come from His hand), and settle as His people on His land. Look! Listen! Smell! Taste!

The Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear His voice…”

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Attribution note: The ideas I have presented here have been greatly influenced by the following authors and resources:

Lesslie Newbigin’s book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society 

Robert Schreiter’s model for contextualization as described by Stanley Grenz and John Franke in their book Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context

David Fitch and Geoffrey Holsclaw’s 2014 lecture entitled “Thesis Design and Research
Methodologies” presented at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois

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Dr. Karen Wilk
Dr. Karen Wilk is a National Team Member of Forge Canada’s Missional Training Network, and a Missional Leader Developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Karen is the Lead Catalyser of Neighbourhood Life/NEW (Neighbourhood Engagement Workers) Community in Alberta, where she actively engages church leadership in moving their congregations out into neighborhoods. She has been a pastor in Edmonton for almost 28 years and completed a Doctorate in Missional Leadership at Northern Seminary in Chicago. Karen is the author of Don’t Invite Them To Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church. She is also a neighbor, wife, mom, and minister who is leading her own neighborhood community.
Dr. Karen Wilk

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