I will be with you – the shape of God’s relational engagement
In this series, I’ve been exploring the Exodus narrative as a window into the spiritual and emotional journey. In this post, I explore the third lesson learned by God’s intervention (along with Moses!) among the enslaved Israelites – I will be with you. (The first lesson can be found here and the second lesson can be found here.
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The third piece of wisdom that we can derive from the exodus story speaks directly to the importance of relationship. It is accented in God’s repeated reminder to Moses: “I will be with you.” Moses, in turn, becomes the living embodiment of I will be with you to the Israelites. In fact, the presence of Moses is so synonymous with the presence of God that when Moses ascends the hill of Sinai, the people quickly become fearful and turn back to idolatry. The human heart longs for connection.
I will be with you. In the midst of our pain, there may be no more important words spoken. In fact, words sometimes get in the way. Presence alone is required. Job found this out the hard way when his theologian friends met him in his pain with a doctrinal rebuke. “Friends should have a despairing man’s back,” he told them, “but you’re not there for me, choosing instead to correct me rather than being with me in my anguish” (Job 6, my paraphrase). What we learn from this portion of the Exodus account is that in our places of grief and powerlessness, God does not condemn, correct, or condescend. Rather, He extends compassion.
Compassion is a powerful word. Among its various meanings as used in Scripture, it invites us to “suffer with” another, to enter in to another’s pain, to be moved by another, and to extend gracious love to another. Of course, Jesus enters into our brokenness in the New Testament. And the third person of the Trinity – Spirit – is a continual embodiment of God’s I will be with you love and compassion. But God is no less compassionate in the Old, as Exodus shows. Moved to compassion, He met the enslaved Israelites in their grief, rescuing them in the paradigmatic event of all of Scripture – the Exodus. Later, the Jesus-rescue is equated to a New Exodus. God’s heart is for the weak, the needy, and the enslaved, and His method is not theological rebuke but pastoral engagement.
Soul care begins here. It does not end here, as we’ll see. But, for those of us who long to be friends and counselors to those in need, our greatest hurdle may be simply learning to be with another. Selena brought her close friend Allie into counseling with me several years ago, hoping that together we’d fix her friend’s anxiety and depression. The problem was that Selena ran the counseling session, saying things like, “You need to stop worrying, Allie. God has all of the hairs on your head counted. Right, Mr. DeGroat?” How am I supposed to respond to that? Finally, I stepped in, asking Allie, “Is what Selena is saying helping you?” Allie looked at Selena with a fear of disappointing her, but courageously said, “Selena, I don’t need your advice. I need you.”
I will be with you.
The lessons learned among the Israelites in Egypt are vital for today. However, they are not a prescription on how to help people. Rather, they set the shape and tone of growth, maturity, and healing. Something of how God deals with the Israelites ought to trickle down into our own hearts and communities, shaping the way we interact with others, and shaping the way we grow ourselves. God’s priorities, as we’ve seen, focus on three main things – getting honest about the problem, seeing a vision for life as it was meant to be, and being with a person in their pain. These are the lessons for Israel in Egypt, for an enslaved people straining to maintain even a shred of their Edenic dignity.
And these are lessons for all of us, because we have all – to some degree or another – been wounded in life. None of us had perfect parents. Few of us can claim that we’ve been untainted by peer pressure or a break-up or early exposure to pornography or a bully’s words or being left out or failing an exam or not making the team or being wrongfully blamed by a parent. And then there are large numbers of us who have known something more severe – an emotionally abusive parent, a condemning pastor, a sexualizing uncle, an unfathomable betrayal, or a parent’s death. Life sometimes conspires against us. We don’t choose it. Rather, pain seems to choose us. And it’s for this reason that the three lessons of Egypt are so pertinent today. God meets us right where we are, getting honest about what has happened, stirring in us a longing for more, and staying right with us in our pain. The shape of His care informs our own care, for others and for ourselves. There is a time to confront sinful patterns and self-destructive strategies, as we will see. But God begins in compassion and with love, something all of us desperately need at times.
I will be with you.
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What do you need relationally when you are in pain?
Think about a time when someone tried to “fix” you in the midst of your own pain. Now, think of a time when someone was with you, not to fix you, but to be with you. How did it feel? Was there a difference?
How does the view of God in this lesson contrast/differ with your own experience of God? Do you experience God judging you for being in pain, or loving you in the midst of your pain?