“Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people” (Numbers 21:6-7).
The Israelites once again became impatient against God. This was a common pattern in the Israelite nation from the time they left Egypt till the time they took over the Promised Land. They became impatient; they were sick of the manna; they were thirsty; and so they complained. As He did other times, God punished the Israelites for their sin and rebellion. He sent them a hardship to wake them up and remind them who is really in charge. It didn’t take long for them to realize what was going on. They repented and prayed for God’s deliverance.
Does God work like this still? Does God ever bring us hardship to wake us up? We tend to see Old Testament stories as being just that: Old. Outdated. How God used to act. But is that accurate? Should we look at this as being how God used to act only? We are told in the New Testament that God disciplines those He loves. What is discipline? Is it pleasant? Is it enjoyable? Of course not! Discipline is never enjoyable either for us or for God. When I am brought to the place that I need to discipline my kids, I almost always let them know that I do not enjoy disciplining them. I want to make sure they know that I do not enjoy disciplining them. At the same time, I know that disciplining them is the right thing to do.
Does God discipline us? Of course! If we are in Christ, do we need to worry that God may send fiery serpents on us to destroy us? No, because Jesus bore the wrath of God we deserve. He took the condemnation we deserve that the grumbling Israelites were experiencing. But God does discipline us to wake us up from our sin.
This discipline looks different for different people. There may be a sin that you have habitually been struggling to defeat. There may be a temptation that is overwhelming you to the point that you continually give in to it. God may be removing his protection on you as a way of showing you that you are getting what you want. By not fighting the temptation, you are giving in to the flesh, and he is removing his hand of protection on you in that area of your life.
It could be that you are experiencing feelings of powerlessness and despair in your relationship with God. It could be that you are giving in to a sin that you are not fully aware of. It could be a blind spot issue. It could be a cultural value you believe is good and right that Scripture says is wrong and sinful. By giving in to that repeatedly, you may find yourself powerless and in despair. Could it be that the powerlessness and despair is God allowing you to realize something is not right?
John Piper said: “If we try to defeat an unforgiven sin – that is, if we try to conquer our sin before it is canceled – we become our own saviors; we nullify the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4-5); and we head straight for despair and suicide.” Could this unforgiven sin be un-confessed sin or un-repented sin? Could it be that God is wanting you to wake up to the areas of your life you are willingly making yourself a slave to sin?
This discipline we experience is never fun. But it is necessary to wake us up. Next time difficulty comes your way, do not assume you are being disciplined. At the same time, do some heart work to see if there be any grievous way in you.