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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?” (Hebrews 3:16)
It doesn’t take long to walk from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The best estimate seems to be that a group of motivated travelers could stride from the delta region of the Nile River to the area now called Palestine in about three weeks. Sadly, it took the people of Israel just a tick over 40 years. How in the world do you transform a three-week journey into a wilderness odyssey lasting four decades?
The answer, according to the Old Testament, is that the Chosen People decided they could do a better job of managing their lives than the God who had miraculously liberated them from the horrors of slavery. As the Hebrews descended into whining, complaining, ingratitude, and open moral rebellion, God rescinded his offer of a new life in the land of milk and honey. “Your children will enter the Promised Land,” he says, “but you will stay here in the wilderness until this entire generation has passed from the scene.”
It’s one of the most stunning developments in the entire biblical storyline.
The people specially chosen by God to experience his love and his Law essentially throw those gifts back into his face. “Thanks for the offer, but we’ll take it from here.” Do a quick tally of what these folks have already experienced: ten plagues that brought the Egyptians to their knees; dramatic rescue through the parting of the Red Sea; the daily supernatural gift of manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; water gushing from rocks in the desert; flocks of quail for everyone’s backyard barbecue; and a pillar cloud of fire to signify God’s never-ending presence.
Yet it’s not enough. Their stomachs are full, but their hearts are empty.
The author of the book of Hebrews – whose identify has never been established – grabs this story and won’t let it go. Followers of Jesus need to learn from the past. The people who had everything going for them – these are the very people Moses led out of Egypt! – completely blew it because they never actually entrusted themselves to God.
The book of Hebrews screams: Don’t you blow it, too. Don’t be fake. Don’t be a religious playactor. Don’t put on a good show for everyone while you’re actually doing nothing more than spiritual hydroplaning – skimming along the surface of things while never really letting God know who you are.
Spiritual impression management has been a problem for every disciple in every generation. But it’s especially perilous here in America.
Early in our country’s history, success was considered the reward for cultivating virtue and character. Then things began to change. Success became associated with personality. Cultural historians aren’t sure exactly when this transition happened. But all agree that by the time Dale Carnegie published his book How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, there was no looking back.
Even if few of us have actually read America’s bestselling non-fiction book from the first half of the 20th century, virtually everyone has heard of it. Tens of thousands of copies are still sold every year.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Carnegie sprang his big idea: The formula for personal success is built on smiles and personal appeal.
The Successful Salesman was beginning to emerge as an iconic character in American life. Carnegie urged his readers to sell themselves. We should advertise our own value the way Coca-Cola advertises the goodness of carbonated sugar water.
As literary critic Peter Conn points out, there’s a reason How to Win Friends has the look and feel of an instruction manual. That’s because it is an instructional manual – a set of “fundamental techniques in handling people,” as Carnegie himself put it.
Chapters include titles like “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” and, “Nine Ways to Change People Without Giving Offense.” Carnegie urges us to be friendly. To be a good listener. To call people by their names. To look at others from their point of view. This isn’t a matter of empathy as much as a kind of calculated flattery. We should gently steer situations toward our own benefit, much as a good salesman steers potential customers toward the big sale.
Above all, we should smile. If you don’t feel like smiling, smile anyway. Fake it till you make it. Fans of the book insist that it works. You’ll discover that you can truly “handle people.”
But a huge question is left hanging out there: Is this really how you want to go through life? Is personal success all about impression management?
In their book TrueFaced: Trust God and Others with Who You Really Are, Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch insist that the people in our lives cannot be managed. Nor can sin be managed. And more than anything else, God cannot be managed. Even if we happen to be witnesses to climactic moments in spiritual history, like those who had the privilege of walking with Moses, there’s no substitute for actual trust in God – surrender that isn’t faked.
Most of us shrink from such vulnerability. Better to hide behind a smile and “I’m just fine, thank you” than admit that we’re far from the people we know we’re called to be.
Thrall, McNicol, and Lynch have a ready answer: You have nothing to lose but a life that wasn’t working anyway. “One of the greatest gifts we can offer to another person,” they suggest, “is a safe place to fail… Teachers and mentors help youthful followers of Christ to learn the priority of not hiding.”
In the end, there’s no need to settle for spiritual superficiality – the equivalent of turning a three-week journey into a 40-year nightmare.
That’s because today you can believe the good news that you are utterly safe in the love and grace of God.
Just as you are.
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