The Lord God Almighty had freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God had defeated the power of the empire and led the whole host of the nation to the banks of the Red Sea. There, a great wind blew and piled up the waters of the sea into a deep dry valley. The people passed safely between the walls of the sea, walking out of Egypt, walking together as a nation into … the middle of nowhere.
Every single night, the God who had freed them appeared as a pillar of fire stretching from earth to heaven. They were supposed to follow the pillar of fire, but it only ever led them deeper into the desert. The people had been promised freedom, and what they got was being stuck out in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of the desert. They had hardly any supplies with them, but that was not their fault: the Lord had commanded them to flee in the middle of the night. God told them they did not even have time to let their bread rise but to just run. They were not survivalists: all they knew how to do was to make bricks. They were not farmers, and even if they were, God did not allow them to stay in any one place long enough to grow anything. The pillar of fire moved every night and they had to follow. They were out of food, out of water, out of ideas, out of options. And who could have the strength of faith necessary to tell their thirsty child that there was no water, that there was nothing but to suffer?
And so the people cried out, they complained bitterly against God: Why did you bring us out of Egypt in the first place? So that you could kill us and our children out here in the thirsty desert? It is pretty brassy, challenging God like that. But the people of Israel have good reason to be rather forward in their petitions to God. They were following where God was leading them, and in following God, they came slam-bang up against something they needed but could not provide for themselves. They needed water because they followed God out into a desert wilderness. And so they cried out to God: God we cannot do without You, You had better get down here unless you want us all dead And God provided water for them, torrents of water gushing from a dry and dusty rock. And so the people were able to continue on, they were able to do something that was beyond their own power, because God’s efforts began where Her people’s power found its limit.
It wasn’t just the water incident either. Over and over again, when the people of Israel needed something, they would cry out to God for what they needed, and each time God provided them what they needed. The people cried out for food to nourish them, and God made bread simply appear among the people every day. Manna rained from heaven to feed their bodies. The people were attacked by an army in the desert, and God gave them inexplicable victory even though they had no army and no soldiers and no weapons. After way too long of nothing but manna to eat every day, the people cried out for something else to eat, to have some meat. And God made it rain quails, so many quails they could stuff themselves silly with meat.
This went on for forty years. For forty years, the people wandered in the wilderness, running up against their own limitations and needing to turn to God for help. Why the need to wander for so long? I think it is because the people of Israel were being taught how to live in a new way. All they had known was a life of mere survival, with no hope or path or purpose. No destiny to fulfill, no great work of their own to do. God was teaching them how to be a new nation. God was teaching them how to follow their calling to do great and unimaginable things.
God teaches the people of Israel that to do great and unimaginable things, they needed to learn rely upon God. To follow God meant doing something that was actually impossible—a whole nation living in the desert with no supplies and no training, it is impossible. Following God meant ordering the life of the people not around what they could do on their own, but what they could only do with the help of God.
Every person has a calling; it is the reason why God created you and put you on this earth. Fred Buechner describes calling as that place of intersection between your deep gladness and the world’s deep need. The story of the people of Israel wandering in the desert teaches about what it looks like to be doing the work that God created you to do. It looks like setting out to do something that you know is beyond your ability to accomplish. Following your calling looks like trying to do the actually impossible, and the first step is complaining. The first step is complaining to God about how we are not capable of doing what God has called us to do. This is too hard for me God, you had better get down here if you want this to get done! That is the first step in our calling.
It seems counterintuitive that the work we should be doing is precisely that work which we cannot do, but there is a deep logic to the idea in God’s economy. If I have set as the course of my life, the doing of work that is entirely within my power to accomplish, I have not set my sights very high, not by Christian standards anyway. Because if the work I devote my life to doing could be done perfectly well without any assistance from God, then I have chosen to live in such a way that it does not matter whether God exists or not. You see, faith is not a set of intellectual commitments or creeds. Faith is a way of life. It is a way of ordering life such that it matters very much whether God exists. Faith is a way of life in which I need for God to exist in order to accomplish what I have devoted my life to. Living the life of faith and following God’s call in your life, these things cannot be separated from one another.
To have needs you cannot satisfy on your own is no shame. To face challenges that you do not know how to face is no failure. To come to the end of your endurance and find that your labors have only begun is no disgrace. All of that and more is necessary to the life of faith, it is part and parcel of following God’s call. Remember, the people of Israel knew for a fact that they were following God’s call for them. A giant pillar of flame in the sky every night told them they were going where God wanted them to. And in following God, they came to a place of deep need, confronting the harsh reality that they could not continue without God’s help. And at the very limits of what we can accomplish on our own, there at the very line between possible and impossible, that is where the shared work of God and humanity starts.
Faith is to keep on working, even when it becomes crystal clear we need the help of God to continue. Your calling is your own. I cannot tell you what it is, but I can tell you that you will need God’s help to do it. To need God may be to be a teacher and see another set of strange bruises on the kid who comes to class angry every day. To need God may be to stand before a judge and to say you know that you broke the law and that nothing will stop you from breaking it again because the law you broke is evil. To need God may be to understand with perfect clarity that your conscience demands that you leave the only profession you’ve ever known. To need God may be to go on living just one more day, one more day that is just like every other. When—not if—when life places the impossible in your path and feel something deep inside of you break, turn to God and cry out: “is this why you knit me together in my mother’s womb? To kill me in this wilderness I can’t see the end of”? To cry out and demand an answer from God, that is to meet God in the wilderness and begin to partner with Her. Faith is a journey through the wilderness, where we truly live, deeply, courageously, not knowing how we will be able to finish what we have begun. The life of faith is a journey you could not imagine yourself taking before you found that your feet were already on that path. It is a path you would never have thought to travel on your own because you could never have imagined that God would entrust something so very important to you.