How Focusing Too Much on the Past Sabotages Your Future
Focusing too much on the past, on how things “used to be” keeps us from moving forward and experiencing something better that God intends for us. When we are trying to make changes in our lives and things get difficult, we long to return to what is familiar–even if it was terrible. We innately prefer the comfort of what we know to the anxiety induced by the transition. But if we return to the familiar, we’ll never maximize our potential or embrace the promises of God. Focusing too much on the past sabotages your future. In this sermon about Exodus 16:2-21 we discover how to move toward our future. We can calm our anxiety, let go of our greed, and rely on God to meet our daily needs.
Why the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness.
After the Hebrews’ dramatic escape from slavery through the Red Sea, they wound up in the wilderness where they wandered for 40 years until they crossed into the Promised Land. Why did it take so long to cross the desert? At its widest point, it’s only 150 miles from one end to the other. Was Moses like the old stereotype of a father who keeps driving (although he is lost) because he’s too proud to ask for directions?
The wandering era wasn’t about refusing to ask for directions, as much as it was about the time people needed to let a new way of living sink into their bones. The Hebrews emerged from 400 years of slavery. They had limited knowledge of God and hadn’t yet learned to trust that God had their backs. Their only model for building society was the unjust Egyptian system where a powerful few dominated everyone else.
In the wilderness, they took the time to figure out who they were together and how they could create something better than what they experienced under Pharaoh. They forged a national identity in the crucible of hardships they endured in the wilderness. Ultimately, they learned how to take care of each other and continually trust in God.
Fun Fact about Forty Years
Fun Fact: “forty years” was likely more symbolic than a literal count. Forty years was considered the span of a generation and a shorthand way of saying “a long time,” just like we might say, “I was stuck on the phone with customer service all day.” Being shaped into the beloved community isn’t something you download and install in a few seconds. It’s something that you grow into through life experiences and by keeping at it through thick and thin, the ups and downs. It was desert training for the Hebrews. We all face our own deserts in life.
Do You Act Like a Nattering Nabob of Negativism?
Our lesson gives a glimpse of the Hebrews during the wilderness wanderings. They are not doing well, they are running out of food, and they are freaking out. They cannot foresee any outcome other than a miserable death of mass starvation in the desert.
How do they handle the adversity? They revert to their default mode—they complain. There is a stretch where seven times in 14 verses, the text uses the word complain. (It recalls former Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s phrase when he called his opponents, “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism.” I’m not sure what that means, but I don’t want anyone describing me that way).
The Hebrews complain about their plight, one another, and their leadership. Moses took the brunt of it. “It would have been better to remain slaves in Egypt than follow you and your invisible God only to die in the wilderness!”
Complaints Reveal Your Spiritual Condition
Moses, although frustrated, understands that they are not complaining about him–he’s just the servant of Yahweh, following orders–they are complaining about God and, in so doing, reveal their lack of faith. The intensity of their complaining indicated a dilapidated spiritual condition.
That’s terrible news for me because I come from a long line of complainers; it’s in my DNA. I come from Iowa farm people who are never happy. If it’s sunny, we talk about how we need rain. If it’s raining, we complain about how much we are getting. Not once did I ever hear a farmer say that we hit the Goldilocks zone: it’s just right. When we moved to southern California, I was disorientated because I didn’t have the weather to complain about anymore. Thank heaven for traffic, or I’d be lost.
Now a certain amount of pseudo complaining about trivial things is part of the social lubrication that starts conversations. But there is a deeper and more insidious kind of complaining that reveals a shriveling spiritual condition.
Three Questions about how much you complain
It’s not that blowing off steam is horrible. It’s a problem, however, if your friends start calling you Eeyore, or Old Faithful because complaint-filled eruptions become your go-to manner of discourse. How do you feel when someone is always complaining and can never find good in anything? It’s good to do a check-up on our lives, and examine the following:
- How much am I complaining?
- Am I coming across as a helpless victim with no control over my situation?
- Has something soured in my spirit that is at the base of my complaining?
If you’re sensing something’s wrong, what’s your plan for getting right again?
I’d suggest you start by taking it to God in prayer. “Hey God, things aren’t working out so well. I’m worried, unsettled. I want to trust you more, know that I should, but it’s easier to complain.” Sometimes just naming that can help get us unstuck and moving in a positive direction again.
Try to Be a Palm Tree Believer
Whenever there’s a hurricane, news programs show palm trees bending in the ferocious wind. Debris blows through the air, everything is breaking, other trees are snapping, but somehow most of the palm trees make it. How is that? Three things.
Sink your spiritual Roots Deep
First, palm trees have a big root ball right at the base that acts as an anchor; the roots sink deep into the earth. Psalm 1 talks about sinking your spiritual roots deep. As we grow in faith, trust in God, we sink those roots deeper and deeper. If you take all this too lightly and don’t develop any depth to your faith, don’t be surprised if circumstances toss you like a tumbleweed, and every little thing becomes way more significant than it needs to be. The good thing about spiritual maturity is it gives you perspective, and little things stay small.
Be flexible like a Palm Tree
Second, palm trees are flexible. With most trees, we can figure out how old they were by counting the rings in the trunk. But palms grow with fibers similar to a bundle of cables, which makes them flexible. Our faith teaches us to be open, to imagine God still working in everything this world throws at us. Remember, the great love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us not to insist on our way.
Fold your hands in prayer like a Palm Tree folds its branches
Third, palm branches aren’t like other heavy tree branches that snap in the wind. Last week in Iowa, after hurricane-force winds blew across the state, I saw downed trees and heavy limbs everywhere. But palm trees are different because their leaves act like a sail in the wind, putting too much stress on the branch. But a palm branch has relatively light, and airy fronds that let the wind pass through and the branches fold in together almost like hands closing in prayer and let the hurricane blow right through. Prayer and folding in together with others in faith help you endure the storms of life.
A few years ago, we drove through Miami right after a hurricane. Streets and yards were littered with stuff lying all over the place, broken trees, branches fell on cars. And there were all these palm trees standing up straight and tall basking in the beautiful sunshine. This week when you see palm trees remember the lessons.
Are focusing too much on the past singing Yesterday or are you Keepin’ the Faith?
When the Hebrews were hit with the adversity of diminishing food supplies, they freaked out–despite all of the ways God had already been there for them and brought them through so much. They only saw the past. “Yes, we were slaves, but in Egypt, we had bread and stew (fleshpots) to eat.” Fleshpots refer to pots of stew they ate. The Hebrews would rather return to slavery (slavery!) than trust God through the challenges of the wilderness.
They sounded a little too much like Paul McCartney singing, Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it seems they are here to stay.
They could have used some Billy Joel realism from the song Keepin’ the Faith.
‘Cause the good ole days weren’t Always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems, I’m keepin’ the faith.
When situations are anxious and uncertain, the temptation is to see the past through rose-colored glasses. As humans, we prefer the familiar–even if it was awful–to the anxiety of an uncertain future. But focusing too much on the past sabotages our future. An idyllic vision of the past that refuses to adapt to new realities will always lead to disappointment and failure. This is true of individuals and churches and institutions and even nations.
Focusing too much on the past keeps you from realizing what’s right in front of you.
Trying to bring back yester-year is like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube. It’s just not going to happen.
There was a time in my life where things just fell apart. All I could think about and envision was going back to the way it used to be. It made me miserable. I put all my energy into trying to recreate what I had always known, but he more I focused on what I’d lost, the blinder I was to the new directions God was leading. Sometimes you just should stop trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. Consequently, it wasn’t until I stopped trying to cram things into what was familiar that I became open to new opportunities that would have never happened along the old trajectory.
What is Manna? Yes!
Yahweh provided for the starving Israelites by sending quail and manna. The word manna means literally, “What is it?” The narrator draws our attention to the qualities of manna: It was a filmy, airy substance. People harvested the manna every day for decades. No one went starved, because there was enough for everyone. No one hoarded manna because it spoiled quickly. We learn two main lessons from the manna experience.
Manna teaches us to let go of the past and focus daily bread
The first we reiterate in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We learn to rely on God and to be thankful for our necessities and try not to get so worked up about our wants. Maybe you are more familiar with the way Mick Jagger sings it, “You can’t always get what you wanted. You may try sometime, and you will find; you get what you need.” We pray for our daily bread, not tomorrow’s bread today, to soothe our anxiety.
Manna teaches us about God’s economy
The second lesson of manna reveals God’s economic system, where everyone has enough, and no one hoards. We are challenged to ask the questions that our economy never considers, such as: how much is enough? One of the things that made the character Walter White in Breaking Bad so tragic is his answer to “How much is enough,” was always, “More.” Driven by the thrill of accumulating more, he destroys all that is important to him. Once the drive for accumulation for accumulation’s sake becomes a primary motivator, it leads to catastrophic results.
Pharaoh developed a production system that was based on more. It led to the enslavement of the Hebrews and it led to enslavement and degradation of innocent people ever since. We always have to be careful because there are so many pressures in our system to make us fear that we never have enough, and we always need to drive for more.
Three rules about financial stewardship and wealth accumulation
I like the way John Wesley, the founder of Methodism talked about it. He said we should do three things: make all that you can in a way that honors your neighbor and yourself; save all you can in a way that honors your neighbor and yourself and give all you can in a way that honors your neighbor and yourself.
One of the great problems in the world today is not that there are not enough resources to go around. There is enough food to feed everyone, there is enough shelter to provide for everyone there is enough money to ensure a good quality of life for everyone. The problem is about distribution and human greed, not limited resources. That problem is that we still haven’t learned the lesson from the wilderness. Take only what you need; share; be fair.
When we can apply the wilderness lesson to our lives we can we can step out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Instead of complaining, look to increase your trust in God. Embrace a palm tree spirituality that can bend and not break in the storm and apply the lesson of manna—rely on God and look out for those around you to see that they have enough. Amen.