|The Barnabas Ministry
The story of the Exodus is the one of the greatest stories in the Bible. This single event, more than any other, came to define the children of Israel. Even the New Testament writers found an analogy between the exodus out of Egypt to the Promised Land and the Christian pilgrimage to heaven. As one author has said:
The Exodus tradition lies at the heart of the faith in the OT. It is the supreme example of Yahweh's saving activity on behalf of his chosen people, and as such it becomes a paradigm for all acts of salvation. (J. Gordon McConville, Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:601).
For those of us who have been through negative spiritual experiences, there are many similarities between that experience and the enslavement and delivery of Israel from Egypt. Of course, there are some serious differences, and these are relatively evident. The point of this study is to examine the similarities and ponder the differences so we might better understand and recover from our negative spiritual experiences.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
As a group, people in the midst of unhealthy or abusive church environments, or those seeking to recover from such an environment, are very much in need of hope. I believe a thoughtful look at the story of Israel in Egypt can help us understand the dynamics that make an Egypt the sort of place that requires an Exodus or a midnight flight to Midian. Along the way, we can come to understand a lot about ourselves and about how God calls us to him. It is my hope that this study brings to life observations and lessons from the Scriptures to help those hurting and in need.
Now hurry back to my father and say to him, `This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don't delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me--you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.' (Genesis 45:9-11)
If you'll recall, the first descendant of Abraham to go to Egypt was Joseph. He was taken there, against his will, at the outset of one of the most amazing sagas of the Old Testament. Joseph learned to make the situation work for him, though there were some terrible ups and downs in the experience.
The significance of Joseph being in Egypt doesn't come into view until years later. There was a famine in Canaan but food in Egypt due to the providence of God and the outstanding planning and leadership of Joseph. Jacob sent his sons to get food, and in time the entire family reunites and moves to Egypt to survive. In the lifetimes of those who came to Egypt from Canaan, Egypt was good. For many generations, the heirs of Jacob prospered in the fertile Goshen region of Egypt.
So Egypt wasn't always a bad place. Compared to the land of Canaan and its famine, it was a great place. This is a lesson we need to learn about our own Egypts. By the time we figure out that a place or situation qualifies as an "Egypt," we will have a lot of questions about the experience. Many of those questions will have to do with how and why we ended up in our Egypt. Were we seriously flawed somehow? Were we being punished? Were we duped? Did we just make a foolish decision?
Each of these options has something in common. They all seek human explanations for things that happen. They neglect God and God's way of working in our lives. They neglect the "big picture" so critical to understanding how God views things.
At a fundamental level, we may observe that each of us ends up in our Egypt for some good reasons, even if there were less than desirable or unhealthy dynamics present. There was something reasonable, good and attractive about our Egypt. Egypt wasn't always a bad place. For the Israelites, it was food and survival that drew them to Egypt. For us, it might have been learning the Bible, establishing our relationships with God, getting more involved in a church, establishing relationships with others that were spiritually oriented. Perhaps there was the opportunity to pursue spiritual adventures or dreams like mission work or full-time ministry.
There's another thing we need to recognize about our Egypt. It just might still be a good place for some people who are there. One man's Pithom (one of the cities the Israelites built under slavery) just might be another man's Goshen. Sometimes people in Goshen have a hard time believing Pithom exists; sometimes people in Pithom have a hard time believing Goshen exists. We might be hurt if somebody calls our Goshen a Pithom, or our Pithom a Goshen.
So who decides if a place is a Goshen or a Pithom for them? The person who is in it. How can you tell if you're in a Goshen or a Pithom? Keep reading (though there is a chart at the end of this study summarizing many of the observations made throughout the study).
If you are in (or recently escaped from) a Pithom, this study is for you. If you are in a Goshen, enjoy it, but also read on. Like the Israelites, you may soon find yourself in a Pithom. Or you may find your Goshen is a lot more like a Pithom than you originally thought.
People who have left an Egypt, or want to leave an Egypt, have a desire to curse an Egypt. Before we curse our Egypt, for whatever it became, we must remember it wasn't always curse worthy-- and for some, it is still not curse worthy. As we make efforts to understand how God worked for our good in things that became bad, we will be equipped to understand how he will work in our exodus as well.
Tale of Two
Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. "Look," he said to his people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." (Exodus 1:8-10)
Even if Egypt started out good for the Israelites, in time it did go bad for them. A puny minded leader, ignorant of his own country's history, got afraid of the descendants of Jacob and persuaded the people of Egypt to turn on the Israelites. Outwardly claiming wisdom and a commitment to make the land more secure, they enslaved the sons of Jacob and worked them ruthlessly.
Observe what the king of Egypt said: "The Israelites are too numerous." How would the number of the Israelites be a problem to him, unless he was concerned about control? But there is more to leadership than control-- except to those who think leadership is all about control.
Notice what else the king said: "They will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country." He is concerned about loyalty. But the Israelites had already been quite loyal in Egypt. How would they benefit from fighting against Egypt when being there is prosperous? It just doesn't make any sense. But in spite of logic, the Egyptian king was concerned about the loyalty of the Israelites.
Control and loyalty. These two traits are usually found at the root in an abusive or unhealthy situation. And in this situation, we can see that there was no objective reason for the king of Egypt to be concerned about these things. So what drives someone to be concerned about control and loyalty when there is no reason to feel threatened about them? His own insecurity? Paranoia? Narcissism? Ego? If the nation is "all about him" then all of those things matter. If it is "all about the people" then they don't matter.
What a contrast compared to the king of Egypt who appointed Joseph to leadership.
"And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine." The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, "Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?" Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you." (Genesis 41:33-39)
He was concerned about a coming famine. Perhaps other kings would have ordered the grain hoarded for the royal family and the army. He could have reinforced the palace walls to make sure the people didn't attack him as he lived in luxury while they starved. But this king took steps to make sure the people were cared for. He didn't have to be in charge of it all; he was willing to implement Joseph's plan, elevate him to an incredible position of responsibility and give him credit for the plan. He even opened his arms to outsiders to provide for them. This is the legitimate, moral place of leadership-- to provide for the people. He was humble, benevolent and shrewd.
What a stark contrast between these two kings! Moral leadership serves the people for their good; immoral leadership exploits the people for its own ends. Leadership has a lot to do with turning a good place into a bad place.
What makes a leadership go from
having legitimate moral authority
to lead (leading for the benefit of those being led) to exercising
illegitimate, immoral authority (leading for the benefit of the
leaders)? In the case of Egypt and Israel, it was a combination of
insecurity, incompetence, fear and a lust for power and greatness.
Perhaps leaders today have a well intentioned notion that it really
does know what is best for those "inferior" people being
led, and the ends justify the means, and they end up with a mess
before they know it. Or, perhaps they are cunning and plan to use the
people for their own benefit from the outset. Only God really knows.
Perhaps intermediate leaders feel the need to submit to the superior
"wisdom" of the leadership, perhaps they trusted people
higher up in the system and were "in" before they knew it.
It seems like such a leadership has generally forgotten that is it God who bestows the blessings, it is God who makes something great. Is he not capable of defending or expanding something of merit as it suits him, without man's manipulations? This confirms a third component of unhealthy leadership that has already been suggested, and this trait is pride.
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:11)
Imagine going from freedom to enslavement overnight. How could the leader of Egypt pull this off? It seems to me that it would take physical intimidation, probably many "test cases" of injuring or killing people who objected, and a ruthless security force to keep the slaves in line.
Perhaps the example of how Hitler enslaved the Jews during his rule in Germany might give us an indication of how this happened. Hitler stirred up hatred towards the Jews. Nationalistic pride and blaming the Jews for Germany's problems fueled getting ordinary Germans to go along with the plan. He made them wear distinctive clothing, he confiscated their personal property and eventually rounded them up into ghettos. Along the way, humiliation, murder and intimidation enforced the control. Do what you are told, or you are shot dead.
The Israelites didn't originally
move to Pithom, they moved to
Goshen. Similarly, people don't sign up for an abusive spiritual
experience; they become involved in something that looks very good.
But any spiritual organization that is characterized by the
leadership using the membership for their own ends (control and
loyalty) is by definition abusive. But if there are no bars, how can
it be a prison? If there are no chains, how can it be like slavery?
How does it happen?
First, as we have already discussed, a critical decision is made. The leaders decide that the organization matters more than the people. The leader of Egypt decided that Egypt (and its king!) should be great, at the expense of the people. Instead of Egypt taking care of its people, the people now take care of Egypt. In a spiritually abusive situation, this same thing takes place. Whatever good might exist in an organization, a decision is made that that "good" must be elevated and promulgated at whatever cost to the members. Instead of the organization taking care of the people, the people now take care of the organization. Newer members may see the organization as something that benefits the people. But if the decision is made that the organization matters more than the people, eventually this reality will become evident.
As a direct result of this critical change in values, an "us" and "them" situation is set up. The leaders and their cohorts are now the custodians of the system. Because they are custodians of the all-important system, they are "in" and everybody else is not. Nobody else will ever really be "in" in this system-- but the possibility of being "in" is something that is dangled before everybody. Public discourse and the organization's culture soon elevate being "in" as more important than salvation. Those who are "in" have the inside scoop of what's going on, and everybody presumes they are closer to God as well-- after all, they are the leaders. Everybody thinks being "in" is something noble.
A hierarchical structure of some sort is ideally suited to an abusive situation. This doesn't mean that all structures or hierarchies are necessarily abusive (indeed, these can be truly helpful in a healthy organization), but in an abusive situation these structures offer degrees of "in-ness." Once the structure is in place and people want to be "in," they want to be "higher up" in the hierarchy (which is taken to be the same as being more spiritual and closer to God)-- now a means exists to grant people varying degrees of "in-ness." "In-ness" is constantly presented as the goal of the membership. Those who are "more in" are spoken of in better terms ("what a great disciple," "she's grown so much in such a short time"), held up as examples for the others and given positions of subordinate leadership. Members "in/out" status is put into the hands of the leaders, and they decide who is "in." One's "in-ness" depends upon loyalty to the system and leaders being given and repeatedly demonstrated.
If there is reluctance or questioning of the system, or if the flaws of the system are mentioned, this much-desired "in-ness" will be diminished or taken away. For example, positions of subordinate leadership will be taken away and one will be spoken of in desparaging terms ("struggling," "not doing well", "in sin," "has a bad heart" or other shaming phrases). And all of this is based upon one's "loyalty" to the leaders and the system. Healthy loyalty is important in all human realtionships, but notice how loyalty to the system and leadership is warped to become the primary spiritual characteristic to be cultivated in an unhealthy system. Godliness has become subordinate.
Once a member lets the leadership become the custodian and steward of God's blessings ("in-ness") in his life, he is ripe to be controlled by that leadership. He has forged his own chains, he has created his own prison cell.
The system is also perpetuated by all public discourse about the system being only positive. We might recall "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen, an instructive story about human nature and going against the crowd. The story shows that people naturally ignore all sorts of absurdities in the interest of not appearing foolish to others. Leaders in abusive systems tell those who question that they aren't mature enough to understand, they aren't "in" enough to understand (don't know all what's going on at the higher levels), or the like. Granted, someone who has been a part of a church for three months probably fits in this category. But what about someone who has been a part of it for ten years or more? I'm ashamed to have been taken in and participated in such a system.
So what makes members "buy in" to such a system? Pride and a piece of the system. Talk about how this movement is the best movement, "the movement of God," fosters a sense of pride. Typically this is done by finding a particular characteristic that the movement wants to specialize in. It focuses on this, and then it uses this criteria as the single measurement of itself and all others. When the system finds itself to be "superior" to all other churches in this one all-important area (surprise!), it now considers itself "the movement of God." Of course, nobody talks about other areas of spiritual concern, and even those who are comparable to the system in their favorite area are conveniently dismissed for some reason or another.
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)
We all want to think we are the
best at something-- and what
better thing to be the best at than being a Christian? And via the
structure or hierarchy, a mechanism is in place to give people a way
to measure how good they are (in the system's eyes, anyway). Those
who are loyal to the system can be rewarded and given a little piece
of "turf" to control for themselves-- a role, a small group
or area of ministry to lead. A lot of people get some "in-ness"
out of the system, and this is how it holds together as long as it
does despite all of the other problems.
This doesn't mean those in the system are bad people. In fact, they are often heroic; trying to bridge the gap between the dysfunctional organization that is focused on control and loyalty and the people with real needs. Many middle-level people in such a system end up serving both those they lead and the system, burning the candle at both ends. They are caught up in something that is different than what they were originally involved in, and something more complex than they expected. By the time people begin to perceive these differences and complexities, they are exhausted but well invested in the system. Someone who has spent his entire adult life as a professional minister in such an organization has few other career options. Someone who has invested years of her life as a member feels like leaving would be "throwing all those years away." These investments and "in-ness" help to keep people in a system they know has major problems. It becomes a prison without bars, enslavement without chains.
What made your Egypt go bad? Chances are it was some sort of enslavement, wasn't it? Some sort of exploitation? Something based upon fear and control? Some sort of "bait and switch" from godliness to position? You woke up one day and realized that uneasy feeling you'd been having was a feeling of being trapped. You have already done the hard part of learning from experience-- you've experienced the pain. Now take some time to understand it so you can learn the lessons God wants you to take from the experience. I suggest writing down and/or sharing these with someone else. Putting words on the experience helps immensely.
Once you understand what happened, you will still need to recognize that none of these things would have worked on you if you didn't want them. Every trap needs bait, without bait the trap won't work. What were the things that you wanted and that the unhealthy system offered? Those who engage in unhealthy or abusive practices are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable-- but without your desires for whatever things the system offered you, you could not have been enslaved and exploited by them.
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:12-13)
As if the mere notion of being enslaved wasn't bad enough, there was also a particular animosity towards the Israelites. The fear of losing control makes an oppressive leadership even more oppressive. Not satisfied with mere control and demands of loyalty, it takes to demeaning its subjects. The godliness and moral authority that ought to characterize spiritual leadership vanishes and gets replaced by fear, control-based leadership and harshness.
Relational isolation between
leaders and those they lead is a
critical stage towards an increasingly unhealthy environment. It is a
step of de-humanization. Once a group of people is viewed as less
valuable or desirable, it opens the door to treating them poorly. A
structure or hierarchy enables this to happen very easily because it
inherently isolates the people away from the leaders.
Another by-product of enslavement is over-work. For many generations, the Israelites prospered as willing and productive members of Egyptian society. Their hard work and prosperity also enriched Egypt. Once enslavement took place, there was no more willing contribution to that society at all. It was all forced, under compulsion. A spiritual system that changes from things being done willingly to things being done under compulsion has made the transition from a healthy system to an unhealthy system. Willing contributions are blessed by God, but contributions made under compulsion are condemned by God (2 Corinthians 9:7). Motives are important to God (Matthew 6:1ff, 1 Corinthians 4:5), but an unhealthy system demands results and couldn't care less about motives.
It also seems that the Egyptians tried to justify the abuse and break down the dignity of the Israelites by telling them they were "bad" or "inferior" or "lazy" (ref. Exodus 5:8, 17; though the Scripture references point to the time of the plagues, it certainly seems consistent with the earlier treatment). When an unhealthy leadership knows the people will not leave, it is emboldened to treat them as harshly as it wants for a variety of reasons-- to break down their spirits, to increase production or simply to demonstrate control and their loyalty. But a leadership that tears down the membership instead of building it up it has lost its moral authority to lead, it has crossed over from being healthy to being unhealthy (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10).
Sometimes abusive leaders tell people to "Seek first the kingdom" (Matthew 6:33) and twist this to equate the "kingdom" with the "system." This is an attempt to justify making the system the most important thing for everybody. But in context, Jesus is telling people to make spiritual things a priority in comparison to physical things. He is not supporting the idea of a church system becoming the dominant, controlling factor in one's life. When the system becomes more important than God or the people, it has crossed over from being healthy to being unhealthy. A system where everything done ends up being viewed in terms of how it affects the system or one's place in the system has become unhealthy.
Abusive leaders may also cite
passages such as Luke 9:23,
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up
his cross daily and follow me" as evidence that hardship in
serving the system is to be expected. However, Jesus was talking
about people following him, not building a church system. And what
was the intended source of these sufferings? Was it people opposed to
the gospel and godliness, or perhaps one's own sinful nature, or was
it from the hands of one's own leadership to "break them
Hardships exist in doing anything worthwhile. But spiritually abusive environments will employ hardships arbitrarily, inequitably and/or wastefully. They will be artificially orchestrated to humilitate, exasperate or control people, or to give them a "chance" to demonstrate their loyalty and submission. Some people will have it harder than others. And in the end, the hardships only perpetuate an insatiable system that does not serve or benefit the members. These are some of the differences between worthwhile and abusive hardships.
When I was a part of an unhealthy church and I read about hardships and oppressors in the Bible (like in the Psalms), my leadership always came to mind first. The ruthless treatment, whether arbitrary or deliberate (and there was both), was far and away the biggest source of hardship in my life, more than the rejections of family, friends and coworkers, and more than the denial of pleasures in my life. How I ever considered this normal or tolerable, I don't know.
When you consider your hardships at the hands of the leadership-- ask yourself if this is what you really think it was like with Jesus and the apostles. You may continue to persevere through the system's hardships, but at this stage you might be best off calling them what they are: "abuse" and perhaps even "persecution."
In your Egypt, how was the treatment at the hands of the leadership? Was there distance? Treatment with disrespect? Animosity? Over-work? Compulsion? Were you torn down by insults? Arbitrary hardships on a whim, or deliberate hardships as part of a "control ritual" to break you down? What other words would you use to describe what happened?
In all of this, we may also draw some comfort that things done for Christ, even in an unhealthy environment, will not be forgotten by him (Hebrews 6:10).
Correct Response to Embittering Circumstances
They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:14)
Abusive treatment makes people bitter. Bitterness is a healthy response to a painful or overwhelming situation. It is noteworthy that God does not condemn Israel's bitterness here; instead the Scripture finds fault with those who made Israel's life bitter. Consider the comments of one scholar:
Generally, bitterness or emotional sorrow is not regarded as a sin. However, when one rejects the sovereign plan of God for his or her life and responds in bitterness and anger against God, this is wrong behavior. (Gary V. Smith, Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2:1111).
The Israelites were hardly sinning because they realized had been treated poorly and enslaved. Bitterness proves to be an important part of the bigger picture of this whole story, as we will see later in this study.
about bitterness is
important in understanding Egypt. One of the marks of an unhealthy or
abusive spiritual system is persistent warnings to people about being
bitter. An abusive environment wants you to only think about the
"positive" things going on, if you recognize the negatives
then the system would be exposed as not being all it is presented to
be. Such a realization would threaten the control of the leadership
and the existence of the entire system itself. To keep you from
thinking about the negative things going on, all negative feelings
are stigmatized with words like "bitterness" or
"critical." They try to scare you out of recognizing
and reacting to unhealthy things and abuses in the way that God
It's OK to be bitter about bitter things, such as being treated ruthlessly. Bitterness is a sin when it is unjustified (as in the case of petty fault-finding or blame-shifting, ref. Jude 1:16) or when it is dwelled upon and then accompanied by other sinful traits. The command to "get rid of all bitterness" (Ephesians 4:31) isn't talking about truly embittering or sorrowful situations; it perhaps even recognizes that bitterness is a stage, albeit a stage that we ought to work through with the power of the Holy Spirit (notice the passive verb in the following NASB translation).
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:30-32)
I suspect that nothing helped the
Israelites get over their
bitterness quite like getting out of Egypt and becoming free!
The command to not let a bitter root grow up (Hebrews 12:15) speaks to the whole church, not allowing bitter circumstances to develop. In any situation where there is bitterness, there is a causing circumstance as well as the reaction. "Getting rid of bitterness" is also about getting rid of embittering situations. Many leaders who tell people to "not be bitter" are often the very ones creating and perpetuating embittering situations. Can you envision the first-century church deliberately causing bitterness among its members? I can't. The text concerning "bitter envy" (James 3:14) is interesting-- abusive systems set up rivalries but then tell you not to be bitter about them! We'll talk more about this later.
Not only is it not a sin to recognize abuse and be "bitter" about it, it is exactly what God expects us to do. In fact, God designed the Passover with this in mind:
The literal use of "bitter" applies to the sour taste of wormwood (Prov 5:4, Lam 3:15) or bitter herbs (maror, Exod 12:8, Num 9:11) eaten at the Passover. The bitter herbs reminded the Israelites of the bitter experience of slavery in Egypt, from which God delivered them (Exod 1:14). (Gary V. Smith, ibid., 2:1110).
Embittering circumstances are to
be recognized and remembered so
God might be given credit for delivering us from them.
(For a more detailed discussion on the concept of bitterness, see the Barnabas Ministry article on bitterness.)
One more characteristic of this Israelite enslavement bears noting. For a time, the Egyptians wanted to kill the baby boys, but let the baby girls live. How "great" can a nation be if it practices killing newborn children?
The Egyptians feared those who could challenge their control and did not want them to mature, but they tolerated those would not challenge their control. The Egyptians were in a bind—they wanted the strength of Israel for their benefit, but they didn’t want that strength turned against them. But how could Egypt benefit from the slave labor of women alone? Wasn’t it the Israelite men who did the heavy labor of building?
We learn a couple things about unhealthy or abusive systems here. First, abusive systems are designed to be unchangeable by those being controlled. Those in control don't want anybody to rise up and challenge them. Remember, it is all about control and loyalty. Even if it means killing babies. Thankfully, abusive churches don't physically kill those who disagree with the group in control; however, they kill them in terms of influence by discouraging, depersonalizing, devaluing, marginalizing, exasperating and/or discrediting them. This is the price one pays in an abusive system for valuing truth more than being "in," for daring to say the emperor is naked. The key trait for survival in an abusive system is going along with those in control.
Second, unhealthy and abusive systems are a bit self-defeating-- and for that we should all be thankful. A system that simultaneously wants your strength and doesn't want your strength is a house divided; it cannot stand (ref. Matthew 12:25). You may "succeed" at this or that, or help in this area or that area, but it really doesn't want your influence-- it wants your submission. It may seem like the system cares about certain issues (e.g. people that leave the system). But when it has a chance to actually do something to improve that issue, it opts to retain its unhealthy traits (e.g. control) instead. And these are the very traits that are causing the problem! This provides that sinking feeling that "you can never win" in an abusive system. Those issues are brought up not because the system really wants them to be better, but as another arbitrary item to make members feel guilty about.
In my old system, there was all sorts of talk about the "fall-away rate" (that is, how many people left the church). In public discourse, the leaders really seemed to care about this. But when I realized and suggested that the leading reason people were leaving the church was because of its unhealthy characteristics, I became a suspect. It showed me, clearly, that the leaders didn't really care about people leaving if it meant them having to address and change the unhealthy characteristics of the system. All the talk about people leaving the system was just something else to blame on the people and not the system. If the people tried harder, then there wouldn't be a problem. It was another instance of a "control ritual" that I witnessed frequently. A leader would identify some shortcoming of the people and blame them for it, then the guilty people are supposed to do what the leaders say (usually "try harder") because the problem is never the fault of the system or the leadership. I look back on my experiences and see this paradigm repeated often in my experience in an unhealthy church.
In what ways did you "never win" in your Egypt? In what ways were you depersonalized, devalued, marginalized or discredited? What "control rituals" did you experience? In what ways did you do this to others?
Being “In” in
Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. (Acts 7:22)
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. (Exodus 2:11)
Moses is a certainly an exception to the fate of the rest of the Israelites. Though descended from Jacob, he grew up as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. He had all the privilege that existed. Even in the midst of Israelite slavery, Egypt was a good place for him! And this isn't just a matter of perspective like the Goshen/Pithom distinction we've made. Pithom is only bad for the oppressed; it's not bad at all for those in control, for those in the "in" group. And all abusive situations have an "in" group. Egypt is absolutely wonderful for them!
One reason many people have a hard time believing their Goshen is a Pithom to others is because they are in the "in" group. If anybody from the "in" group takes an honest look at how things are for everybody else, like Moses did, then they get the real picture. But if they isolate themselves or work to silence or discredit "negative" feedback, they'll never really see how life is for everybody else.
There are plenty of people who
benefit in abusive systems. Pithom
is always a wonderful place if you're connected, if you're “in.”
In spiritually abusive situations, full-time people, especially
higher-up leaders, often live significantly better than the members
of the church. Other people can be "in" for worldly
reasons-- being related to somebody, being the favorite of a leader
or for any number of other reasons. Those who are "in"
receive many perks. Their sins and failings are excused or minimized.
They will receive favorable treatment in appointments and
assignments. They are allowed to associate more closely and freely
with the higher-ups. They are allowed to "pass the buck"
for failings to somebody else, nothing is ever really their fault or
responsibility. Yet, these perks are a two-edged sword. They can be
taken away in an instant if they challenge the system or are somehow
disloyal to the higher leadership.
As we discussed earlier, abusive systems try to make everybody think they are "in" in some way, to secure their loyalty. It might be easy to criticize those who are "more in" than you in such a system, but you don't have to be in an abusive system for long before you are also "in" in some ways. I took a special delight in having been around the system for many years. It was my tenure, the proof that I knew the ropes and had attained something in the church. The experience and having stayed around the system when so many others had left under various aspects of poor treatment was a badge of honor, a mark of my loyalty. I wasn't at the top of the totem pole, but I wasn't at the bottom either. There was a certain amount of security to my place in the system, nobody could take away the time I had put into it or the endurance I had shown through various abuses and hardships.
Over the years, I've seen the favoritism that "in-ness" brings in many ways. I've benefitted from it at times, and I've seen others benefit from it as well. In what ways did your Egypt benefit you? In what ways were you “in?” What were some of the perks of being "in" that you saw? You need to realize your place in the system.
In contemplating leaving the abusive spiritual system, one of the things that went through my head had to do with "throwing it all away." Throwing what away? My tenure, my connections, my "in-ness." All that stuff I'd worked for, all the abuses I'd endured to retain my "in-ness." Goodness! What a blessing to throw it away and only have my "in-ness" in Christ!
The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, "Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?" (Exodus 2:13)
The Israelites were enslaved, but here they are fighting each other. What a benefit for the Egyptians! Slaves fighting each other instead of considering how to be free! Who knows what they were fighting about? I don't know. But it wouldn't make the Israelites any closer to being free, that's for sure.
One of the traits of an abusive
system is to foster unhealthy
competitiveness. If a system establishes a hierarchy, and makes the
higher positions in that hierarchy something to be desired (or the
measure of people's worth), people are taught to compete to be in a
better position in the hierarchy. It's seen as the measure of their
A healthy system may also have a structure or hierarchy. In a healthy system, it is about matching people's gifts, interests, abilities, training and experiences with ministerial functions and needs; those "higher up" in a healthy system love and serve the others. A healthy system doesn't have the extreme, negative side-effects discussed here.
In an unhealthy system, your position in the hierarchy is considered to determine how spiritual/pleasing to God you are and how worthwhile you are. It can have a significant impact upon how valued you are by the system, what people will think of you, who your friends are and even who you date and marry and who your kids' friends will be. It determines how close to "truth" your opinion will be. In an abusive system, the higher position is your ticket to the things you want.
But as in any pyramid system, a hierarchy has only so many positions the "higher up" you go. So instead of everybody being your brother or sister, they are now your rivals for those few positions. You have to compete against them to get what the system has trained you to want. The people who don't want to get involved in the rat-race that follows are pretty much considered useless by the system.
What an ingenious invention by the architects of the system! You stay enslaved to the system by building up your own value in the system. You have worked to reach a certain level, and you feel entitled to that position. You are no longer just a victim of the system, you are now a part-owner! The system isolates you from those who ought to be your brothers and sisters and can easily turn all of you into each other's rivals. What a contrast to the true spirit and content of the one-another passages!
This competitiveness haunts the abusive system, as do the accompanying demons of favoritism and cronyism. It introduces a host of unhealthy dynamics that we can only begin to describe here. For example, I am embarrassed to admit that I inwardly rejoiced when others failed because it made my stock go higher. Accordingly, for years I would be afraid to confess sins or be open about other things because it could cost me my place in the system. And when you see others "fall" in their position in the system, it sends a chilling warning to everybody. You definitely don't want to be like them and lose your position. Of course, if the person who fell was higher than you, it's both a chilling warning and an opportunity-- who will get promoted to take their place?!
In a healthy system, one might step down from a position of leadership due to family issues or personal sins or struggles or because they feel it is the right thing to do at the time for any number of reasons. In an abusive system, only rarely does somebody willingly step down from a position of leadership. People are usually taken out because of their failure to produce or some form of "disloyalty" (such as disagreeing with the higher-up leaders, not being easy to control or failing to control others, or an an example to others). It is rare that they are actually taken out for something the Scriptures would identify as sin.
Those who fail to produce but are considered loyal can be sent elsewhere for "retraining" but those who are disloyal or problematic will be sent to the Moon (figuratively speaking, of course).
One odd stunt I've seen pulled is casting doubt upon the conversions of people-- someone baptized in that very movement or loyal to it for years might go from being a mid-level leader to "not being a Christian at all" (so the leadership says) overnight. Once this pronouncement is made, it's the perfect excuse to take somebody down as far as the leaders want to take them.
The leaders usually make sure that demotions are a humiliating experience. It's a tool to discourage others from being disloyal to the leaders. Once it happens to you, though, you start seeing how arbitrary and warped the whole thing is. One day you are somebody people rely upon for leadership and direction, the next day the phone stops ringing and you've become useless. All because of your position in the system!
In the end, advancing in the system or maintaining your position in the system were the most important things. And these were all about being connected to somebody higher up, trying to secure or enhance your position. You needed to be the favorite of somebody. If you wanted to advance in the hierarchy but were blocked out of being the favorite in one place, you needed to work to get to another situation where you could be a favorite there. And don't ever get on the bad side of the higher-up leaders!
Do you want to advance in the system? Be a favorite. Don't seriously question anything. I've been a favorite and I've been the disliked one. I've been promoted because I was a favorite and I've been passed over because somebody else was the bigger favorite. I know how the game is played.
The strange thing is, instead of feeling controlled by the system, you feel invested in it. You want to protect the system because it is what provides you with something you value-- your hard-earned position. It might not be much, but at least it's yours, and you feel as though you've earned it. Ingenious, isn't it?
The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, "Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?" The man said, "Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?" Then Moses was afraid and thought, "What I did must have become known." (Exodus 2:13-14)
To his credit, as a young man Moses came from his position of comfort and put his own neck on the line to try to bring change for his brothers. This noble trait is something about Moses that is rarely discussed, probably because the attempt ended in "failure."
Think of how easy it would have been for Moses' to just go back to his home, back to the palace, and tell himself, "That's just the way it is" or, "It's too bad that these people are enslaved." If more privileged Moses' would actually visit the Pithom's of the world and see how people live, I think there would be less spiritual abuse and a lot less unhealthy spiritual situations. It takes a lot of courage to be a Moses, because as we see here, you will incur rejection and hatred from just about everybody in sight.
Moses should have been received as a hero, but was rejected with contempt instead. For all of the bravado of leaders in unhealthy and abusive systems, how many of them have the real courage necessary to put their necks on the line like Moses and seek to really change an unhealthy system?
Now to the people of Israel.
You'd think people that had been
enslaved for generations would be a little more eager to be rescued,
a little more eager to stop and think about what was really going on
and to hear truth from a guy putting his neck on the line to say it.
But what is it that made them reject the rescuer? "Who made you
ruler and judge?" The people were focused on position, not
In an unhealthy or abusive system, position is everything. Position determines if "truth" really is truth. If person x is a nobody in the system and says something, peope say, "So what?" But if person y is a big leader in the system and says the exact same thing, people eat it up like it came from Mt. Horeb. What's the difference? To paraphrase the real estate slogan, "Position, position, position."
On the surface, it seems that these Israelites thought Moses didn't do it “the right way.” I wish I had a buck for every time I said that, thought that, or heard that about somebody who sought to bring about change in an unhealthy or abusive system. Why does "style" or position matter more than truth?
In an unhealthy system, it's the content that makes the style "wrong." It's the content that makes the position "inadequate."
If we're afraid of challenging the abuses of the system because of the implications of making the challenge (losing "in-ness"), then anything that points out the abuses of the system has to be avoided, discredited or defeated at all costs. Rather than address the truth and the system, the system's victim-defenders address the truth-tellers "style" or position instead.
I've seen truth-tellers criticized for not being good enough, loyal enough, mature enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough, committed enough, "fruitful" enough. I've seen them be criticized for being "emotional," "self-appointed," not "well enough informed" and the like. I've done some of this criticizing myself. But what should matter is truth, not the person speaking the truth, not how that truth is communicated. Watch out for anybody defending an abusive system by counter-attacking the person speaking truth about it, especially about "how" the speaker of truth goes about speaking truth or whether they have an adequate position to discuss such matters.
Truth has its own inherent moral authority. It overrides style and position considerations. Any way you say the truth, it is still truth.
People who hear truth but don't heed truth don't love the truth. Period. When truth no longer matters in a system, it's pointless to appeal to truth. When there is no love for the truth, there is no "right enough" way to tell people bent on control to give that control up. There is no "right enough" way to tell people focused upon loyalty to them that God expects loyalty to him instead. There is no "right enough" way to tell an abuser he is an abuser.
However, it might not be something as noble as fear or position-sensitive thinking that drove this rejection of Moses. Perhaps these Israelites thought that if they sided with the system against Moses, their "in-ness" might increase. They could advance themselves in the system at the expense of Moses; their rejection of Moses would impress Pharaoh. They could tell their Egyptian slave-masters, "Yeah, I knew Moses was a troublemaker and I challenged him for butting into somebody else's business instead of letting the duly appointed leadership handle it."
I used to think that those who said it "this way" or "that way" but didn't bring about change in my Egypt just messed up. I truly thought that if they said it or did it the "right way," they'd change the system. But I also knew that I could improve my position in the system by pointing out the failures of the truth-tellers. If I side with the system against an attacker, maybe the system will reward me with more "in-ness." Then I can use my increased "in-ness" to really change the system. Hah! Such a reformer may have genuinely good intentions, but he unwittingly reinforces the system he claims he wants to change. Personally, I think throwing Moses "under the bus" is far more despicable than rejecting him on the basis of his lack of position or being afraid of change.
I'm sorry I didn't believe the Moses' that spoke up about my Egypt but criticized them instead. I'm sorry I was more concerned about protecting the system that gave me my position and tenure than truth.
Better Than Change?
"Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Exodus 2:14)
Israel rejected Moses. Imagine someone from the “inner circle” coming to prevent abuse and trying to bring peace among the fighting. Yet they wanted none of it! It could have been fear or scapegoating. But let's consider a third option-- a desire to maintain the status quo, no matter how bad it was.
Why would some people prefer the status quo, bad as it was, to change? Let's list some ways, though I'm sure there are more:
Is slavery better than change? To some people, yes. Isn't that amazing? Isn't it even more amazing and you and I are two of those people? We can learn to adapt to almost anything. And it usually takes a lot of negative things to get us to consider change out of the sheer inconvenience of change.
Think about a time when you were treated poorly as a consumer. A waitress or salesperson was rude or treated you dishonestly. Perhaps a company changed it's service parameters and you now get less or pay more than you used to. You complain, you don't like it, but you don't switch companies or refuse to go to that restaurant anymore. It has to be really bad to get you to do that. It's easier to adapt and put it behind you than to do something about it. And this is noble, to a point:
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. (Proverbs 12:16)
But sometimes these noble traits
of adaptability and
tolerance work against us. There are times when what is needed isn't
adapting but change-- radical change. Not overlooking but
confrontation. But change costs us in terms of investment, comfort
and familiarity. If we feel like we've got something invested in the
status quo, change means we lose that investment. We have to really
want change in order to get change. If we opt for change, then
everything goes on the table, both the good and the bad. Having seen
the some of the subtle ways that abusive systems seek to get us
invested as part-owners, it's no wonder that people often prefer
misery and slavery over change.
If we feel like God led us to our Goshen, we need to remember God also wanted to free the people from Pithom. But, they weren't quite ready just yet. People who resist change in the midst of a terrible situation show they just aren't ready for a change yet.
Systems Resist Change
When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. (Exodus 2:15)
Moses seems to have thought that change could happen if the he got involved and straightened things out. Little did he realize nobody wanted change. We've already seen that the Israelites didn't want change and we've considered why they might have taken this surprising position.
However, we should not be surprised at all that Pharoah didn't want change. Perhaps Moses thought he could just explain what his plan was to improve Egypt to Pharoah and he would understand, perhaps even appreciate the help. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the Disney Movie The Jungle Book, "nobody 'explains' anything to Pharoah."
From my personal experience, any
interest on the part of Pharaoh in your ideas for "change"
in an abusive system is more likely to be mere evidence-gathering
against you to demonstrate your disloyalty. I've expressed ideas on
how change could be made in such a system, only to later realize all
I did was give people the rope to hang me for being "critical"
or "unsupportive" or some other nonsense. I'm not kidding.
Beware of unhealthy systems who say they want to know what you think
and want to meet with you privately. Private meetings can be healthy,
but they can also easily serve the agenda of an unhealthy or abusive
leadership who might be inclined to skew things in their favor. This
is one reason I'm a big proponent of public meetings to discuss
issues like the discussion in Acts 6:1ff.
Pharaoh sought to kill Moses. Spiritually abusive leaders may not seek to kill those desiring change or advocating better treatment for those being abused, but they kill them in other ways-- discrediting them, trying to diminish their influence, speaking against them directly or indirectly, misrepresenting them, marginalizing them, exasperating them, and the like. What should one learn from such an experience? Abusive systems resist change.
Perhaps you think if you just say it the right way, or if you are loyal enough, or if you had the right people on your side, or if you showed the benefit of the changes, change would take place. Moses was a prince of Egypt! How much more "connected" could he have been? And yet, all he got for his sincere efforts to help his country was rejection from everybody involved, and his own grandfather sought to kill him. It doesn't matter who you are or how you say it. Abusive systems resist change.
If you think you can change an abusive system, think again. The proprietors and beneficiaries of an unhealthy and abusive system are not going to give that up unless a "mighty hand" compels them (Exodus 3:19). And only God has such a mighty hand.
Running for Your Life
When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. (Exodus 2:15)
Moses ran for his life to Midian. He left everything behind in Egypt-- his possessions, his siblings Aaron and Miriam, perhaps his parents, most definitely his place of privilege. Why did he leave Egypt? He wanted to live. He ran for his life, Pharoah wanted to kill him.
Moses left Egypt while other Israelites stayed in Egypt. We can observe that all people aren't ready to leave Egypt at the same time. But for those who are running for their lives, leaving quickly is the difference between life and death.
In the past I've crticized people who left saying things like, "I didn't like how they left." When I realized people were running for their lives, I became far less critical of them. People running for their lives in the face of some natural disaster can be excused for how they look or act as they run for their lives.
Sometimes leaving an abusive
situation is a matter of running for
your life spiritually or emotionally. I felt as though I was dying
spiritually before I left. I see others who remain but are dying
spiritually. The desire to live is one of the primary motivators to
leaving a spiritually abusive situation. What is ahead is unknown and
uncertain, but you will be free and you will be alive.
People indoctrinated and invested in an abusive system are prone to view leaving as "falling away" or "failing" or "quitting." This is one of the last-ditch tactics an abusive system uses to keep people who see the problems. But for Moses, leaving Egypt was not "quitting" or "failing" or "falling away." It was more than just running for his life. It was a spiritual and courageous act of faith. Consider this text:
By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. (Hebrews 11:27)
By faith Moses left Egypt. Not by fear, not by failure, not by frustration, but by faith! Moses saw no benefit or redeeming value to his death at the hands of Pharoah, but somehow by faith he saw the value of escaping Pharoah's threat and remaining available for God's purposes in the future. This seems to debunk the idea that "suffering at the hands of an authority until God removes him" is the only righteous option.
Sometimes people that are considering leaving a bad situation think that, if they leave, they have "wasted" all those years in that group. But time that is past is already gone. It can neither be wasted nor redeemed. It's not about wasting the past but wasting the future!
What was it like for Moses that first day and night in Midian? He was in an unfamiliar place, probably afraid and with more questions than answers. But he was free and he was safe. He made his best efforts to bring about change, but nobody was interested. He was no longer concerned with trying to change something he couldn't change. It might be a cliche, but it was the first day of the rest of his life.
The Israelites groaned in their slavery. (Exodus 2:23)
It's amazing that God allowed this misery. He allowed it for generations! Entire generations lived and died in the Egypt slave experience. What a life; something to remember any time we want to feel sorry for ourselves about how many years we “wasted” in our Egypt.
We can get into trouble trying to figure out why certain things happen. Our minds are finite, and only God really knows why things happen. We may be able to identify some good things that can come out of a bad experience, but I don't think God can only bring those good things from a bad experience. Sometimes people looking for the "good thing" that comes out of something terrible haven't personally experienced something terrible, or they desire to have a quick and easy answer to such things.
One comfort in bad experiences that seem unfair is that Christ himself embraced bad experiences. He endured all sorts of rejection and suspicion during his earthly ministry at the hands of duly appointed leaders. He ultimately went to a cross and bore rejection, shame and agony in relative silence. He chose to do this for our salvation. Somehow, our pain connects us with him-- because in His pain he connected with us. We have a Savior who also knows pain.
Misery and bitter pain also make you ready for change. Sometimes we just aren’t ready for change, no matter how many other people's heads get busted, no matter how many babies are killed, no matter how many bricks without straw we have to make. We may even complain against the system, but we continue to adapt.
Misery seems to be God’s way of getting us over the hump, ready to exchange our equity in a putrid status quo for whatever is next. Thankful for misery? Wow. Perhaps we need to promote misery to a better position in our minds.
Crying Out to
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (Exodus 2:23-25)
In their bitterness, they cried out to God. That's always a turning point, isn't it? Now you see why bitterness isn't always a sin. It is part of the process that makes us turn to God. It's one thing to be miserable about a situation and complain about it. It's another thing to be ready for change. When you really want change, when you're at the end of your rope, you cry out to God for it.
In time, God hears and is ready to act. Why does he act at one time and not at another? I don't know. But we might conclude that God will act at some point, and that the time of misery only lasts for a time. And when that time runs its course and we are still alive and ready for what is next-- praise the Lord! Perhaps he waits to build our convictions about evil, perhaps he waits to help us undertand it is him who truly brings about deliverance. Perhaps he waits to give others an opportunity to repent. Perhaps he waits only from our perspective; maybe from his perspective he delivers at exactly the right and best time.
Another thing I learn from this text, and I should have seen it long ago, is that you don't end enslavement except by crying out to God. You don't end it by playing politics, appeasing warped leaders, writing articles, trying to change a system, using your "in-ness" to create a healthy niche within the system. And you certainly don't end it by "being positive" and ignoring problems or pretending they don't exist.
You might not even end it by "switching churches." You can leave your spiritual Egypts, but if it's a mere human action the enslavement and control will continue in the mind and soul and heart. All of the warped dynamics of Pithom (and there are many) will remain in your thinking and habits, even if you detest them. Only God can really save you from Egypt, and really make you free from it as well.
Not only do we need God to rescue us from the embittering circumstances and people, we need him to rescue us from the "slave" within us, that habits that we acquire in that environment. When we cry out to God, perhaps seeing all of those things in comparison to God, it helps us get our priorities and perspectives right again.
When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. (Acts 7:29-30)
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. (Exodus 3:1)
Was Midian really a great place
to be? Who knows. But it wasn't
Egypt, and that was plenty good enough for Moses at the time. More
importantly, God blessed Moses with work, a wife and children in
Midian. God blessed him with some time to heal and grow. For all
Moses knew, he would spend the rest of his days in Midian. And it
turns out that he spent forty years there-- what most of us would
consider the prime of his life.
In our hearts, though-- don't we all wish Moses had been able to change Egypt? Don't we feel like Moses "lost" in Egypt? Don't we feel like Midian was some sort of "consolation prize?" I know I feel that way a bit. Why is that? Perhaps the reason we view it that way is that we still believe the propaganda of the leadership of Egypt, that Egypt really was all that great. Maybe it is because as we read Exodus we know that the story still revolves around Egypt, and it's hard not to see Midian as a small part of the picture. Perhaps it is our competitive sinful nature that makes us want to win, even if we don't really want the thing that is being fought over.
We need to remind ourselves of a few things. First, something abusive and ignoble like Egypt cannot be something great-- no matter how wonderful the accomplishments seem to have been, no matter how boistrous the propaganda. When you enslave people and kill babies, you're not great. Second, God turned a terrible situation in Egypt into a wonderful situation in Midian. Midian gave him the opportunity to regain confidence in who he was. He was free, he drew near to God, God blessed him in numerous ways. What's wrong with any of these things? Third, Moses might have felt like a complete failure after this Egypt experience-- but he was far from being a failure or useless because he couldn't change a ruthless, stubborn ("take away the frogs tomorrow") king.
How many times did he think back to Egypt and the privilege he left behind while tending animals in the desert? Did he question whether he "did it the right way" or not? Did he regret stepping out and trying to make changes? Probably many times, even in the midst of all of his blessings. Forty years is a long time. I suspect that over time, he eventually made peace with his Egypt experience. Time is an irreplacable component in healing. When God calls him to leave Midian and return to Egypt, Moses seems pretty content to remain in Midian.
It's interesting seeing the place of animals in Moses' recovery here. After playing in the violence and politics of Egypt and being the object of a death threat, getting back to some simple things, like caring for animals, must have been very healing. I'm amazed at how walking my dog and caring for him brings a sense of peace. In the months after I left my Egypt, I spent more time paying attention to my dog. It brought me a lot of comfort (and of course, some new challenges as well!). Life is simple for him, he's so appreciative of the attention he gets. I suppose there are a lot of things we can learn about life from animals (Matthew 6:26).
Hanging out in Midian? Enjoy the blessings! Water the animals. Get a new perspective on life. Walk with the Lord. It's OK.
So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight-why the bush does not burn up." (Exodus 3:3)
Of course, we know that God had something more in mind for Moses, but only after forty years in Midian. I suppose we all want to know "what's next" after our Midian. We devalue Midian greatly. Midian is a great place, and you and I just might spend all of our days there.
But perhaps Midian is a stepping stone, a period of transition for whatever is next. You might not have something as dramatic as the burning bush or a call to return to Egypt to lead the whole nation out, but there still can be a significant turning point that signals the next chapter in your life. Until it happens, only God knows what it is and when it will happen.
But we’re an impatient people. I know I am always tempted to be living in the future and ignoring the present. And being in an Egypt can make you goal-centered to a fault. People under the gun to get things done in Egypt always have goals, always something to work on and achieve. But where is God and following his lead in the midst of all the goals and agendas? Healthy goals are good and necessary, but sometimes the process is more important than the goal. To people recovering from Egypt, the One who goes with you is more important than where you go. This is one of the many lessons of Midian. Imagine Moses returning to Egypt without God being with him!
Your day to day experiences, good and bad, great and small, are just as important in your life as your “big” successes. In fact, they prepare you for them. It is significant that Moses' life is divided into three forty-year periods: the first living in Egypt, the second living in Midian, and the third living in the desert leading the Israelites. It seems to assign a certain amount of equality to each of the experiences.
Moses didn't know there would be a burning bush. For all he knew, he would spend the rest of his days in Midian. Paradoxically, it seems like you have to reach a certain contentment with Midian before the burning bush will appear. It's a paradox because as soon as you're ready to stay in Midian, God may decide you're ready to leave. God knows what we need, when we need it. We have a hard time understanding all of this, but that's OK. We don't need to understand it, we just need to live it. I'm reminded that Jesus told us to focus on him and take it a day at a time, to be content. That's how to prepare for your own burning bush.
The burning bush- whatever it is- tells you that your time in Midian is up. You might not be going back to Egypt, like Moses did. You'll just be moving on to what God has in mind for you.
in Funny Ways
So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:10)
God answered the cry and prayer of the Israelites for deliverance by sending Moses. I don't know what the Israelites expected God to do to rescue them. Maybe their faith was so small, they didn't expect anything. Generations of misery can hurt faith, I suppose.
Some people, like Moses, may flee an abusive situation "running for their lives." But others may remain until God sends a Moses to the rescue.
The young, royal Moses may have looked like quite a leader. But the people didn't want anything to do with him. But sending this broken-down old man Moses (about eighty years old by this time) probably didn't match anybody's plan for the rescue either. Just in case we need another reason to be very cautious in our judgment of people and circumstances, here is another one. And if we need another reason to be in awe of God for bringing about his purposes in his time and in his way, here it is.
Imagine what Moses' reputation
was in Egypt and to the Israelites.
A hot-head. Killed an Egyptian. Thought his way was better. A
self-appointed busybody. Who made him ruler and judge? Nobody! Loser!
Left in disgrace. What ever happened to him, anyway? It's amazing
what distortions go around about people who leave an unhealthy or
abusive situation. The person who left must be presented in a
negative light somehow to maintain the greatness of the system.
How bizarre it must have been for Moses to go back to Egypt. The Scriptures show us the reluctance he had about this call, and it is significant that God did not fault Moses for that reluctance. Beyond the fear of Egypt and Pharaoh's possible revenge, there were major credibility issues with his own people. Who knows what ridiculous tales had been told about him. No wonder Moses wanted some signs to prove to the people that God was sending him. The God of the universe had to have a bit of a smirk when Moses returned to Egypt. In fact, the irony seems to foretell the rejection of Jesus by the Jews (ref. Acts 7:35ff).
The signs-- the staff, the leprous hand, the turning of water to blood-- were certainly miraculous and persuasive to the people. Could they represent anything for both them and us today? Perhaps the staff turning into a snake symbolizes an apparently legitimate rule being taken over by Satan-- perhaps through lies and deception, perhaps through scapegoating and narcissistic evil. Perhaps the hand being made leprous and then well has to do with contrasting healthy vs. unhealthy situations. If you look at something unhealthy for a long period of time, it begins to look normal. Only when something healthy is contrasted to it can its true nature be seen. Perhaps the water turned to blood shows how something that normally gives life (water and the prosperity of Goshen) has been transformed into something that is a sign of death (the abuse of Pithom). The Scriptures don't explain what the signs mean, but the observations made here seem to fit the situation.
Notice who is persuaded by the signs. They don't persuade Pharoah- nothing persuades Pharaoh. But the signs persuade the Israelites. Victims who are looking for assurance of God's approval to move on need to see dishonesty exposed, healthy and unhealthy dynamics contrasted, and negative spiritual results acknowledged. This helps them see that God is behind the change. I doubt anyone playing Moses today will have a literal burning bush or any of these miraculous signs, but they can tell the truth, explain healthy spiritual dynamics and show the destruction in an unhealthy situation. But in order for any of that to matter, those living in Egypt have to listen to Moses and not believe whatever negative tales may be told about him.
If you're in an unhealthy situation, God may send you a Moses, or make a Moses available to you. Hopefully you'll recognize him.
If you're in Midian, the time may come for you to go back to Egypt as a Moses and help some people to go.
Sometimes God has a pretty good sense of humor. But it's not just a joke, it's not just irony. It's a path to his blessings, chosen by God himself.
And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites--a land flowing with milk and honey. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, `The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.' (Exodus 3:17-18)
When a place is really bad, it's natural to want to leave and just go anywhere. But for the Israelites, there is more to getting out of Egypt than just getting out of Egypt.
First, God wanted the people out of Egypt was so they could worship him with sacrifices (Exodus 3:18). Ultimately, God didn't just want his people out of Egypt for worship; he wanted to bring the Israelites into the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, that plan included being strangers in a foreign land and enslavement and oppression for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).
As God's time drew near, he prepared a leader, he prepared the people. And then it was time to go. Time to worship, and time to move to their inheritance.
We don't have the luxury of knowing that God has predicted we would be enslaved for x number of years. But when we figure out we're enslaved and oppressed, and the Spirit he put within us cries out for freedom to follow him, the end of slavery draws nigh.
Of course, God doesn't want us
offering animal sacrifices
now that the Law has been put away. But he saves us today that we may
worship and serve him in freedom (Galatians 5:1). Jesus didn't
die on a cross so you could be owned by an abusive or unhealthy
system. You haven't been set free only to become the slave of
somebody else. You haven't been saved to build somebody else's empire
or be a cause for their boasting.
God made us because he loved us. He has saved us so we may have a relationship with him. Our destiny on this earth is to serve God in freedom within the context of a grace-based relationship.
It can be tempting when leaving an spiritually unhealthy or abusive situation to just want to throw God out of the picture too. Abusive leaders usually link their way of doing things with God to give it the air of authority. Part of what makes unhealthy churches so insidious is that people end up believing what the leaders say, that this unhealthy environment is the only prescribed way to follow God.
If we get out of the unhealthy environment and away from unhealthy relationships, we can examine God and his plans for our lives in a more healthy way. This means visiting other churches and looking for signs of health. Perhaps speaking with other ministers with a healthier perspective on the faith. It might mean reading the Bible in a different transaltion just to help break old patterns of thinking that are unhealthy. Perhaps other changes can help as well-- moving or getting a new job, hobby or pet. Such changes, like Moses' experience in Midian, help mark the beginning of a new chapter in your life.
Visiting new churches or exposing yourself to a healthier church culture can bring up lots of "triggers" of bad experiences in your Pithom. Expect it. Worse, every church will have some problems, every minister will have some weaknesses. It can be so painful you may not want to read you Bible or go to church for awhile, because it is hard to separate the illegitimate from the legitimate. You may not want to be around any "church people" for awhile. I've replayed many of the unhealthy and abusive incidents over in my head scores of times. Healing takes some time. I think God understands, but he wants us to focus on him. In proximity to him, these other things find their proper place. In time, a healthy church culture will help you heal from an unhealthy church culture, and healthy spiritual relationships will help you recover from unhealthy spiritual relationships.
Remember to hang on to God and to worship him in freedom and grace. Don't link God with your unhealthy spiritual situation, even though you're definitely going to need to work through some things. He's setting you free to be near to him and to serve him in the way he designed it, for our good.
The Way to
Let Someone Leave
Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, "Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive." Jethro said, "Go, and I wish you well." (Exodus 4:18)
Moses spent forty years in Midian. He married, had children, and tended the flock of his father-in-law. Part of the anguish of the call of the burning bush was leaving his home in Midian behind.
Imagine how hard this was for Moses to do. He was leaving his home, he was saying good-bye to relatives and friends, heading for a challenging adventure. And he was no spring chicken-- he was eighty years old!
When the time comes for Moses to leave Midian, his father-in-law says, “Go and I wish you well.” Jethro was going to lose not just his son-in-law but also his daughter, grandchildren and someone who cared for his animals. He had a lot to lose in this deal, and yet, what a gracious blessing he bestows upon Moses! What a difference between Jethro and those who don't want you to leave an abusive system.
Often, when people leave an abusive system, it is a very negative experience. We've discussed some of the reasons for this in other parts of this study. The abusive system often feels a need to stigmatize those who leave in efforts to make itself look better or to justify itself. It's an important part of the unhealthy system. If people can leave to go on to something better, then why wouldn't everybody want to leave instead of remain in an unhealthy system? If everybody left, then the leaders would have no one to control, no one from whom to demand loyalty. And their pride would take a hit. So leaving is stigmatized and spoken against.
When people left my old church to go to another congregation in that church family (moving to another city), there would be a wonderful "going away" party. A time of sharing good memories, warm wishes for the future, and appreciation for those leaving. It was a positive, affirming experience. I'm glad people had these things.
But those who leave because they've determined the congregation is unhealthy don't get a party. No sharing of love and appreciation. No warm wishes. Instead, the leaders and the system feel threatened. They put down the ones leaving. They go from being "much loved" to "never existed."
One thing is certain about such
actions-- it confirms that leaving
is the right thing to do.
I'm afraid that there are two sides to this coin, however. The one leaving probably has a pretty hard time wishing good for those he leaves behind also. I wish the people well, but I also wish the evils of the system would be more and more evident.
Many unhealthy churches foster a "one true church" mentality. That is, they are the only ones who are saved, or at the very least they are the best Christians out there. When a church takes this sort of a position, it invites criticism (ref. Proverbs 17:19). And when someone leaves that sort of a church, those in the church are looking to see if what that person goes to is really better or not. And if it's not better in their eyes, then they will feel justified in remaining. People in Egypt probably weren't too impressed with Midian, and were probably even less impressed with the desert.
People leaving such an environment may also fall into that same trap. They may feel like they've got to find something demonstratively better than the old church, according to the standards of the old church! It's like leaving Egypt but then bringing the curse with you as you go. This is one of those areas where we really need God to be free of Egypt.
Why can't we leave and say, "I wish you well?" Why can't others leave and we say, "I wish you well?" And can we really feel these sentiments in our hearts? Perhaps it's human egos, dysfunctional system egos. Perhaps it is the desire to be right, the best or to feel vindicated. There is something noble about wanting to be a better Christian, but there is also something carnal about it if you want to use it to put others down. Imagine being saved by grace and then using one's standing, given by grace, to put others down? There is something terribly wrong with that. Let's long for the day when we can seek God with the blessings of others who also are seeking God. If a Midianite priest can bless Moses, can we bless one another?
Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. (Exodus 4:29-31)
Moses was indeed God's instrument to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses went to Israel armed with miraculous signs from God, and they believed that God had sent him to rescue them. Moses probably had his doubts since the words "who made you ruler and judge over us?" must have still been ringing in his ears from forty years earlier. Nevertheless, they saw these signs and worshiped the Lord. Imagine the relief and thanksgiving they must have experienced, realizing God was about to answer their prayers and cries with deliverance!
What was it that made the people listen to Moses? I think we will search in vain for a conclusive answer in human terms beyond the fact that this was the time of God's choosing.
He had told Abraham that there would be four hundred years of slavery (Genesis 15:13). Now as the actual exodus begins, the Scriptures tell us that the Israelites left Egypt 430 years to the very day from when they had entered (Exodus 12:40-41). This means that when Moses had taken his first stand forty years earlier, it had been 390 years in captivity. God doesn't seem to have a problem with rounding numbers off (390 vs. 400 vs. 430). On the basis of years alone, there is no reason why God couldn't have brought them out of Egypt after 390 years instead of 430 years.
So why at this time and not forty years earlier or some other time? What happened during those forty years? God shaped Moses in Midian. One Pharaoh had passed away and a new Pharaoh was in place. No doubt God shaped the people of Israel as well, and no doubt many of the older generation had also passed away.
The Scriptures indicate that God chose his time for the exodus carefully-- he heard the cries of his people and remembered his promise. So perhaps the cries of the people and the suitability of Moses were part of God's plan to finally keep his promise and lead them out of captivity.
The bigger picture in all of this is that the exodus was about God being faithful to his promises to his people. It was not just about Moses having a role to play or the suffering of individual Israelites. So when we try to find out why the people listened to Moses now and not some other time, we are left with seeing that God orchestrated the whole thing-- even though there were other human factors involved.
The Exodus was about God. And he continually reminded them of this throughout the history of the Israelites (e.g. Amos 3:1). Therefore, it's going to be pretty hard to be a Moses coming back to Egypt today. This is one of the areas where the analogy between the Israelite slavery and modern abusive or unhealthy churches breaks down. There are some pretty significant differences that need to be taken into account.
God was acting to fulfill very specific promises to a specific group of people. Moses had a real burning bush. God gave Moses miraculous signs to confirm his part in this work. By contrast, a Moses today may remind Christians about promises of the life we are promised through Christ, but he has no specific word about specific people in a specific situation as Moses did. He may have a fire in his heart but no burning bush. He may have a transformed life but otherwise no specific miraculous signs.
The question of a Moses going back to Egypt today to tell Pharaoh to "let the people go" is controversial. If we respect the choices people make to be involved in an Egypt (even if we don't like it), then we have no basis for going back to Egypt to "rescue" them. This amounts to not respecting their choices, their faith. If you think they are in Pithom but they think they are in Goshen, they're as entitled to their perspective as you are to yours.
However, in cases where these choices and decisions are impeachable this is another matter. For instance, if there has been deception involved, or if individual decisions were made under duress or undue pressure of some kind. Such "decisions" amount to the people being taken advantage of, trapped or bullied into doing something they really didn't want to do. Such people may need help coming to grips with what has taken place, and someone who can unravel the events that led to the decision can be beneficial. In these cases, Moses still doesn't go back to Egypt, but he can be right across the border as a resource.
God always has a heart for the oppressed (e.g. Psalm 10:17-18, 82:1-4). The incarnation of Christ speaks of God's boldness to bring salvation. While we might recognize that most of mankind probably didn't want Jesus to come, we can also recognize that God considered that "decision" by mankind made under the influence of deception. Thus, Jesus came anyway! There is a place for godly boldness to help others in spite of their choices to live a particular way, but it requires such wisdom that it needs to be orchestrated directly by God. So keep your eye out for those burning bushes.
The Israelite foremen realized they were in trouble when they were told, "You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day." When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, "May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us." (Exodus 5:19-21)
We've seen that abusive systems don't change willingly. It stands to reason, then, that any attempt to change or challenge that system will be met with resistance. True to form, the controlling and abusive system will make things worse for those who dare to speak up, who dare to challenge the system. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Pharoah only had one tool in his toolbox, and that was abuse. In this case, he made them do double the work-- making the bricks without straw. Instead of respecting the request to worship God, they pulled out one of their control and abuse tactics. The meanness of this shouldn't surprise us.
But what is surprising about this incident is that the people blamed Moses and not the Egyptians who actually made the work harder! People in abusive systems come to identify themselves with their abusers. A by-product of this is that they learn to blame those who talk about the problems and those who try to fix the problems instead of those who are truly causing the problems. So it was the case here. Even the signs of the staff and the leprous hand couldn't make the people overcome this tendency. It is really hard to unlearn old habits, to finally assign responsibility to the oppressor and not the one identifying the problems and trying to solve them.
Identifying abuse means you will suffer more abuse. In a way, it confirms your observation and evaluation of the situation. God was working all of this out to display his glory, but it sure tested the hearts and faith of the Israelites. Would they trust God for deliverance no matter what additional hardships were involved? In time, they would see how stubborn, unyielding and unreasonable Pharaoh was. Without the call to let the people go, without the plagues (and recall that many of the plagues struck the Israelites as well as the Egyptians), they possibly would have wondered later "was there any other way?" Only a mighty hand makes a Pharaoh let the people go. There is no other way. Pharoah is the stench-- not the one talking about the problems or trying to solve them.
Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the LORD." ... But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:8, 15)
Pharaoh said he would let the people go after the plague of the frogs, but when he saw there was relief, he hardened his heart. This incident tells us a lot about unhealthy and abusive leadership.
When "under the gun" for their unhealthy or abusive leadership, such leaders often say they will relent from those practices. For example, many people may leave the church or there will be a huge outcry over some matter or another. In the face of such a situation, the leadership can make a "confession" of wrongdoing and a promise to change.
At that particular moment, all looks good, indeed even wonderful. The people think they "got through," they found the magic formula to helping their situation change. They feel vindicated, perhaps even saying, "I knew things would change if people did things the right way" or some such thing. I've thought that before.
Ah, don't count those changes before they happen, folks.
Pharaoh, like any school yard bully, knows how to sweet talk his way out of a problem when he needs to. Pharaoh's heart was in keeping the people enslaved. He talked a good show about letting them go when he was overrun with frogs, but when the frogs went away so did his promise to let the people go. When the heat is off, you see what is really in the heart. You see how sincere the confessions and pledges to change really were.
Abusive or unhealthy leaders can play this little game indefinitely. When the heat is on, they play it one way. When the heat is off, they go back to their preferred mode of operation. It's always time to "move on." Somehow, they think the "skill" required to go back and forth playing this game is part of what makes them qualified to be a leader!
Are leaders allowed to change their minds about something, or to decide later on that something they committed to previously isn't the right and best thing at this present time? Sure. But watch what happens. Do they ever really get around to making the changes that need to happen, or do they always find a way to avoid making them?
Here's the point of all of this: evaluate leadership by what is does, not by what it says. You might be shocked, but leaders can often say different things to different people. You might consider that being sensitive, but I'm inclined to call it "spin" or out-and-out lying. Some leaders will use carefully worded statements so they can wiggle out of a commitment later. Others are reluctant to make any public or written statement at all concerning certain issues. When questioned privately, they can say what they think you want to hear, or what they think they can get away with. Who is going to know they've answered the same question umpteen different ways? And strangely enough, they may think they are telling the truth all along. As a member, you want to believe you're being told the truth.
But actions are your friend. Leaders might be able to say multiple things about something, but they can only do one thing. What they do, that's where their heart is. By their fruits, their actions, you will know them.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Romans 9:17-18)
We've seen that Pharaoh was obstinate, controlling and demanding to the be object of supreme loyalty in his land. One interesting fact from this story that perhaps sheds some insight into his personality and character is the plague of frogs. When asked by Moses when to remove the frogs, Pharaoh answered, "Tomorrow" (Exodus 8:10). Tomorrow! What kind of stubborn person wants to spend one more night with the frogs? Pharaoh was that type of man.
One's inability to persuade a Pharaoh to do the right thing shouldn't classify anybody as a failure. Even the plagues of Egypt couldn't persuade Pharaoh! Even Jesus couldn't persuade Jerusalem and its leaders (Matthew 23:37). There are only two ways to deal with a Pharaoh. Either get ready to leave, or learn to like Pithom. Pharaoh is not going to change.
Abusive leaders have seen those they lead leave by the score. Many have decided to "slip out the back, Jack" and just get away, running for their lives like Moses. Others have spoken about the problems and confronted them clearly, concisely, Scripturally, but to no avail. Leaders in unhealthy or abusive situations always find a way to blame something else besides themselves and their system when this happens.
Even Pharaoh's minions told him, "This is the finger of God" (Exodus 8:19). But Pharaoh was so used to manipulating the situation that his heart was too hard to hear and heed the message. Similarly, even loyal underlings in a spiritually abusive situation can try to warn a Pharaoh, but to no avail. The hardness of heart (though they call it "conviction") is stunning.
What finally got through to Pharaoh? Having his firstborn taken. Pharaoh's heart was softened for a moment. He let the people go, but then changed his mind and pursued them again.
Sadly, some abusive leaders have seen their children and families ruined spiritually. Some may finally realize the problems with the system and their leadership. This can bring about lasting change, or it may only bring about a small window of opportunity. Just as Pharaoh let the people go but then pursued them in the desert, abusive leaders can relent for a time but then change their minds and resume operating in the same way. When you see a window of opportunity for change open and then close, it should tell you something-- don't miss the message.
This Pharaoh has a pretty dark reputation in the Bible. God speaks about raising him up to glorify himself and hardening his heart. Other Bible characters like Judas and Rehoboam come to mind-- seeming to have been fated to do some dastardly or foolish deed to bring about God's purpose. It's a frightful thing to be a Pharaoh, to be the "bad guy" that God is going to overcome. You know you're going to lose.
At the beginning of this study, I mentioned that there are a lot of similarities between spiritual abuse and the story of the Exodus, but I also mentioned that there are a few differences. One of the differences, perhaps the biggest, is that in a spiritual abuse situation, Pharaoh is your brother, your leader. Of course, as Moses was the adopted grandson of Pharaoh, the Pharaoh that he was sent to was his adopted uncle. But a spiritual abuser is, or at least may be, a brother in Christ. What a dilemma this presents!
Most leaders in abusive and unhealthy situations are adept at dragging out the old "obey your leaders and submit to their authority" text (ref. Hebrews 13:17). Remember, control and loyalty are tops on their list, so they view everything in the system in these terms. What they are not so adept at is understanding the nature and limits of spiritual authority that govern the application of that passage in the church:
Spiritual leaders don't have to
be perfect, but they cannot
deliberately, systematically and habitually engage in these sorts of
practices. When a leadership misuses its spiritual authority, it has
lost the moral authority to lead even while it retains positions of
leadership. When confronted, such leadership should confess its
wrong-doings and resign. If resignations are not forthcoming, one
should resign from its influence. Unfortunately, when wayward
spiritual authority goes off track, the most likely response on the
part of that leadership will be louder calls for submission and
obedience and attempts to discredit those pointing out the problems.
This happens when the desire to retain power and control overcomes
whatever desire there might be to do what is right and honorable.
So what do you do with your brother who is a Pharaoh to you? Scripture says that you should confront your brother, and even bring others if he is not initially persuaded (Matthew 18:15ff). If you bring about change, great. But what if you don't? Chances are, Pharaoh will tell you that you have the problem. Most Pharaohs think they whatever they think is therefore true. Their control extends to defining reality.
The matter should be brought before the church, per Matthew 18:15-17 and Acts 6:1ff. The church needs to be involved in evaluating these things. Oh, if only churches practiced this! But western Christianity has had a hard time dealing with tricky issues for the last 500 years. Worse, controlling leadership is not likely to allow itself to be put in a position where it can be convicted of sin or embarrassed for its conduct. It will not do anything to risk losing its control. In such a case, you have an irreconcilable difference. And even if the matter went before the church, who's to say that it wouldn't just divide the church? Remember how we talked about how one man's Pithom is another man's Goshen? If that's true, then perhaps one man's abusive leader is another man's benevolent leader.
What this all means is that it is time to agree to disagree and part ways. Often in an unhealthy environment, disagreeing is not an option and you will be forced to leave. Like Mark (Acts 13:13), Barnabas (Acts 15:39) and Abraham (Genesis 13:8-9)-- you can take the path of Israel out of Egypt. It's OK. Better to leave in relative peace than to remain in strife.
For the good of everybody involved, some public statement about the conflict should be made, lest it be minimized or misunderstood. Bringing the matter "to the church" (Matthew 18:17) in such a manner allows the church (and remember, the church is the people, not just the leaders) to evaluate the situation in truth. The church is given the highest position of authority in evaluating a situation. If one characteristic of an unhealthy or abusive situation is silencing dissent, how much more important is it to have the other side say its side of the story! In time, perhaps greater understanding can bring about a healthy resolution to the matters under consideration.
Those who leave Pithom should be wary that your Pharaoh may not want to let you go worship without taking a final swipe at you. He might even pursue you as Pharaoh foolishly chased Israel into the desert. Or, he might heed God's call to let you go as Rehoboam did (1 Kings 12:24).
Maybe your leaving can help your Pharaoh see what is going on far more than all the words you can speak without leaving. Maybe it is part of a bigger picture that God is orchestrating to show Pharaoh that things really need to change. Imagine Pharoah sitting in Egypt with his slaves gone, his army drowned in the sea, and his firstborn dead. Maybe there can be a reconciliation later, like their was with Jacob and Esau. Who knows? Maybe Pharaoh will change, maybe he won't. But a few things will be certain: you'll be free, and you won't be focused on trying to persuade Pharaoh anymore.
Once the apostle Peter asked Jesus about the apostle John. Jesus' reply is appropriate for us in this context as well-- "Follow me" (John 21:19). Quit focusing on Pharaoh and start focusing on Jesus.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)
Another very significant difference between the Israelites in Egypt and Christians in unhealthy churches is this whole question of Israel being the exclusive people of God. Most unhealthy or abusive churches consider themselves the only people saved, the only true Christians, or at the very least they are the "best" Christians out there.
At the very least, that fact that some of these "true Christians" have left for freedom to worship God proves that this claim isn't true. In reality, Christians in any church or movement are only a subset, at best, of the church of Christ.
By contrast, Israel was fundamentally about having lineage through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Once somebody was born in this lineage, they would be an Israelite forever. Hence, when all the descendants of Jacob are in Egypt, getting those people out of Israel and to the promised land is part of God's promise to Abraham. They were God's exclusive people upon this earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).
So when we consider Moses going back to Egypt to bring the people out, there isn't really a clear analogy for today. There's no implicit mandate to bring the people out of Egypt, especially if they've chosen to stay or if they think it is more like a Goshen than a Pithom. Christian freedom means that people who want to be in a situation that you'd consider unhealthy are free to do so.
So if you're a Moses in Midian, how do you view your Egypt? Is it the place you consider "home" even after you've left? Do you have ambitions to reform or liberate it? Or do you move on, slowly but surely, to another church home?
Dealing with Pharaoh is about dealing with leadership. You can only say so much to a Pharaoh before you realize you're wasting your time. But dealing with Egypt is about dealing with Israelites remaining in Egypt after you've moved on. Since leadership plays a crucial role in the dynamics of unhealthy churches, it's evident that leaders and followers may need to be treated differently.
If people are happy with their Goshen or Pithom, you can respect their happiness. If not, you can tell them about your dealings with Pharaoh. You can tell them your experiences with slavery and freedom. You can tell them what it is like to be in Midian instead of Egypt. And yet, if they too rejected you with a "who made you ruler and judge over us" remark, just how receptive will they be to what you have to say?
The truth is, very few people in these Egypt's want to hear what you have to say. They've decided Pithom is OK, or that this Egypt is still a Goshen. That's their perspective and choice, and they're free to make it (even if they've been dealt with deceptively by Pharaoh, and the decision wasn't quite as "free" as it appears). You have to respect their freedom and choices, even if it is the freedom to be enslaved and deceived and used.
Every once in a while, an Israelite from Egypt will want to know what Midian is like, or how to get out of Pithom. At those times, you've got something to share, something to help out another believer.
Other than that, you really don't have much concern about Egypt anymore. That's why you left. Why spend your energies and concerns focused on changing something from the outside that you couldn't change from the inside? As for me, that was one of the major reasons I left in the first place. It would be silly to be concerned with bringing about change at this point. The unhealthy or abusive organization is not my concern anymore. That's why I left! But it's hard to let it all go.
Of course, some of those folks in Pithom are still trying to bring about change, and they may want your help or thoughts. But if I was worn out trying to bring change and left because the prospects for change were so bleak, all I've got for people seeking change is a loving dose of reality-- good luck, but don't expect anything to happen. This isn't cynicism, lack of forgiveness or pessimism. This is reality. If I thought there was a chance for adequate change, I would have stayed. If you want change, leave.
There are Christians in places besides this spiritual Egypt. There are Christians in Midian who need fellowship and encouragement after leaving Egypt too. There are Christians in other places that you can fellowship with and who might be able to teach you some things about healthier churches.
If you move on from a spiritual Egypt, then move on. Leave it behind. It's bad enough that Pithom was a part of your life and still lingers in your memories, even though God has his way of redeeming these things. You can't erase it or undo the past. But don't let it continue to be the focus of your life.
Freedom, Fellowship and Fear
During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me." (Exodus 12:31-32)
In time, the final plague upon Egypt persuades Pharaoh to let the people go. Freedom had come at last. What a glorious and fearful night that must have been! Some Pharaohs may never let the people go and individuals must escape to Midian on their own. But imagine if God worked mightily to break down Pharaoh and brought about a massive release of people. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:21-22)
Another characteristic of the freedom God gave the Israelites was his visible, guiding presence in the desert. It was certainly to reassure the people and build their faith in his working and guidance. Christians today leaving their Egypts may not have a visible flame or cloud to guide them-- indeed, the journey is spiritual and not physical. But the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit serves the very same purpose, guiding your thoughts and actions as you seek him. The destination of the Promised Land matters, but so does the presence and fellowship of the Lord himself. People in spiritually unhealthy or abusive situations can heal by walking with God daily.
This doesn't mean having some legalistic "quiet time" but really, truly walking with God. Being honest about your walk with him. Unhealthy situations often mask spiritual issues in the interest of building the system. All that matters is how the system looks, not the condition of your soul and spirit. When you're away from the unhealthy environment, you can really walk with God and have a relationship with him that isn't corrupted and overshadowed by the larger system. Trust him daily, rely on his guidance and presence.
They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, `Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" (Exodus 14:11-12)
As Pharaoh had second thoughts and pursued Israel into the desert, it's stunning to see the Israelites revert to slave-like behavior. God just worked mightily on their behalf, and has visibly, personally guided them out of Egypt. Yet the first confrontation after their freedom, they are afraid and say they wish they were back in Egypt. Perhaps it is a cliché, but old habits die hard.
Physical deliverance is relatively easy compared to spiritual and emotional deliverance. Israelites in the desert were still afraid of Pharaoh, what he thought and his power to punish. And the hardships of the desert may be difficult compared to Egypt. Would you rather live as a slave or die free? Do you want your freedom and security to come from an abusive system or from God? Human history shows that many people have made both choices.
People leaving a spiritual Egypt will still be afraid of it for awhile. They will still be concerned about what the Pharaoh thinks, whether or not he approves. And it will be more difficult for a time-- freedom takes more maturity and character than slavery.
It is evident here that the Israelites minimized the horrors of Egypt. Wanting to go back? Everybody who leaves an Egypt wonders sometimes if they made the right choice, and they are tempted to minimize the abuses. We look at Israel's comments here and see how silly they are. But when we minimize the abuses of an unhealthy spiritual system that we have left, are we not doing the same thing? How do you go back to enslavement, deny God's call in your life to worship of him in freedom after he works to deliver you? The first step is to tell yourself that it wasn't so bad. Thankfully, that idea never carried the day in Israel.
Even though that generation later failed in terms of entering the promised land through their disobedience, they never, ever went back to Egypt. They walked with God in the desert, and they were free.
Cookies for Passover
That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. (Exodus 12:8)
They are to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. (Numbers 9:11)
Our achievement oriented culture is often very "positive" oriented, and the church sometimes falls into this trap. When you leave a bad experience, you're expected to take away the "positive" things from it. The conventional wisdom says that focusing on negative things won't help you do something positive. People want to hear positive things, they don't want to hear the negative things. And most of us don't like to hear somebody else's sad story, because we can't do anything about it anyway. Perhaps selfishly and callously, we want them to shut up and get on with life, and not to bother us with their woes.
So we ignore negative things. We distance ourselves from them. We don't like to discuss our failings, our disappointments, our pains. Perhaps we shove them so far back in our consciousness that we try to convince ourselves they never happened. Subtly, we advance the notion that success and prosperity just happen on their own, without pain, without disappointment, without perseverance. Expertise comes without discipline. Success comes without failure. Joy comes without bitterness.
One of the dominant aspects of the Passover meal was the bitter herbs, commemorating the time of bitterness in Egypt. Not only was bitterness an important part of the process of helping the Israelites become free, it was an important part of something that God actually wanted them to commemorate annually!
God's take on pain and suffering and negative experiences is different than ours. He wants us to remember and even commemorate negative things. For example, the Lord's Supper is negative. It commemorates a broken body and shed blood-- rejection, failure, and death. But if we see it with God's eyes, Jesus' death brings salvation and resurrection. As if that wasn't enough, Jesus' pain and suffering also sanctifies our pain and suffering. We have a Savior and a God who knows pain and suffering. It brings meaning to our pain.
Jesus suffered in an abusive spiritual situation. He was rejected by leaders. His motives were questioned, and so was his sanity. He was never able to persuade the leaders. He was marginalized. He was the subject of secret meetings and a kangaroo court whose verdict was known beforehand. And even on the cross, the religious leaders mocked him. He was hated.
Christians are called to remember and commemorate this regularly. I have a terrible time coming up with answers to the "why" questions on stuff like this. All I can know is that it happened, and that there is something about the experience that God wants us to remember. Victory comes with a price. God is bigger than any failure, any abuse, any pain. He is bigger than death itself. He was willing to endure that pain to demonstrate his love to us.
So we think we're going to find an easy way to get past our pains from an abusive situation? I don't know why abusive and unhealthy churches and leaders exist. I don't know why some suffer under them. I don't know why God allows it. But how many times I've wished those things never happened! I've wished I could erase them from my memory. Why? It's painful to remember them, to drag around memories of a negative experience, to build on those ruins. But God wants me to remember them? To commemorate them? To speak of them? Yes.
It's not that we should dwell on terrible things done to us in an unhealthy environment. It's not that we should constantly echo the details of abuse. But we can't erase our memories. We can only see God's perspective, that those things bring us to a better place. The blessings of Midian would never have happened had Moses stayed in Egypt. The Israelites would never have gone to the promised land if they were content with Egypt. We would never leave an abusive or unhealthy situation if it wasn't painful.
Perhaps the Israelites would take their freedom for granted if they failed to remain thankful for God's deliverance from the bitterness of slavery. So perhaps a way for us to remain humble and thankful in response to God's deliverance is to remember and commemorate our pains from the past.
Of course, the Passover was an annual feast. The Lord's Supper seems to be something that the early church did weekly. So we need not saturate our lives with persistent recollections of darker days. But there is a time and a place and a benefit to recalling the darker days regularly.
Jesus said blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). Don't flee from mourning, go ahead and mourn and allow him to comfort you.
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up. (Psalms 71:20)
If you're having trouble deciding if you are in a Goshen or a Pithom, perhaps this chart will help show the differences between the two places.
A place of blessing and refuge for those in need. A place people want to go. Lives are blessed.
A place of slavery. A place people want to leave. Lives are embittered.
Benevolent leadership genuinely concerned about the welfare of those it leads.
Malevolent leadership concerned about control over those it leads.
Concerned about loyalty to the people.
Concerned about the loyalty of the people.
Devotes the system to meet the needs of the people.
Exploits the legitimate needs of people for its own ends.
Leadership builds up the people.
Leadership tears down the people.
Healthy structure established for order and taking care of the people. Whole structure works for the good of all.
Unhealthy structure established to control the people. "In" groups, rivalries, favoritism, rewards and punishments to ensure loyalty to the leadership and system.
Leadership is secure, welcomes outsiders.
Leadership is paranoid, afraid of outsiders and disloyal members.
Contributions made willingly
Contributions made under compulsion.
The good of all is what matters.
The system and one's position in it are what matters.
The system serves the people.
The people serve the system.
Leaders serve the people.
Leaders control the people.
Hardships related to the task at hand.
Hardships arbitrary, inflicted by the leadership
Negative aspects of system discussed and corrected for the good of the people. People who identify problems are put in a position to address these needs for the good of all.
Negative aspects of system silenced. People who identify problems are viewed as a threat. They are marginalized and stigmatized and cast out of the system..
Welcomes helpful changes.
Prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
Prayers of anguish and pain.
God leads people to go to Goshen.
God leads people to leave Pithom.
Copyright © 2005 by John Engler. All rights reserved.
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