His downfall happened when his emotional reserves were exhausted.
His sister’s unexpected death left him reeling. She was an esteemed member of the community (she once sought the top leadership post) who had walked with him through decades of difficult ministry.
The shock and depression that attend grief struck him, leaving him ill-equipped to deal with an anxious community that looked to him for leadership.
An anxious community
When he was at his lowest, trouble beset those in Moses’ care. He was sucked into their anxiety, which shot through the roof. The story is set before us in Numbers 20:
Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying: “If only we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! Why have you brought up the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink
The people were anxious with good cause! They were stranded in a trackless desert with no water and a questionable food supply.
- They blamed Moses – “why have you brought [us] into this wilderness?”
- They attributed evil motives to Moses – “that we and our animals should die in this evil place?”
- They ‘catastrophized’ the dilemma – “If only we had died…”
You can imagine their desperation – hot, hungry, thirsty, and fearful for the future. Their fear was powerful, and their clamoring complaints had to be addressed.
At first, Moses did the right thing. He sought God before deciding how to deal with the mounting problems.
Picking up the narrative in verse seven, we see that God has given Moses clear instructions about how Moses was to respond.
Notably absent is the Lord’s own expression of anger at these people. Perhaps that was enough to push Moses over the edge.
- So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and they fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them.
- Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.” So Moses took the rod from before the Lord as He commanded him.
That last sentence is hopeful; Moses did as the Lord had commanded. Well, at least in part.
And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock; and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank.
Clearly, Moses had been co-opted by their anxiety and their anger. Rather than refusing to carry their anxiety, he gave into it. In that moment Moses moved from being part of the solution to becoming part of the problem. He indulged in his own anger. His denunciaiton (“you rebels!”) is dripping with disdain.
He was fed up with them.
He was emotionally exhausted. Psalm 106:31-32, a spiritual reflection on the event written many years later, notes how Moses got wrapped around the emotional axle by succumbing to an anxious community’s angry complaints:
By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.
In his weakened state he accepted the blame. He stepped into God’s job of providing water (“Must we bring water…?”).
That question could be understood in one of three ways.
- It might be a simple question: “Shall we produce water (or not)?” If so, it was a way of putting them in their place. They had to plead for the water God told him to provide.
- Moses may have been fishing for a negative answer. “Can we bring forth water?” This either invites them to disbelieve God’s power, or it may hint at Moses’ lack of faith in a moment of low morale.
- Or his question could be a self-righteous refusal: “Shall we indeed! Why should we?”
Regardless of how you read it, the mere act of uttering the question robs the holiness of God and the obedience he requires of his chosen leaders.
Moses nursed a bit of a grudge for the rest of his life. He laid the blame off on the Israelites rather than owning his own attitude and actions. Toward the end of his life he continued to blame them; see Deuteronomy 1:27, 3:26 “for your sakes.”
But it wasn’t their fault – it was his. The Lord made it clear that Moses bore the responsibility alone. “For in the Wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the congregation, you rebelled against My command to hallow Me at the waters before their eyes.” (Numbers 27:14)
Turnaround Pastors must stand apart
In Appendix C of Pastor Unique: Becoming a Turnaround Leader we explain why pastors must refuse to accept the emotional anxiety of their churches. Rather than cave to their demands for a “quick fix”, pastors must at all costs avoid becoming enmeshed in the congregation’s emotional turmoil.
Only then will a pastor be in a position to guide the church through the source of its anxiety, examining the issues and values in play, and lead the church to a higher level of maturity and effective ministry.
This is a mission critical skill that every pastor must master.
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