The Forest and the Trees: Why God Doesn’t Define you by your Mistakes

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The Forest and the Trees: Why God Doesn’t Define you by your Mistakes

Seeing Things as God Sees

Hebrews 11:1 provides the most concise yet comprehensive definition for “faith” in the entire Bible:


Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (NASB).


Over the years, I have heard many alternative definitions. With rare exceptions, none of them contradicted the aforementioned verse, but rather supplemented or rearticulated it. I have found most of them reasonably helpful. One that has stuck with me for a long time is “Seeing things as God sees them.” This is definitely applicable to the Old Testament men and women that Paul listed seconds later.


There are numerous worthwhile components to this motif, but the one on which we will primarily focus is the Lord’s uncanny ability to simultaneously maintain a microscopic view of every little detail and macroscopic view of the big picture. I do not mean to speak for anyone, but I suspect all of us have had difficulty striking this balance. I know I have.


This is one of the several aspects of faith—seeing things as God sees them—with which I still need a lot of divine assistance. We can receive this assistance through prayer, of course, as well as investigating inspired case studies, such as that of Moses, the unpacking of which will be the basis of this study.


Surveying Moses’ biographical background is easy and difficult at the same time. To clarify, the only “difficulty” is the time investment needed to gather all the information, but that is also what makes it more fluid and fruitful than attempting a similar undertaking with Enoch or Melchizedek, for examples.


The Hebrew hero is mentioned by name 848 times in 784 verses throughout the Holy Scriptures. In Exodus through Deuteronomy, four of the five (or six, depending on how one assesses the evidence associated with Job) books that came from his pen, the numbers are 648 and 592, respectively.

Moses’ High Points in Life

By no means will we examine all or even most of them, but we will build a hearty list of the significant highlights of Moses’ life. Getting to know him will actually give us a clearer picture of who God is, especially within the context of the relationship they had.


Key episodes include:


  • Taking his family from Midian to Egypt to rescue the Israelites (Exodus 4:18–20).
  • Standing up to Pharaoh multiple times to request that he let them go (e.g., 5:1).
  • Attempting to encourage them in the midst of their anguish (e.g., 6:9).
  • Gaining favor in the sight of most of the Egyptians (11:3).
  • Communicating to the Israelites the Lord’s implementation of the Passover (12:21–27).
  • Pointing their attention to the mighty way in which He would save them (14:13).
  • Leading their song of praise and adoration to God (15:1–21).
  • Enduring a multitude of murmurings (e.g., 15:24).
  • Reintroducing them to the Sabbath (16:23–26).
  • Accepting his father-in-law’s advice to delegate the responsibilities of judging the people’s matters and instructing them in the ways of God (18:13–26).
  • Delivering the Ten Commandments (20:1–17).
  • Leading the establishment of the sanctuary and priesthood (24–30, 35–40).
  • Interceding on the Israelites’ behalf when they committed idolatry (32:11–14, 32).
  • Rebuking them for committing idolatry (vs. 20, 21).
  • Communing with God as a friend (33:11).
  • Getting a glimpse of His presence and glory (33:19–23; 34:5–7).


The remainder of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings included incidents in which Moses manifested similar tendencies to what he cultivated in the items we delineated above. Therefore, we will truncate the list as is. Nevertheless, we can see that Paul had a plethora of valid reasons for including him in the “Hall of Faith.”


By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen. (Hebrews 11:24–27).


I would not necessarily conclude that there was anything inherently unique about Moses. I believe God bestowed a particular collection of talents and aptitudes to him, as He has to each of us. To that end, Moses was the right choice for captaining the Exodus. However, that does not translate to him having a spiritual upper hand over any of us.


His examples are worth emulating, and we can emulate them through the power of the Holy Spirit and by making the same decision he made with a comparable consistency that he demonstrated—putting on God’s glasses, so to speak. It was this heavenly perspective that enabled him to gaze passed the temporary charms of the world and endure the otherwise overwhelming burdens of an entire nation of stubborn, uncooperative, shortsighted people.

Moses’ Low Points in Life

Moses was faithful, but that does not mean he was infallible. Though the following list will be shorter than the first one was, we need to pay as much attention to his shortcomings as we do to his strengths, as well as dedicate ourselves to resisting his anti-examples as much as we do to adopting his positive traits.


His faults include:


  • Killing an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12).
  • Being initially reluctant to accept God’s commission, citing issues such as the Hebrews’ potential unwillingness to listen to him and his speech impediment (Exodus 4).
  • Going along with his wife’s refusal to circumcise their sons, which was a breach of one of the Lord’s requirements (4:24–26).
  • Throwing down the original tables of the Ten Commandments in a fit of rage (32:19).
  • Striking the rock twice to draw water when God said to only speak to it (Num. 20:8–12; Deut. 32:51, 52; in Exodus 17:6, striking the rock was according to His will, but not in this case).


We will spend a fair amount of time analyzing the final offensive because, if for no other reason, it is more pivotal than the others are. This offense kept Moses from inheriting the Promised Land. He requested that the Lord would change His mind, which is understandable—we are likely prone to follow suit in equivalent circumstances—but He, in His wisdom, opted to decline his request.[1]


Both of the above lists are representative and not exhaustive. With that said, the proportion may be close to accurate. There were so many more occasions of Moses doing the right thing than there was the opposite thereof. As far as I can remember, I never attempted to treat the unsanctioned striking of the rock lightly, but I can admit that my initial instinct was to consider God’s response to be heavy and excessive.


We can be grateful that He is merciful and compassionate with us as we wrestle with some of the ways in which He operates and, beyond that, develop doubts. With that said, it is to our benefit to not wallow in these doubts for very long, and the best way to get passed them is to step back from the tree and behold the forest.


Though there is enough biblical evidence for us to piece together to better comprehend the full ramifications of Moses’ sin and why the Lord executed the verdict that He did, it is helpful to have Grandma Ellen’s expanded, inspired insight available for our contemplation:

The two brothers went on before the multitude, Moses with the rod of God in his hand. They were now aged men. Long had they borne with the rebellion and obstinacy of Israel; but now, at last, even the patience of Moses gave way. ‘Hear now, ye rebels,’ he cried; ‘must we fetch you water out of this rock?’ and instead of speaking to the rock, as God had commanded him, he smote it twice with the rod.

The water gushed forth in abundance to satisfy the host. But a great wrong had been done. Moses had spoken from irritated feeling; his words were an expression of human passion rather than of holy indignation because God had been dishonored. ‘Hear now, ye rebels,’ he said. This accusation was true, but even truth is not to be spoken in passion or impatience. When God had bidden Moses to charge upon Israel their rebellion, the words had been painful to him, and hard for them to bear, yet God had sustained him in delivering the message. But when he took it upon himself to accuse them, he grieved the Spirit of God and wrought only harm to the people. His lack of patience and self-control was evident. Thus the people were given occasion to question whether his past course had been under the direction of God, and to excuse their own sins. Moses, as well as they, had offended God. His course, they said, had from the first been open to criticism and censure. They had now found the pretext which they desired for rejecting all the reproofs that God had sent them through His servant.

Moses manifested distrust of God. ‘Shall we bring water?’ he questioned, as if the Lord would not do what He promised. ‘Ye believed Me not,’ the Lord declared to the two brothers, ‘to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel.’ At the time when the water failed, their own faith in the fulfillment of God’s promise had been shaken by the murmuring and rebellion of the people. The first generation had been condemned to perish in the wilderness because of their unbelief, yet the same spirit appeared in their children. Would these also fail of receiving the promise? Wearied and disheartened, Moses and Aaron had made no effort to stem the current of popular feeling. Had they themselves manifested unwavering faith in God, they might have set the matter before the people in such a light as would have enabled them to bear this test. By prompt, decisive exercise of the authority vested in them as magistrates, they might have quelled the murmuring. It was their duty to put forth every effort in their power to bring about a better state of things before asking God to do the work for them. Had the murmuring at Kadesh been promptly checked, what a train of evil might have been prevented![2]


I recommend reading the rest of the chapter. For the time being, let us momentarily observe this dynamic from another angle. We will not apply a fine-toothed comb to Jewish ritual, but it might be worth it to at least take a glance at Leviticus 4, the primary passage pertaining to the sin offering.


Greater Leadership is Greater Responsibility

Different groups of people were directed by God to bring different animals, with bulls being the specific prescription for the priests. Bulls were more expensive than the creatures prescribed for everyone else were. There is general agreement that this indicated varying levels of accountability—the sins of leaders, spiritual or otherwise, are of a costlier nature than those of the laity.


Moses, in a number of ways, represented the Lord more profoundly than the priests ever did. He was held to a higher standard. Striking the rock would have left a detrimental impression on the rest of the nation.


In keeping Moses out of the Promised Land, God did not put this error in a vacuum and ignore his overall track record of faithfulness. He did what was essential to minimize the number of dominoes that toppled. He was not looking at a tree; He was looking at the forest. This scene “starred” Moses, but it also transcended him.


Paul alluded to some of the experiences of the Israelites’ progression to Canaan in 1 Corinthians 10 and, without ambiguity, declared that the water-giving rock represented Jesus.[3] God instituted some typology by prompting Moses to hit the rock the first time. It is only by the wounds of our stricken Redeemer and the refreshment of the Living Water that we can make it to the Promised Land. However, He only needed to be afflicted once.[4] Moses, in his unmitigated indignation, not only ruptured the typological line; he crucified Christ afresh.[5]


In the past, I have noticed that there is a large contingent of people who are hesitant to dive into semantics in any capacity. In one regard, I can sympathize. Some have irresponsibly turned it into a mechanism of rhetoric or worse—manipulation. However, as the verbal field has become my livelihood, I am increasingly convinced that parsing the meanings of words goes a long way in better grasping a given concept, as well as fostering more effective communication. In this and analogous cases, I suggest that we will be more at peace with the Lord’s evaluation by properly partitioning the words “punishment” and “discipline.”


Within generic, dictionary parameters, these two words overlap significantly. However, within spiritual parameters, it can be helpful to think of punishment as the final outcome of one’s existence and discipline as the thread of corrective direction that runs through it.


As we look back to when our moms and dads literally put their hands or belts to our backsides, as well when God did so figuratively, we probably called it “punishment,” and that’s fine, but none of those whacks sealed our fates. Our human parents and divine Father took the measures they deemed requisite to teach us that poor choices lead to uncomfortable, downright painful consequences, not only for ourselves but also others, including the innocent. More importantly, they used discipline to help us get back on the right track.


With that in mind, did the Lord, in preventing Moses from crossing the Jordan River, discipline or punish him? A lot of folks may lean toward the latter, and on the surface, that makes sense. He did not go back to Egypt or Midian. He died. That is as final as it gets, is it not?


I suspect some of my brothers and sisters have identified the irony, which I set up by design. In an article predicated on becoming more prone to view the big picture and less obsessively fixated on the details, we have not yet fully zoomed out our lenses. Moses’ earthly life ended, but his voyage did not. He, through a lousy decision, disqualified himself from partaking of the terrestrial milk and honey. However, he also, through forging a steady pattern of clinging to the King, received from His benevolent hand an advanced invitation to the celestial feast.


Why would the Lord classify Moses’ transgression as egregious enough to forbid his access to the sandy shores but not enough to block his entrance through the pearly gates? Why would he withhold from him a great prize, yet bequeath to him the greatest prize of all? In keeping with the main theme of this piece, the best way to answer these questions is to look at Moses and yet passed Moses at the same time, specifically weaving in the discipline/punishment issue we already discussed.


His offense bruised his bond with God, but it did not sever it. Punishment was not necessary. Staying connected with Him, no matter what, renders us safe for eternity. However, his offense was not strictly within the framework of their relationship. The whole nation witnessed it. The Father did not only need to parent Moses; He needed to parent Israel as well.


The more we view the world, those around us, and ourselves through God’s eyes, the more we will identify the joy in the journey, and certainly the destination. Having this vision means paying the appropriate levels of attention to the forest and each tree. We cannot underestimate the gravity of our sins or attempt to sweep them under the rug. Furthermore, at any fork in the road, we must consider our long-term welfare and that of our loved ones.


Notwithstanding, by the grace of God, we do not need to let any mistake drive us to despair. We are not defined by any one incident, good or bad. Moses struck the rock and paid a sizable price for it. However, he was not a rock striker. He was the Rock’s companion. Jesus did not ignore his flaws, but, with a big-picture outlook, He saw a man who was willing to be clothed in His life-giving-and-transforming robe of righteousness, which is available to each of us.



[1] See Deuteronomy 3:23–26.

[2] Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1890), p. 417, 418.

[3] See 1 Corinthians 10:4.

[4] See Hebrews 7:27; 9:28; 10:10.

[5] See Hebrews 6:6.

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About the author

John Simon

John Simon, an almost lifelong Michigander, is a freelance editor and writer. He previously spent a decade working with Adventist Frontier Missions in an accounting role. Though finance wasn't exactly a hand-in-glove fit—more of a hand-in-toaster fit, frankly—it was a privilege to help advance the cause of reaching the unreached. John enjoys spectating and participating in various sports (hockey being on top of both lists), driving/road tripping, visiting his feisty yet loving and supportive family on the other side of the Mitten, and spending time with friends.