When Nothing Goes Right

Exodus 5

July 6, 2022 | Ray Pritchard

“What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?”

The question seemed to come out of nowhere. It happened on the way to the Tampa airport.

I had just finished teaching Daniel at Word of Life Bible Institute, and some staff members were driving me to the airport for my flight back home. A missionary joined us for the trip. With less than a mile to go before we reached the airport, the young man in the front passenger seat threw me a curveball.

“What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?”

“What would you say to your 30-year-old self if you could talk to him?”

I wasn’t expecting that question. But with the airport just ahead, I had to give a quick answer. So I went with the first thing that popped into my head: “It will all work out, just not the way you expect.”

Even as the words came out of my mouth, I realized that what I had said, while true, didn’t have the zing of, say, “A stitch in time saves nine” or “He who lies down with dogs will rise up with fleas.”

As we were pulling into the airport, I recalled something I heard on the radio many years ago: “The key to success in life is how well you adapt to Plan B.” When I repeated that, the missionary spoke up and said, “That’s true. On the mission field, Plan A never works. Plan B never works. We have to go to C, D, or E. Sometimes we’ve got to go to Plan G.” Everyone laughed, and I got out of the van and headed into the airport.

Reflecting on my original answer, I decided I liked it just fine. If you live long enough, you’ll discover that “everything will work out, just not the way you expect.”

Everything will work out, just not the way you expect.

Moses would understand.

He knew following God meant moving out of his comfort zone. Sometimes God calls you to do things that don’t work out right the first time.

Exodus 5 describes a super confrontation in Egypt. One man stood between the Jews and their freedom: Pharoah.

Only he could let them go.
As we will see, he wasn’t an easy man to deal with.

That leads me to an important principle. When God is working, things often get worse before they get better. God’s way is rarely the easy way. He routinely puts us in impossible situations so we will discover that we can’t, but he can.

J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China, said it this way: “There are three stages in any great work attempted for God: impossible, difficult, done.”

“Impossible, difficult, done.”

Mark that down.
God says, “My ways are not your ways.”

So it is in the spiritual life. We have some hope, some dream, some idea, some big thing we’d like to do for God. But it must die first before it comes back to life. Otherwise, we may say, “We did this on our own.”

In Exodus 5, Moses is in the “impossible” stage of doing a great work for God. Three words show us how the story unfolds.

#1: Oppression (vv. 1-14)

When Moses and Aaron go to see Pharaoh, It’s the first time Moses has been in the king’s palace in forty years. No doubt he and Aaron went with some trepidation, but it was exactly what God told them to do.

And it didn’t work.

Here is Pharaoh’s response:

“Who is the Lord, that I should obey him
             and let Israel go?
 I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (v. 2).

When Pharaoh said, “I don’t know the Lord,” he was right. He didn’t know God, but he was about to meet him!

Who’s running the show?

He did not know the Lord, so he would not obey him. The ultimate issue is the same for us as it was for Pharaoh: Who’s running the show? Pharaoh will soon find out the answer the hard way.

He accused the Jews of trying to trick him into letting them go. Then he ordered the foremen to stop supplying straw for the bricks they were making. So now the Jews had to scramble to find straw to meet their quota.

The situation has gone from bad to worse. That raises a key question. What do you do when you do right, and things get worse? Remember that Moses did exactly what God told him to do. He and Aaron talked to Pharaoh, and it blew up in their faces. That’s bad enough, but now all the Jews are suffering as a result.

You find out something about yourself in those moments.

#2: Frustration (vv. 15-21)

So now the Jewish overseers complain to Pharaoh about the unfair working conditions. That didn’t go well either. After all, Pharaoh knows it’s unfair and doesn’t care.

Here’s his response:

Pharaoh said,
             “Lazy, that’s what you are–lazy!
That is why you keep saying,
              ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’

 Now get to work.
             You will not be given any straw,
             yet you must produce
             your full quota of bricks” (vv. 17-18).

We call this gaslighting. Politicians do it all the time. It’s what happens when you blame people for problems you caused. Pharaoh does it by accusing the Jews of laziness. In fact, he says it twice in verse 17.

Pharaoh was gaslighting!

What happens next shouldn’t surprise us:

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” (vv. 20-21).

Who did the people blame? Moses, of course! He was an easy target. You can hardly blame the people for being angry or Moses for being upset.

Nothing has gone right on this very bad day.

You can do great things for God, but you must die first

When F. B. Meyer wrote about this story, he pointed out that Moses must learn a vital lesson: death to self.

Death to his plans.
Death to his dreams.
Death to his ambition.
Death to his schemes.
Death to his leadership.
Death to his popularity.

Jesus talked about this in John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” You can do great things for God, but you must die first. There will be many funerals and many graves to dig where we bury our dreams.

I remember a moment many years ago when I was fighting hard for what I believed was right. A wise friend came to me one day and said, “Pastor Ray, you’re holding on too hard.” Although I didn’t want to hear those words, my friend was right. I was holding on for dear life, almost afraid to let go.

“Pastor Ray, you’re holding on too hard”

Watchman Nee said in one of his books that we approach God like little children with open hands, begging for gifts. Because he is a good God, he fills our hands with good things—life, health, friends, money, success, recognition, marriage, children, a nice home, and a good job. When our hands are finally full, God says, “My child, I long to have fellowship with you. Reach out your hand and take my hand.” But we can’t do it because our hands are full. “God, we can’t,” we cry. “Put those things aside and take my hand,” he replies. “No, we can’t. It’s too hard to put them down.” “But I am the one who gave them to you in the first place.” “O God, please don’t ask us to put these things aside.” And God answers quietly, “You must.”

We hold on for dear life because we can’t imagine yielding our blessings to the Lord. Little by little, God pries our fingers away from our most cherished possessions. When he gets down to the thumb, we start fighting back.

Your arms are too short to box with God!

It never works.

We try to fight against the Lord, but as the wise man said, “Your arms are too short to box with God.” Oh, how happy we will be when we stop fighting and say, “Dear Lord, take whatever you want. It all belongs to you anyway.”

But it’s a painful process. There are many funerals and many burials along the path of God’s will.

#3: Lamentation (vv. 22-23)

“O Lord, why have you brought trouble
       upon this people?
Is this why you sent me?” (v. 22)

Good question! Moses is asking, “Was this Plan A? If so, let’s go straight to Plan B.”

 “Ever since I went to Pharaoh
             to speak in your name,
             he has brought trouble upon this people,
and you have not rescued your people at all” (v. 23).

I love how Moses puts it: “I spoke in your name, and that didn’t work out at all. These are your people, and you have not rescued them.” Those pronouns are reminding God (as if he needed a reminder) that this was his plan from the beginning.

“I did my part. Why don’t you do yours?”

That’s a fair question. But the conclusion isn’t quite right: “You haven’t rescued your people at all.” Despite this setback, the rescue is well underway. But Moses can’t see that because he’s so frustrated.

“Lord, I played by the rules. I did what you said. So why did it not work?”

And God says, “It’s going to work out. Just not the way you expect.”

“Lord, I played by the rules!”

Exodus 5 appears to be a hopeless chapter where nothing has gone right. But everything happened as God had determined.

Moses was still God’s man, and in God’s time, he would deliver God’s people from Egypt. The time was soon to come.

Nothing has happened by accident.

God knows what he is doing. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work. It just means he is working behind the scenes.

God knows what he is doing

I am reminded of Galatians 4:4, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son.” God arranged everything so that a Savior was born at just the right moment. But if you had been in Bethlehem a week earlier, nothing would have alerted you to the birth of Jesus. The angels weren’t singing, the sky was not lit, and all life proceeded as it had for hundreds of years.

God keeps time in his own way.

Lessons for Today

What lessons should we draw from this story of Moses’ very bad day?

1) God often reveals his will through early opposition.

It’s like the redness around an injection site. The redness means the body is reacting to the shot. In the same way, early opposition signals that God’s work has started.

If we never face opposition, are we truly doing God’s will?

Pharaoh boastfully said, “I do not know the Lord!” But he was about to get to know him very well. We can know the Lord in two ways:

As Deliverer, or
As Destroyer.

There is no third option.

Because Pharaoh did not know him as the Deliverer, he would soon know him as the Destroyer. The people of Egypt would pay a terrible price for the king’s insolence.

The Lord is your best friend, or he is your worst enemy

The Lord is your best friend, or he is your worst enemy.
Which is he to you?

Pharaoh hardened his own heart, then God hardened it some more. In the deepest sense, Pharaoh’s opposition was ordained by the Lord. It was the only way Israel could be set free.

This changes how we look at our enemies because it means God uses them to perfect us, knock off the rough edges, and build our faith. Seen in that light, your enemy is a gift from God to you.

I’m sure Moses didn’t think of Pharaoh that way, but it was true nonetheless. There was no way the Jews could get free without Pharaoh’s permission. But he would never give it freely. God must harden his heart to the breaking point because only then would he relent.

Our enemies are a gift from God

If it takes our enemies to humble us, that’s a good thing.
If it takes our enemies to drive us to our knees, that’s a good thing.
If it takes our enemies to strip away our pride, that’s a good thing.

If we didn’t need our enemies, God wouldn’t send them. He will keep our enemies alive and well as long as we need them. When you no longer need your enemies, they will disappear from your life.

Then he’ll send you some more—but that’s a sermon for another day!

2) God’s timetable and ours are not the same.

Let’s remember what Moses doesn’t know at this point. He doesn’t know about the ten plagues because those had not been revealed yet. He doesn’t have a clue that soon he and the nation will be trapped by the Red Sea. He knows nothing about the golden calf at Mount Sinai or the unending complaints of the Jews who wished they were back in Egypt.

All that is hidden in the mists of the future.

Moses must go back to Pharaoh

If Moses has any hope of doing all God wants him to do, he must go talk to Pharaoh again. Given how poorly he was received the first time, I’m sure he wasn’t looking forward to that meeting.

But you can’t bypass that part of your journey.

You’ll never get to Sinai without passing through the Red Sea.
You’ll never get to the Red Sea without the 10 plagues.
You’ll never get the 10 plagues without going back to Pharaoh.
You’ll never go back to Pharaoh unless you ignore your critics.

“He knows!”

Over the years I have come back again and again to Job 23:10, “He knows the way that I take. When he has tried me, I will come forth as gold.” When I was younger, I focused on the last two words: “as gold.” What a fine picture that is. God is working through my difficulties to produce pure gold in my life. I still believe that.

But nowadays I focus on the first two words: “He knows.” What consolation that gives in the time of trial! What hope amid despair. When nothing in my life makes sense and I feel like giving up, I return to those two words: “He knows.”

As long as he knows, I don’t have to know.

Life is a journey with many twists and turns. Yet as I approach my 70th birthday in September, I find that I believe in the sovereignty of God      more than ever before.

I have what I have because God has willed me to have it. I live where I live because God has willed me to live here.

I was born in Tennessee, raised in Alabama, and met my wife in Chattanooga. We’ve moved 12 times in 48 years. Along the way we’ve lived in Dallas, TX, Midlothian, TX, Downey, CA, Dallas, TX, Oak Park, IL, Tupelo, MS, Dallas, TX, and we now live in Shawnee, KS, all of it by the hand of God.

Sadie is a gift from God

We have three sons, three daughters-in-law, and 11 grandchildren because God has willed it so.

We have a beautiful two-year-old Aussiedoodle named Sadie. She’s a pandemic puppy. We got her because we were lonely during the lockdown. That, too, is the gift of God.

Even my problems (which aren’t many) are apportioned to me by the hand of a loving God.

I am what I am and who I am and where I am by the sovereign grace of God. That means there is no such thing as luck or fate or chance.

I heard about a little girl who, when asked what she had learned in Sunday School, said she had learned that “God never says ‘Oops!’”

God never says, “Oops!”

That’s comforting because we live in an Oops! world where mistakes are made all the time, often by well-meaning people.

But God makes no mistakes.
He knows what he is doing, even when I don’t have a clue

If God is God, then he is just as much the God of your cloudy days as he is the God of bright sunshine.

3) God’s power works best in our weakness.

First, Pharaoh rebuffs Moses. Then his own people attack him. He appears to be a failure.

But God is not finished yet.

It’s easy to get puffed up and to start thinking we’re indispensable. But as Charles de Gaulle said, the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.

The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.

Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans!

God doesn’t need us to do anything. He spoke, and the stars began to shine, the rabbits hopped across the field, the fish started to swim, and the eagle soared through the sky.

He can work with us.
He can work without us.

Many of us struggle with this concept. But God was doing just fine as God before we showed up. He’ll do just fine after we are gone.

Prayer of an Unknown Soldier

Perhaps you’ve read this prayer written by an unknown soldier from the Civil War.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

Hold your dreams lightly

I am, among men, most richly blessed.

Life is not a straight line. God’s plan for you and me includes a fair number of detours. The path of life zigs and zags and goes up and down. For a while you feel like you’re going in circles, then one day the clouds lift, and you discover those endless circles were leading you to the top of the mountain.

That brings me back to the advice I would give my thirty-year-old self: “Everything will work out, just not the way you expect.”

To my younger self, I would say, “Hold your dreams lightly. Everything will work out if you follow the Lord.” I knew that when I was 30, but I believe it now, and that makes all the difference.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?