Pastor Nicoletti continues his series through the book of Deuteronomy.
“The Temptation to Forget, When Times Are Good”
September 10, 2023
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We return this morning to the Book of Deuteronomy.
Moses is giving his instruction to the people of Israel, after forty years in the desert, as they now stand on the verge of the promised land, preparing to enter it and receive its blessings.
With that in mind, let’s turn to our text this morning: Deuteronomy 8:5-20.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
Moses said to the people:
8:5 “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, Yahweh your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of Yahweh your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For Yahweh your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Take care lest you forget Yahweh your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget Yahweh your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that Yahweh makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of Yahweh your God.”
This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, we gather this morning because we love your Word.
We want it to be our meditation day and night.
We know that your revelation to us
offers more wisdom than the wise of the world,
it gives us more understanding than the great thinkers of the world,
it gives us deeper understanding than the old and experienced of the world.
It holds us back from evil,
and keeps us from straying from you.
And it is sweet to us,
sweeter than honey in our mouths.
Through it we gain understanding,
and we learn to reject every false way.
Teach us now from your word, we ask.
In Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:97-104]
In the first portion of chapter eight, which we looked at last week, Moses looked back in Israel’s history and called them (and us) to recognize that when times are tough, we are tempted, in a variety of ways, to forget that God is our Father.
If that is the temptation when times are tough, then you would think that when things go well – when we are prospering, when we are successful, when we are comfortable – then our response towards God would be different. After all, we often think that way – we often imagine that feeling successful and secure would improve our spiritual disposition towards God.
But interestingly – shockingly, really – Moses confronts us in our text this morning with the fact that, though the details will vary, actually, from a big-picture perspective, when things are going well in our lives, we face the same major temptation as we face when things are tough: the temptation to willfully forget that God is our Father.
That’s what Moses says here as he looks forward to Israel’s time in the promised land: that when things are going well in life, we are tempted to forget that God is our Father.
And as he gives us that warning, Moses lays out three ways that this spiritual dynamic plays out in our lives in good times.
He points out that when times are good, when things in our life are going well, we tend to:
- Rewrite the past,
- Congratulate ourselves on the present,
- And turn to idols for the future.
When we are experiencing worldly success, we tend to rewrite the past, congratulate ourselves on the present, and turn to idols for the future.
Rewriting the Past
So first, when things are going well in life – when we are experiencing success and security, we tend to rewrite the past.
And Moses makes this point in verses fourteen through seventeen. There he explains that their temptation will be to “forget Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’”
Moses’s point is that when Israel finds themselves in a position of success and security, they will be tempted to rewrite their past, and to forget God’s role in it all.
They will be tempted to forget all that God did to get them where they are today. They will rewrite the story of their own history to make themselves the hero instead of God.
Of course, that seems especially ludicrous for Israel. It was God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt – they did not free themselves. It was God who sustained them in the desert for forty years – they did not sustain themselves. It was God who brought them into the promised land – they did not overcome it themselves. And yet … in moments of success and security, they will be tempted to look back over the story of their lives and say, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me to where I am today.”
That was going to be the temptation for Israel. And it’s a temptation for us as well.
When we feel successful … when we feel secure … we tend to give credit to ourselves. When we think back over the story of how we got where we are – whether it’s how we acquired the wealth we have, how we got where we are in our career, how we raised the family we raised, or some other achievement or form of success or security – when we tell the story to ourselves, if we’re honest, we are usually the main character and the hero of the story we tell… aren’t we? The moral of the story that we tell ourselves about our own success and security is often some version of “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me to where I am today.”
How do you see that dynamic in your own heart? What form of success or security do you tend to most delight in? And when you think about it … in what ways do you tend to attribute your acquisition of it primarily to yourself – to your power, and your efforts?
Moses here, and the Bible in many other places, reminds us how absurd that tendency is. Because everything we have is ultimately a gift from God. The good things we receive … along with the means we use to acquire those good things … along with the ability to use those means … along with even the willingness to use our abilities rightly – all those things are gifts. Like Israel, we cannot look back at our lives and truthfully credit ourselves as the hero of our success. We did not by our own power and might acquire all the good things we have.
The Apostle Paul puts the question like this – he asks: “What do you have that you did not receive?” [1 Corinthians 4:7] The emphatic, implied answer is “Nothing.” All you have is a gift.
Because even the ability to work and the opportunity to profit from our work is a gift.
Do you see that?
I’ve mentioned this before, but Michael Jordan is always a helpful case study to consider. Jordan “is generally regarded as the greatest basketball player who ever lived.” He worked incredibly hard at being good at basketball. And yet, many, essential aspects of his success were clearly unmerited gifts.
Jordan is six foot six. He didn’t earn or achieve that height. He was also born in America at a time when certain opportunities existed for him that would not have existed at other times or in other places. He also had parents who supported his passion. None of those things are achievements. And they are all essential to Jordan’s story.
As Michael Schur puts it: “If you take Jordan’s exact personality, talent profile, and work ethic, and put them in the body of a five-foot-two goat herder in Bangladesh, he does not become Air Jordan, six-time NBA champion. He becomes the most intense and irritating Bangladeshi goat herder in history” [Schur, 230-231]
It may be true that you have worked hard in life. But even so, the resources you worked with, the opportunities you had, the results that came, the mind and the body you have to do what you do – all of these things are gifts from God. And therefore so is everything that has come from your labor.
All we have is ultimately a gift from God our Father. And one way to think about this is that when we forget this, we act like a person who forgets that they have parents.
It’s the illusion of the self-made man or the self-made woman. It is a storyline we really like in our culture: the person who overcomes all the odds, who clears so many hurdles, who starts with nothing, but then achieves something great. And they’ve done it all themselves. We like those stories. We often want to be those kinds of people.
But, of course, the story, in its pure form, is ultimately a fiction. No one makes themselves. Of course we could parse out all the steps along the way, all the circumstances that might have helped them in their achievements, but I’m not even talking about that. In a literal, foundational way, you cannot make yourself. The hero myth of the self-made man or woman lives in denial of the fact that such men and women have parents. And in some stories maybe they had awful parents. Maybe they held them back in all sorts of ways. But still, maybe even in spite of their monumental failures – those parents gave that man or woman life. And that’s something that individual never could have done for themselves. We cannot be self-made people, we cannot be the final hero of our story of success and security, because our very existence – the most important part of our personal story – is not something we achieved, not to mention every other resource and opportunity that came to us after that.
And if that’s true of our earthly parents, with all their limitations, faults, and maybe even monumental failures … then how much more true must it be of our heavenly Father? He has never failed us. And yet we are so quick to cut him out of the stories we tell ourselves about how we achieved what we have today.
He made us not just by an act of biology, but he created us from nothing. He formed us, he grew us, he developed us, he gave us life. He gave us every resource we have ever had – every good influence, every ability, every opportunity, every success. He brought us through every past trial and difficulty, whether we saw his work clearly or not. He has been faithful, and just like Israel, we owe everything we have to him.
Verse five reminds us that God is our Father. Verse fourteen reminds us that his fatherly care goes back to before we were even born – going back generations. Verse eleven reminds us that we must be careful not to forget these truths.
If we see any area in our lives where we have achieved success or security, the proper response is not to look back, and see a story where we are the hero, and then say: “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me to where I am today.” No. The right response is to have eyes of faith – eyes attuned to the truth – that can look back and see what God has done: see the gifts he’s given us, see the blessings he’s poured out on us, see the resources and abilities, see the fruitful results – to remember how God has been a loving Father to us, and then to give him our thanks and devotion.
That is what Moses calls us to do here.
What false narratives about your life do you tend to tell yourself? Where do you give credit to yourself for your past blessings or success … when it’s really due to your heavenly Father?
When things are going well in life, we tend to rewrite the story of the past. We tend to make ourselves the hero of all that has happened. And instead, Moses reminds us here that in times of success, we need to remember the real story of our past, and give thanks to God.
That’s the first way Moses reminds us to remember that God is our Father in times of success and security.
Congratulating Ourselves on the Present
The second temptation that Moses identifies is that when things are going well in our lives, we tend not only to forget the past, but also to congratulate ourselves on the present.
In verses fourteen through seventeen, Moses was focused on how they might one day think of their past. But then, in verse eighteen, he shifts to how they might interpret their present. Moses says: “You shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” The focus shifts here from the past to the present.
It’s not just that God gave you success and security. But he also gives you success and security now.
But Moses points out that when we have success, we are tempted not just to put ourselves at the center of our memory of the past, but we are also tempted to congratulate ourselves about our work and its results in the present. That becomes clear when we look at verses seventeen and eighteen together.
And again, we might best see the folly of this tendency if we think of an earthly parallel.
Maybe you knew someone like this growing up … or you’ve at least seen this kind of character played on TV: the teenager with wealthy parents, who buy him a really nice car for getting decent grades … and then he responds by arrogantly boasting as if he earned that car all himself.
Now he did work for it – don’t get me wrong. Maybe he worked really hard. But he didn’t earn it in any absolute sense. He didn’t really acquire it by his own power or labor.
We can even set aside the fact that other students may have worked harder and may have gotten even better grades, but they got no car. We can just focus on that one young man himself.
In the real world, good grades don’t actually create a car, or the money to pay for one. True, he got the car in exchange for good grades … but his good grades neither built the car nor generated any money to buy it. No – the car was a gift. In a sense it was earned, but it was “earned” within a system of grace, not of merit.
But if we think about it, the grace of the system goes well beyond the final exchange of grades for a car. The student earned those grades at a school that – whether public or private – he did not pay for himself. He did it by reading books he did not buy. He carried out his studies and did his homework in a house that he did not pay for, fueling his body with food that was given to him, using a brain and a body that he himself did not make.
Now, don’t get me wrong – his effort was real, and there is a sense in which he worked for what he received. But that work was not within a system of true merit. It was within a system of grace – a system where the parents reward their child with something that was far beyond what the child’s work inherently produced in itself.
And so while the child can be pleased with the work he did, while he can delight in the reward he received, going around boasting to himself or to his friends is absurd.
And yet, we often do the same, exact thing. Look at the good things you are working to acquire in your life right now: whether it’s wealth or security, success at home or success in the workplace, or something else. When you succeed, when you get what you’ve worked for … do you act like that teenage student?
Do you pat yourself on the back? Do you arrogantly boast, to yourself or to others, about how you are earning this good thing all yourself? Do you look down on others who don’t achieve the same results in their life and assume, in your heart, that the difference must be because you earned it and they did not? Do you congratulate yourself on your present success and security?
Verse eighteen is a reminder of how foolish that perspective really is. It’s a reminder that we so naturally can act like that arrogant student, boasting about how he earned that car.
You may have worked very hard to get where you are today. But that doesn’t mean you truly earned it – not in an absolute sense. We’ve received training we did not invent, to develop natural abilities we did not earn, to work in a system we did not design, to receive money we did not create, which we can exchange for goods we did not produce. Grace is everywhere in that system.
The work you do is real – don’t get me wrong. And you shouldn’t disparage your work as if it doesn’t matter – it does matter. But you also shouldn’t think that by it you are creating all the good things you enjoy. You should not make the mistake of thinking you are operating in a system of pure merit, when in fact you are operating in a system of heavenly grace – a system overwhelmingly populated by gracious gifts from God.
Because God doesn’t just create a cold system for creatures to earn their own keep. He covenants with his people. He covenants with his creation. And all God’s covenants are saturated with grace. And as the last part of verse eighteen mentions – the good gifts we receive in this life are meant to be an aspect of that covenantal grace.
In God’s covenants he often does promise us rewards for our faithful work – it’s true. But those rewards are gifts. They’re not the natural outcome of our efforts. They’re far in excess of what our efforts merit. And so even though we work for what we have in this life, and even though we do, in a sense, “earn” those things, they remain gifts. In all the good things we have on this earth, at the end of the day, we really are, at best, the teenage student, being given a nice car by his wealthy father for getting decent grades. Your wealth is a gift. Your success is a gift. Your family is a gift. Your security is a gift.
And when we see that, the proper response is humble thanks towards our heavenly Father, for every good thing we have. Because all of it – even the things we have worked the hardest for – all of it is a gift. And so, we should respond with thanks and devotion to the One who gave it to us.
So, the second thing we see is that when things are going well in life, we are tempted to congratulate ourselves for the present. But Moses reminds us that in times of success and security, we need to remember the real power behind all we have, and give humble thanks to our heavenly Father for every good gift he has given us.
Turning to Idols for the Future
Finally, Moses turns our attention to the future.
We see this in verses nineteen and twenty. There Moses says: “And if you forget Yahweh your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that Yahweh makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of Yahweh your God.”
This warning, we should recognize, is truly bizarre. What Moses is saying is that when Yahweh – the one true God, the God of Israel – when Yahweh rescues Israel from slavery, and sustains them for a generation in the desert, and brings them into an incredibly fruitful land, and they enjoy all the good gifts that Yahweh has given them … then, in response, Israel will be especially tempted to worship gods other than Yahweh.
It’s absurd. It makes no sense. And yet, it’s exactly what happened.
Why does that happen for Israel? Why does it happen for us?
Here’s what I think Moses is getting at: When we cut God out of the past and the present … then, left to ourselves, we will quickly feel acute anxiety about the future. And in the midst of that anxiety, we will be tempted to turn to idols.
When we set our hearts on our wealth or our possessions, it often leads us to anxiety. Tim Keller has pointed out how, in the gospels, Jesus’s teaching on greed often flow right into teaching about anxiety. We see this in Matthew 6 and again in Luke 12. Now, anxiety can take many forms. But one form it takes, in times of success, is that we love what we have, we attribute it to ourselves, and then we fear that we cannot secure what we have for the future. [Keller, 56]
And those anxieties might not only be about losing what we have. They might also be about what we have not growing fast enough.
Tim Keller puts it like this – he writes: “Everyone tends to live in a particular socioeconomic bracket. Once you are able to afford to live in a particular neighborhood, send your children to its schools, and participate in its social life, you will find yourself surrounded by quite a number of people who have more money than you. You don’t compare yourself to the rest of the world, you compare yourself to those in your bracket. […] You say, ‘I don’t live as well as him or her or them. My means are modest compared to theirs.’ You can reason and think like that no matter how lavishly you are living. As a result, most Americans think of themselves as middle class, and only 2 percent call themselves ‘upper class.’ But the rest of the world is not fooled. When people visit here from other parts of the globe, they are staggered to see the level of materialistic comfort that the majority of Americans have come to view as a necessity.” [Keller, 52-53]
In our anxiety about what we have, we can easily lose perspective. And so … if Keller is right … then it might be helpful to take a few minutes to step outside of our socioeconomic brackets, and actually compare ourselves with the rest of the world.
Political scientist Ruben Mathisen did an analysis of global income distributions. These numbers aren’t exact, and they use 2021 dollars, but they give a helpful ballpark, I think. They are based on annual, pre-tax income, per adult in the household.
According to his analysis, if you make at least $7,000 per adult in your household, then your income is above the majority of people alive today. If you make $25,000, before taxes, for each adult in your home, then you are in the top 20% of the world when it comes to income. If you make $40,000 per adult, then you’re in the top 10% of the world. If you make $60,000 per adult, you’re in the top 5% of the world. And if you make $125,000 per adult, then congratulations: you are in the top 1% of the globe when it comes to income.
And that’s to say nothing about the unique material blessings of living in our particular day and age.
Now there’s at least two things I want to say about this.
One is that, just to check our own hearts, my guess is that when I read those statistics, many of you did not just marvel about how wealthy you are compared with the rest of the world. My guess is that many of us also felt almost instant envy of the people who are in the brackets above us on that list. You are perhaps annoyed to be in the top 20% or 10% of the world … but not the top 1%.
Second, is that despite the wealth we have in comparison to the world today and most of human history, the fact is that many of us experience not just general covetousness (which is problematic enough), but also intense anxiety because despite all we have, our bank account still is not as big as other people we know, our retirement account is not as hefty, our car is not as new, our kitchen is kind of dated, our clothes are not quite in style, or our vacations are not quite as extravagant as some of the people around us. And it causes us distress.
Now, in saying all of this, I’m not trying to dismiss the real financial struggles many here face. Despite where it puts you compared to the wider world, I realize that you can’t actually make ends meet here on $7,000 a year as a single adult. I know it costs a lot to raise a family. I know what housing costs look like around here. I know that many people face very real financial struggles. Poverty is a real and serious problem. That’s an important subject … but it’s not the focus of our text this morning. Our text is about what most of us here do have. And it therefore points to the reality that some … and for a lot of us, many … of our financial anxieties are manufactured as a result of comparison, fear, entitlement, and idolatry of wealth.
Am I wrong?
And when we are anxious and distressed about money or wealth or possessions, we turn to idols. In fact, the connection is so strong that the Apostle Paul says twice that greed is synonymous with idolatry [Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 5:5]
For one thing, it puts our priorities deeply out of order. Temporal and often superficial things become way more important to us than they should be. The things themselves may not be bad, but from a cosmic perspective, they are far less important than we treat them. The good gifts we receive in this life are meant to point us to the God who gave them to us. His blessings should point us to the fact that he is a loving heavenly Father, and should therefore lead us to thanksgiving, [1 Timothy 4:4-5], to faith, and to repentance [Romans 2:4]. That should be our priority. But when we fall into this pattern, and become idolatrously anxious about our success and security in the future, our priorities become disordered.
And then, out of fear, we turn to finite, limited, created things to guarantee our future. That’s basically what Moses described in verses nineteen. The main attraction of idols in the ancient world was not that worshipping them was extra fun or deeply fulfilling. The main draw to worshipping idols was that they promised that if you worshiped them, if you gave yourself to them, if you sacrificed to them, then they promised to give you the thing you wanted or needed: whether that thing was a good harvest, abundant fertility, security against your enemies, or something else. Idols promise to secure tomorrow for us when we realize we cannot secure it for ourselves.
And we may not turn to Baal or Asherah anymore today. But idol worship is still alive and well, as we devote ourselves inordinately to money itself, or to the means of generating more wealth. We give the affections of our heart to our job, our investments, our possessions, or the people or things we think might increase our wealth. We place more trust in them than they deserve. We sacrifice more to them than they deserve. We begin to believe that these things can ensure our future. We make idols of them.
And this is deeply wrong and sad.
It’s wrong because when we do this, we give a level of devotion that only God deserves to something other than God. Which is an act of unfaithfulness to God.
And it’s sad because it doesn’t work. Baal and Ashera could not deliver on their promises. But neither can our modern secular idols. You can lose your job. The market, and your investment portfolio can tank. Property values can crash. People can abandon you. Possessions can be destroyed. Financial institutions can collapse. Unexpected tragedy can deplete your personal resources. So despite what they promise, the idols we turn to for financial success and security in the future cannot actually guarantee what they promise to.
It leads to ruin, as we read in verses nineteen and twenty.
And fundamentally, turning to idols for the future forgets that all we have is a gift from God our Father.
As we’ve said, God is the ultimate source of every good thing we have. And it’s absurd, that having received such great blessings from him, we then turn to others to keep it secure. It makes no sense.
The future is unknown to us. Whatever our plans may be, the truth is that we don’t know where we are headed in this life. But we do know that the One who leads us is our heavenly Father. And he is faithful. He may lead us through seasons of prosperity. He may lead us through seasons of want and struggle. But wherever he leads us, we can trust that he will be with us. He is our loving heavenly Father, and he has proven his care for us over and over again. And so we must trust him as the only real source of hope and security for our future.
When things go well in our lives, it’s amazing how quickly we are tempted to rewrite the story of our past, to reframe the dynamics of our present, and to redirect our trust for the future. And as we do, we can willfully forget that God is our heavenly Father, and that every good gift we have in life comes from him.
The gifts he gives are wonderful. But they still pale in comparison to the gift of our relationship with him. For that gift, he even sent his own Son to die for us, that we might be adopted into his family – that he might shower us with gifts not just here and now, but for eternity – and not just in the form of things, but in the form of knowing God himself.
That is how great his Fatherly love is for us in Jesus Christ. And so how can we cut him out of our past, present, or future? No. The only sure thing we have in this life is the love of God for us through Christ Jesus.
And so, behind every good gift we have in this life, let’s look more carefully to see the God whose Fatherly love is behind them all.
And confident in his love, let’s thank him for our past, rely on him for our present, and rest in him for our future.
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: Norton, 2004.
Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. New York, NY: Dutton, 2009.
Mathisen, Ruben Berge. “Charted: Income Distributions in 16 Different Countries.” Visualcapitalist.com November 25, 2022. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/cp/charting-income-distributions-worldwide/
Schur, Michael. How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
Note: In my preaching I often cite and draw from a range of sources, which includes material from Christians within my theological tradition, Christians outside my theological tradition (in keeping with our church’s core value of “Reformed Catholicity”), and also (following the Apostle Paul’s example in Acts 17) non-Christians who are well outside of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And so, when I cite an author or a source, that citation should not be understood or construed as me necessarily agreeing with, endorsing, or recommending to others anything else from that author or source, except for what I explicitly say I agree with, endorse, or recommend. When engaging with different materials and thinkers, all Christians must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine what is helpful, appropriate, and edifying for each person, taking into account their current needs, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.
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