By Dr. Richard Guentert
Having moved beyond the “mirages” of the wilderness to Horeb’s “mountain-top ecstasy,” Moses finds himself in one of life’s recurring quandaries . . . What do you do when you are literally “between a rock (Mt. Horeb) and a hard place (the wilderness)?” How do you handle life when it means functioning somewhere between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes?
In the “burning bush” encounter he begins to hear sounds emanating from, of all places, a shrub. (Now, many of us have been to Disney World and heard “It’s A Small World - music” emanating from plants, trees and landscaping everywhere. But in this pre-scientific, pre-technological world context, sounds from a bush are unheard of, and totally awesome.)
The Divine Visitation plus The Voice presents Moses with a curiosity, an invitation, a directive, a tribal genealogy and a bad case of stress. The Curiosity: Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up?” The Invitation: God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” The Directive: “Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” The Tribal Genealogy: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Bad Case of Stress: “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.”
What gets revealed is a compassionate God who has observed the Hebrew people’s misery and heard their cry – a divine being who is capable of intimately knowing their suffering, acting for their deliverance, and promising them “a good and broad land, flowing with milk and honey.” The puzzling part is that their promised paradise is presently somebody else’s property – it belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” That means the Hebrews can only get out from under being a conquered/enslaved people, by conquering/enslaving another people. God has offered an awkward solution to their one problem by presenting them with another. And isn’t that often the way it is with spiritual journeying . . . you keep finding yourself struggling with alternative conundrums – all along the way – between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes.
God’s plan is to send Moses to confront Pharaoh, and deliver the message, “Let My People Go!” But Moses retorts, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.” In other words, Moses underestimates his capability; he underestimates his authority; he underestimates his qualifications; he underestimates his mandate. And this is likely where you and I most identify with this ancient patriarch of the faith – in our proneness to underplay our role in the promising possibility God has in mind for us.
So, do you suppose this is one more example of our sinfulness – our promptings to underestimate – both ourselves and others? And if so, might we just as well confess that this characteristic of “underestimating” is actually a sin? I wonder! And the sneaky thing about it is the subtle way we carry it off as the exercise of “humility” – when in fact it is a shrinking away from the responsibility God places upon us to act with courage and audacity in the face of wrong, evil and injustice.
It is the sin of underestimating ourselves and others that prompts us to say, “I can’t!” “I’m not competent, capable or experienced enough!” “I don’t have the resources to carry it off!” But to underestimate is to discount God’s confidence in us and in humanity. To underestimate is to discount Christ’s abiding presence. To underestimate is to discount the Holy Spirit’s empowering charisms & charisma.
Those who underestimate betray a lack of confidence in the accumulated resources and giftedness of the community of faith around them. And it culminates in a failure of faith, a failure of hope, and ultimately in a failure of nerve. It results in low-balling our expectations, in down-sizing our dreams, in shrinking our ambitions, in trimming back our enterprises, and in “settling” for second-best.
The text concludes with God disclosing the empowering name: “I am who I am!” – the real power of which is to be noted in the footnote to the NRSV translation. The Hebrew text is just as accurately translated, “I will be what I will be!”
Master chess-players have already figured out their opponent’s options four to six plays ahead into the game. So we should not be surprised that the God of the Hebrews has the capability to “become” in any way necessary, as the creature and the Creator move in partnership into their new future together. A God who can say “I will be what I will be!” is a transformable God for a transformable people – even though the future from the human standpoint is filled with ambiguous outcomes. And the Promise that can counter all our proneness to “underestimate” is that the One who was with the Hebrew people through all their wonderings and their wanderings is the God who is with us, as well.
Further resources for exploring this unholy habit of “underestimating:”
The Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c text is full of arguments countering any propensity to underestimate – especially the power of remembering how God was with them in their previous history.
The Romans 12 text offers an “attitude adjustment” for us when we are tempted to underestimate. See verses 11 and 12. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” These are the spiritual resources that counter any temptation to disparage our capabilities in the face of God’s call.
The Matthew 16:21-28 text gives us a powerful illustration around this theme of underestimating. In verse 21 Jesus outlines both the suffering of his passion and the resurrection promise. But in the midst of Jesus’ candidness and confidence comes Peter’s cold water. He underestimates the depth of Jesus’ commitment and conviction. He underestimates Jesus’ rationale and resolve. So in verse 23 Jesus indicates that this “underestimating” is not only detrimental, it is satanic! It is a stumbling block. And it is wrong-minded!
The doubting and fearful Disciples, gathered later on in the Upper Room after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, had the audacity to underestimate the power of God to bring life in the face of death, and hope in the midst of despair.
When one continually underestimates themselves, they end up going through life with an accumulation of regrets – and blaming life for it – kind of like the fellow described in the following lyrics from a C&W ballad.
I could’ve played in the majors,
but I had some bad luck
Well that’s not exactly it,
the truth is I sucked.
So I drank me some whiskey,
and I smoked cigarettes
’Cause it takes out the sting
of those former regrets.
I’m sad and I’m tired,
I’m angry and numb
I’m three-quarters prisoner
and I’m two-quarters dumb
I’m half of the man that I wanted to be
I wish life would stop kickin’
the [crap] out of me.
(Lyrics from a country western song by Thom Schuyler called “3/4 Me”)
The Olympic Village was a community of people who refused to disbelieve or doubt the possibility of breaking records. Not one of them got there by underestimating their capabilities, or the resources that surrounded them in their family, coach, community and peers.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Wilma Rudolf (the first American woman runner to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, 1940-1994.)
A strong counter to the practice of underestimating what God can do in and through us is found in the text to the hymn, That Cause Can Neither Be lost Nor Stayed. It is a is a powerful antidote to the negativity of disparaging and minimizing our contributions. The text can be found on page 604 of Chalice Hymnal
From the culture of history, art, music and theatre comes the musical production called Les Misérable, about underdogs who believe so much in the virtue of a cause that the size of the foe is inconsequential . . . resulting in a complete refusal to underestimate the power of a liberating idea.
“People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing. A leader’s job is to help people have a vision of their potential.” John Porter
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia, U.S. author & lecturer (1925 - 1998)
The Labor Day weekend is a significant moment to encourage folk not to underestimate the weight, worth and magnitude of their labors. What they do for a living makes better the world around them. It is important. And to underestimate that importance is to undervalue their vocation
Taking on great efforts like combating racism, starting new churches, and undertaking flood recovery projects requires indomitable spirits. None of these are tackled by folks intent on underestimating themselves, others, the church, or God.