One of the saddest of all the sad stories in the history of the people of God comes shortly after the dramatic exodus from Egypt, as they stand on the brink of a whole new life in the land God had promised:
But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, “The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’” Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you [Not “comfort you.” Not “be with you in your distress, defeated by your enemies.” Fight for you], as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God. ...Then you replied, “We have sinned against the Lord. We will go up and fight, as the Lord our God commanded us.” (Deut. 1:26–32, 41 niv)
But it was too late. Their decision not to fight is what led to their wandering in the wilderness for forty years. We often cite that part of the story, talking about our own wilderness experiences, embracing the wilderness saga as if it were inevitable. No, that is not the lesson at all. We have forgotten it was avoidable. The reason they took the lamentable detour into the wilderness was because they would not fight. To be more precise, the wilderness was a punishment, the consequence of refusing to trust God, and fight.