Deuteronomy begins with a speech by Moses recounting the major events in Israel’s recent history. Moses draws lessons from these events and exhorts Israel to respond to God’s faithfulness by obeying him in trust (Deut. 4:40). Two sections—about violating trust in God by rebellion and complacency, respectively—are particularly important to the theology of work.
In the wilderness, the people's fear leads to a failure to trust God. As a result they rebel against God’s plan for them to enter the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 1:7-8). God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, given the law at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), and brought the people swiftly to the borders of the promised land (Deut. 1:19-20). According to the book of Numbers, God asks Moses to send out spies to survey the land he is giving to the Israelites, and Moses obeys (Numbers 13:1-3). But other Israelites use this reconnaissance mission as a chance to disobey God. They ask Moses to send out spies so they can stall the military action that God commanded. When the spies return with a favorable report, the Israelites still refuse to go (Deuteronomy 1:26). "The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven," they tell Moses, adding that "our hearts melt" (Deut. 1:28). Even though Moses assures the people that God will fight for them just as he did in Egypt, they do not trust God to fulfill his promises (Deut. 1:29-33). Fear leads to disobedience which leads to severe punishment.
Because of this disobedience, the Israelites living at the time are barred from entering the promised land. "Not one of these - not one of this evil generation - shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors" (Deut. 1:35). The only exceptions are Caleb and Joshua, the only members of the scouting expedition who encouraged the Israelites to obey God's command (Numbers 13:30). Moses himself is barred from entering the land due to a different act of disobedience. In Numbers 20:2-12 Moses pleads to God for a water source, and God tells Moses to command a rock to become a spring. Instead Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. Had Moses spoken to the rock, as God commanded, the resulting miracle might have satisfied both the Israelite's physical thirst as well as their need to believe that God was taking care of them. Instead, when Moses strikes the rock as if to break it open, the opportune moment passes. Like the Israelites in Deuteronomy 1:19-45, Moses is punished for his lack of faith which underlines his disobedience. "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites," says God, "therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12).
When the Israelites realize that they have condemned themselves to a lifetime of eking out an existence in the desert instead of enjoying the "good land" (Deuteronomy 1:25) God had prepared for them, they make their own plans to attack the Amorites. But God declares, "Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies" (Deut. 1:42). A lack of trust in God's promises leads Israel to miss the blessings he had in store for them.
When we know what is right, but are tempted to violate it, trust in God is all we have to keep us in God’s ways. This is not a matter of moral fiber. If even Moses failed to trust God completely, can we really imagine that we will succeed? Instead, it is a matter of God’s grace. We can pray for God’s Spirit to strengthen us when we stand for what is right, and we can ask for God’s forgiveness when we fall. Like Moses and the people of Israel, failure to trust God can have serious consequences in life, but our failure is ultimately redeemed by God’s grace. (For more on this episode, see “When Leadership Leads to Unpopularity” in Numbers 13 and 14 above.)
In the wilderness, Israel's abandon of trust in God arises not only from fear, but also from success. At this point in his first speech, Moses is describing the prosperity that awaits the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. Moses points out that success is likely to breed a spiritual complacency far more dangerous than failure. “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything…you will soon utterly perish from the land” (Deut. 4:25-26). We will come to idolatry, per se, in Deuteronomy 5:8, but the point here is the spiritual danger caused by complacency. In the wake of success, people cease fearing God and begin to believe success is a birthright. Instead of gratitude, we forge a sense of entitlement. The success for which we strive is not wrong, but it is a moral danger. The truth is that the success we achieve is mixed from a pinch of skill and hard work, combined with a heaping of fortunate circumstances and the common grace of God. We cannot actually provide for our own wants, desires, and security. Success is not permanent. It does not truly satisfy. A dramatic illustration of this truth is found in the life of King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles. “He was marvelously helped [by God] until he became strong. But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chr. 26:15-16). Only in God can we find true security and satisfaction (Ps. 17:15).
It may be surprising that the result of complacency is not atheism but idolatry. Moses foresees that if the people abandon the Lord, they will not become spiritual free agents. They will bind themselves to “objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell” (Deut. 4:28). Perhaps in Moses’ day the idea of religionless existence did not occur to anyone. But in our day it does. A growing tide of secularism attempts to throw off what it sees—sometimes quite correctly—as shackles of domination by corrupt religious institutions, belief, and practices. But does this result in a true freedom, or is the worship of God necessarily replaced by the worship of human-made fabrications?
Although this question sounds abstract, it has tangible effects on work and workplaces. For example, prior to the last half of the twentieth century, questions about business ethics were generally settled by reference to the Scriptures. This practice was far from perfect, but it did give serious standing to those on the losing side of power struggles related to work. The most dramatic case was probably the religiously-based opposition to slavery in England and the United States of America, which ultimately succeeded in abolishing both the slave trade and slavery itself. In secularized institutions, there is no moral authority to which one can appeal. Instead, ethical decisions must be based on law and “ethical custom,” as Milton Friedman put it. Law and ethical custom being human constructs, business ethics becomes reduced to rule by the powerful and the popular. No one wants a workplace dominated by religious elite, but does a fully secularized workplace simply open the door for a different kind of exploitation? It is certainly possible for believers to bring the blessings of God’s faithfulness to their workplaces without trying to reimpose special privileges for themselves.
All this is not to say that success must necessarily lead to complacency. If we can remember that God’s grace, God’s word, and God’s guidance are at the root of whatever success we have, then we can be grateful, not complacent. The success we experience could then honor God and bring us joy. The caution is simply that over the course of history success seems to be spiritually more dangerous than adversity. Moses further warns Israel about the dangers of prosperity in Deuteronomy 8:11-20.
Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” New York Times, September 13, 1970.