• Alec Bowling

Worshipping Like Pharaoh

Have you ever read through Exodus and slowly realized that your worship-life may have more in common with Pharaoh’s than Moses’? I have, and it doesn’t feel great. As I worked my way through the verses, chapters, and plagues, I began to see much of myself in a man vehemently opposed to God’s sovereignty and trying his hardest to thwart the Lord’s plans. Slightly alarmed, I needed to understand why I saw so many of my own habits in Pharaoh. What I found was a behavior all too common in myself, and many Christians.

Most of us know the story — time after time, Moses goes to Pharaoh and begs for the release of the Israelites. Time after time, Pharaoh denies this request. Even when God turns the Nile to blood, Pharaoh is unmoved. But when the Lord brings down a plague of frogs, something interesting happens with Pharaoh. Despite his advisors, who council him that it is no more than an easily replicated magic trick, this plague makes Pharaoh deeply uncomfortable. We can’t know exactly what went through his mind or what conversations he had with the magicians, but we can see that Pharaoh was in distress. In distress enough to go directly to Moses and say: “Plead with the Lord to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (Exodus 8:8).

So the Lord relents, the plague of frogs ceases, and Egypt is free. God has upheld his end of the bargain, and now it’s Pharaoh’s turn.

But then Scripture tells us that this happens: “When Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:15).

It was in this verse that I saw my own actions so clearly.

At the outset, Pharaoh is ambivalent to God’s commands. Then something bad happens. In response, Pharaoh turns to worldly outlets and advisors for answers; his heart is unchanged toward God. But then another hardship comes, and Pharaoh returns to his worldly advice, but this time it isn’t sufficient. In desperation, to end his suffering, Pharaoh turns to the Lord. And by God’s grace, the storm passes. However, now comfortable again, Pharaoh heel-turns and continues living the same way he always had.

Does that not sound awfully familiar? How often do we follow those same exact steps? How easy would it be to replace Pharaoh’s name with your own?

In this story, I was confronted with this common truth: I often go to God only when life is hard. When I’m dealing with an illness or a tough time at work, when it’s winter and snowing and I’m having to deal with family issues I never thought I’d have to deal with, when I don’t know where else to turn — I happily bend my knees and pray. But then life gets easy again, and I go right back to my worldly idols. We all are guilty of this. Of cultivating a worship-life more akin to Pharaoh than Moses. We focus on the world rather than the Lord. Then a storm comes and we run to God. And then as soon as the clouds part and rains cease, we return to our old ways. Throughout Exodus, this same pattern happens with Pharaoh multiple more times. And we followers of Christ can too often walk these same steps.

How then do we break free from this? How do we grow and change so that our worship looks less like Pharaoh’s? We can start by looking at Moses’ life.

When God asked Moses to return to Egypt, he was living an idyllic life. He worked as a shepherd, raising a newborn son alongside his wife and extended family. Moses had not been without his own hardships, but at this point there was no great storm at work in his life. At the very least, he lived free from the yoke of Egypt, under which so many of his people languished.

To deepen our trust in the Lord, we must leave our comfort zone. Moses had numerous reasons to loathe a return to Egypt and numerous reasons to stay put, in Midian, where he had built a life. He had expressed his fears to the Father, asked questions and received answers, and yet doubt persisted. It was a monumental task to consider. Even so — Moses obeyed.

Moses returned to Egypt, not because he had no fears, but in spite of them. For example, when Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh went terribly, how did he respond? Did he put on a brave face, his faith steady as stone? Not at all — he was a wreck. He cried out to God, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23). You can feel his tears, anxiety, and hopelessness. He doubts himself. He doubts God. “Why did you ever send me?” His language is heartbreaking, and startling in its relatability. Have you ever felt like this? Maybe you’ve prayed something similar: Lord, why would you ever choose me?

This honesty is a crucial part of Moses’ obedience. He bore his heart to God, and God affirmed His promises, reminding Moses, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” He compelled Moses to keep moving forward — and Moses obeyed.

If we aren’t willing to face challenges for the glory of God, our worship-life will become like Pharaoh’s — one of convenience. If we wait to act until the circumstances are just right and all our anxieties are assuaged, our worship will become like Pharaoh’s. We must exit our comfort zone. And the thing is — it doesn’t have to be a titanic task like liberating the Israelites. It can be as simple. Help your spouse when they are stressed. Start your day with scripture-reading. Ask a friend about their faith. Invite a non-believer to dinner. Turn to the Lord every day, not just in storms.

Had Moses stayed in Midian, his life might have looked much like Pharaoh’s — a comfortable life of self-sufficiency, punctuated by momentary, tragedy-induced worship. When God called him to give up his life, he obeyed, and everything changed. God has placed the same call on our lives. Jesus says to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25).

When we only seek amidst storms, when our worship is Pharaoh-like, we must follow Moses’ example to break free. With our loving Father’s encouragement, we must act, and follow, in faith.

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