Image: Jill DeHaan

hen I am around children, I enjoy asking what they want to be when they grow up. This exercise fascinates me. It offers a rare opportunity in life: the freedom to spell out whatever the imagination dares to dream, uninhibited by other people’s expectations or fears. Usual replies include, “I want to become a ballerina,” “I want to be an astronaut,” and my favorite, “I want to be a princess!”

The purity of these moments has the brevity of the morning dew, before “reality” rises with its harsh interrogating light to dry up each trace of these jewel-like droplets. “Let’s get serious now,” says reality, clearing her throat like a strict governess with no time for silly games that deliver no tangible returns.

I remember my shock a few years ago when I put this question to a ten-year-old boy, and he declared boldly: “an actuarial analyst.” I had no idea what that was, and I doubted whether he did either. Now, I have nothing against actuarial analysts, and I am sure they perform an important service, but it requires little effort to see this as a foreign voice. This was not a childish imagination roaming free, envisioning the wildest possibilities. Instead, this was a “schooled” voice representing someone else’s—probably the parents’—more sensible approach to his future.

One could argue that the parents were acting wisely. The chances of their son becoming, say, a successful knight are fairly bleak. Surely, one has to be prudent about the future and avoid launching into unrealistic endeavors that will probably end in tragedy.

Putting too much stock in prudence, though, sets up an opposing danger: you can end up paralyzing the human spirit. When parents nudge their children toward “sensible” life goals, they encourage a mindset that favors prudence over imagination, wisdom over risk, security and comfort over adventure and change.

This is especially problematic when you claim to follow a God with a track record of inviting people into unfamiliar territory—asking them to leave the land of their fathers, question Pharaoh’s authority, step into the sea, abandon their nets, and follow him. As believers, we often find ourselves torn between competing impulses: Will we live as sensible grown-ups, or will we heed God’s sometimes terrifying call to become children again?

Reluctance to Trust

After the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites faced exactly this sort of call. And “prudence” was the clothing they used to cover the nakedness of their fear. Arriving at Kadesh Barnea, Moses said: “See! The Lord your God placed before you the land! Go up! Take possession, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, said to you. Do not be afraid or dismayed” (Deut. 1:20–21 [translation mine throughout]).

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The Israelites’ response is not an outright “no.” Rather, they make a seemingly wise suggestion that spies enter first to collect necessary information. That way, they would be prepared “about the way through which [they] shall go up and the towns which [they] shall enter into” (1:22).

Moses called this strategy “a good thing” (1:23). Indeed, Joshua would later repeat it by sending spies into Jericho (Josh. 2:1). In Joshua’s case, prudent thinking went hand in hand with a genuine willingness to “go up” and “enter the towns” God had prepared. In Deuteronomy, however, the “good” strategy only disguised the Israelites’ reluctance to respond to God’s call. It was a ploy to buy time, a pious camouflage of their hesitation to obey.

Whenever we sense God’s call toward some difficult and risky decision, the voices of “prudence” intervene. When I first felt God calling me to leave my country, Cyprus, in order to study theology and serve him in ministry, I was working in a banking institution. There were wonderful benefits and the promise of a bright career. Try as I might to suppress God’s call, its persistence and intensity became impossible to ignore. I had to move. I had to inform my boss, sell my car, say goodbye to family and friends and, in all seriousness, become a child again. Not to fulfill any dream of being a princess, but one nearly as ridiculous: I wanted to be a missionary.

Friends tried to dissuade me from career suicide. Some doubted whether I had prayed enough and suggested waiting to be sure. Others recommended doing ministry in my own country, keeping my job and serving on the side. My uncle even said, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding style: “Myrto, this is silly. Now you’ll never get married!”

These “grown-up” suggestions offered the perfect alibi. Not only did they ward off potential feelings of guilt and shield against the demands of forgoing the familiar and comfortable, like the Israelites’ request to have spies survey the land, they made good sense—at least on the surface. Retrospectively, however, Moses realized that what had seemed like a wise plan was really a sign of reluctance to trust in God’s protection: “But in this matter, you did not trust in the Lord your God, the One walking ahead of you, on the way, to spy out a place for you to camp, in the fire by night, for you to see on the way which you should go, and in the cloud by day” (1:32–33). Moses intentionally refers to God with the Hebrew word tûr, commonly used to describe scouting out a region for the sake of military preparedness. Did the Israelites really think God would send them into a territory he had not “spied” on first?

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Is God Always Good?

For every internal voice cautioning that my decision was hasty and irresponsible, there were other, bolder voices, like Caleb’s and Joshua’s, that said: “Myrto, go ahead without fear!” They competed to determine my destiny. Eventually, the “childish” voice prevailed. However, the “grown-up” voice is always observing from a distance, never failing to point out, in moments of discouragement, how I should have listened.

The voices of doubt fed on my own doubt of God’s goodness. In Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila, there is a short dialogue between pastor John Ames and his wife. “God is good,” he tells her. “Well,” Lila responds, thinking of her bitterly tormented life, “some of the time.” But the pastor resists this qualifier, discerning a hidden doctrinal danger. “All of the time!” he insists.

This was my inner battle. What if God is good only “some of the time”? What if I decide to abandon my life in childlike trust, and his goodness goes on hold? For me, it was not an issue of picking one theological position among many. It was more like feeling parched and needing to know whether the water being offered had some poison in it or none. I needed certainty that God is good all of the time.

So did the Israelites. Their reassurance came in the form of a non-negotiable declaration from the spies: “the land that the Lord our God is giving us is good!” (Deut. 1:25). A radically alternative view, appearing elsewhere in the Old Testament, had it that the land “devours those living in it” (Num. 13:32). That was the language used in Canaan to describe Mot, the god of death, or Sheol (Isa. 5:14). This is no minor difference. If God is good, then the land is good and we shall live. If God is not always good, then we could be gulped into the dark depths of the underworld.

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Deuteronomy presents the land as “good” (1:35), the same label God used for his entire creation (“very good,” Gen. 1:31). In fact, the Promised Land called forth even more effusive praise—especially in Numbers, where the spies call it “exceedingly good!” (Num. 14:7). This language had the purpose of whetting the appetite, stimulating the imagination, and reviving long-dormant, childlike fantasies. In so many words, it declared, “This land is magical. It has everything, never ceasing to satisfy. And get this: it is not built on slavery! [Deut. 6:10–11; 8:7–10]. It is the exact opposite of the world you know. Yes, it’s a utopia!” (Oscar Wilde was actually thinking of a society without slavery when he said: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing.”)

Today, more than ever, it is imperative to imagine a land without slavery and oppression, to use all our energies to visualize it, until encampment at Kadesh Barnea becomes unbearable. We aren’t living in the Promised Land, to say the least. The number of trafficked slaves today has risen to 21 million; 59.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. And the list of injustices and cruelties goes on. When God calls us out, it is to a land that exists for the sake of his people. A land where his justice rules. No other land will do.

Who Controls the Future?

If prudence sometimes masks a reluctance to obey God, then it can also mask a temptation to worship other gods. Deuteronomy’s basic agenda is to draw love and allegiance to one deity, the Lord. No other god may exist on the side. We tend to think of idolatry as the love of other gods, forgetting that it also means the fear of other gods. Why do people worship them? Because they fear them, and they want the protections and provisions these gods claim to offer.

The gods of Canaan claimed control over the essentials of a good and happy life: your income, your prosperity, your marriage, your health. They were not making mere territorial claims. Yes, Yam controlled the sea, Mot controlled death, and Baal controlled fertility. But in reality, they claimed sovereignty over one single realm: the future—your future. When God claims the cosmos for himself, he is not only contesting the geographical rule of other gods (Deut. 10:14), he is breaking their threatened control over the future.

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By being afraid to step into God’s future, I was guilty of idolatry. I was acting as if the future belonged to an unpredictable, capricious deity who could easily hate me! But gods destroying people without moral justification is something we find in ancient Near Eastern mythology, in stories like the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis. Our God has already bound himself in covenant. He has already vowed to love his people (Deut. 4:37; 7:8). Why was I mistaking my God for another?

Trusting in one God is no easier for us than it was for ancient Israel. We find it hard to imagine inheriting a “land” of peace and rest without offering sacrifices to a host of minor deities: the gods of education, health and youthfulness, career success, and wealth accumulation. Not to mention the gods of technological advancement, political triumph, military might, and border security. We hesitate to bring these realms under the authority of one God, much less one who refuses to be visible or tangible. Are we to believe naïvely that food will magically drop like snowflakes from the sky? Can’t we follow God while also appeasing these others?

Jesus said that we can only enter his kingdom—the eternal Promised Land—by becoming like children (Matt. 18:3). We cannot create, earn, or secure it by our own wisdom. It must be entered into—received as a gift. The good news is that we all have been children before. And even though our childlike imagination—our belief that anything is possible—has been buried under layers of grown-up “wisdom” and “prudence,” we are still able, by faith, to “become” what we were.

The philosopher Giorgio Agamben once said that “whatever we can achieve by means of our virtues and labor, in reality, is unable to make us truly happy. Only magic can achieve that.” In essence, he means that we can’t get happiness through effort. Instead, something unnatural—something so fantastically unexpected that it feels like magic—has to happen to us.

I do not think that I’ll ever get over my suspicion, in this lifetime, that God’s promises are too good to be true. I will always experience fear at the call to become a child and surrender control. But what I fear most is burying this discomfort beneath a regime of practical planning and careful hedging. I wouldn’t want to end up settling for the desert as the only land there is.

Myrto Theocharous teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at the Greek Bible College in Athens. She received a master’s in biblical exegesis from Wheaton College and a PhD in Hebrew studies from the University of Cambridge.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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