Chapter 12: The Wilderness

The Mind-Set of Slavery

The Hebrews are not condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years because they’ve sinned. They’re not barred from the Promised Land as punishment. They remain stuck in the wilderness phase of the journey simply because they’re not ready to go any farther. A poor student can’t be expected to graduate high school without performing some remedial work. Likewise, the Hebrews haven’t yet learned what it means to be God’s chosen people. They have freedom, but they don’t understand what it means. Wherever they travel, however many miracles they receive, their minds remain shackled to Egypt. Pharaoh may be dead, but their core identity is still that of a slave.

We can see this phenomenon at work in the lottery-winners syndrome. Many of us think that winning some fantastic sum in the lottery would solve all our problems. And yet, a surprising number of people who win manage to squander their newfound fortune in a short period of time. Why?

Consider a man who’s worked hard and struggled his whole life to get by. And then suddenly he strikes it rich in the lottery. He now has more money than he could ever have imagined. He’s ecstatic. His troubles are over. So what does he do? He quits his job and sets about spending his winnings. Anything that he, his friends, or his family have ever dreamed of owning or doing, he can now afford. In fact, he has so much money that he thinks nothing of throwing it at whatever outlandish investment scheme comes his way.

As a result, in a few years time—having been duped or reckless, or both—his money’s gone and he’s back to struggling. He wasn’t able to hold onto such a fortune, to integrate it into his self-concept and really own it. The simple fact of all that money did not change his mind-set. Inside, he remained a poor man, and his financial decisions reflect this impoverished sense of self.

To use a computer analogy, he cannot run the application “rich man” on his old “poor man” system software. When he tries, the system crashes. In order to truly make that money his own, he must change his core sense of self. He needs a mental software upgrade.

The Hebrews too need an upgrade. They need to transfer their allegiance from Pharaoh to God, a task that proves more difficult than we might expect. Yet this is the challenge of the wilderness phase of the journey—for us as well as the Hebrews. We’ve recognized our enslavement to ego. We’ve seen how everything the ego promised was doomed to failure and death. We’ve crossed the waters and made the transition to a new sense of self. We’ve witnessed miracles, we know that they work, and we know they can be ours.

But it’s all too new. We don’t fully trust it. Without the controlling ego to organize and give shape to our lives, we really are a bit lost. All the usual road markers—the things we strove for and dreamed of—these are gone, drowned with Pharaoh-ego. We no longer know where our lives are headed, what awaits us down the road, and this is terrifying. We don’t understand what God asks of us. We know we’ve changed; we’ve crossed over. But we don’t really know how to live as His chosen people.

We’ve been enslaved to ego for so long that we can’t seem to break the mental habit. Besides, everyone around us continues to chase after those old ego goals as if they still had value. It’s easy to envy them. It’s easy to relapse and wish that we could somehow return to that state of ignorance when things seemed so clear and obvious.