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Pleasant borders

America may or may not have a fine future, but believers definitely do

Pleasant borders

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Years ago, on an episode of Focus on the Family, I heard the story of an experimental school for young children. The school’s founders wanted to challenge the students to tap into their natural curiosity and boldness, so they knocked down the playground fences to allow the kids to explore beyond their prescribed boundaries. Instead of free-ranging all over the neighborhood, however, the children hardly ventured beyond the schoolhouse door. Moral: Kids need boundaries so they can feel secure while tapping into their natural curiosity and boldness.  

Most child-raising experts—or at least those who actually know something—will tell new parents that young children need routine, familiar places, and consistent guidelines in order to thrive. In other words, boundaries.

The subject of boundaries looms large, even now, in Israel—that slip of a country on the eastern Mediterranean with an influence on world events far beyond its size. My Bible reading plan just led me through Joshua and Judges: the bloody, miraculous, triumphant, and ultimately disheartening story of how Abraham’s children claimed their inheritance on that same piece of land. It begins, as you recall, with a dramatic rescue from slavery. But it soon fizzles into 40 years of wilderness wandering because of a bad report brought by 10 nervous scouts.  Imagine that—a bad report of God’s special providence for them!  

‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ the psalmist goes on, for God Himself is our inheritance: the mountaintop towering over the valleys.

(But how often do I harbor bad reports of God’s providence for me? Why do I take my cues from a political landscape of doom and gloom and complaints of deprivation in the most prosperous nation ever?)  

Back to the story: As the next generation approaches the Jordan, God draws boundary lines for them: from the Great Sea to the Dead Sea, from Mount Hor to Kadesh-barnea. But their leader has run up against his own boundary. Does it seem unfair for the Lord to bar Moses from the Promised Land he longed to see? Forty years of faithfulness, up in smoke, for one mistake? No; for Moses was not barred from the Promised Land. He did see it, on another mountaintop veiled in smoke, with a prophet like himself (Mark 9:4).   

(I’m pushing against my own boundaries now—not getting any younger, as the euphemism goes—and like Moses, I long to make out the terrain before me. It’s forbidden; the valleys must remain in shadow. But the mountaintop is bright, and that is my destination. “The Lord is well able,” as Joshua and Caleb testified, to get me there.)

Meanwhile, the land lay before the children of Israel for the taking, and Joshua tells the story of taking and dividing. But while observing their physical borders, the people failed to recognize their spiritual ones. God drew those lines also; no one could complain that they weren’t clearly marked. It was just too easy to step across, to plant one foot on Baal’s side even while keeping the other on the Lord’s. The record of Judges is a sad cycle of rebellion and repression, rescue and renewal until the tribes turn even against each other. It ends with the terrible tale of the Levite’s concubine and the resulting civil war.

Why is that story included? Perhaps because she is Israel: defiled, broken, and divided. Because evil observes no boundaries.

Thank God, I can turn the page after that. Next up, the story of Ruth and redemption.

But now I’m wondering: Where are our limits as a nation? Have we stepped over the line too many times, with “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes”?  

Could be, but lest our journey be swamped by bad reports, recall the Lord’s providence: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6). Our border is marked, but limitless within. “I have set the Lord always before me,” the psalmist goes on, for God himself is our inheritance: the mountaintop towering over the valleys. We may yet be able to turn the page as a nation, or maybe not. But as believers, our boundaries remain in pleasant places.