Peter and I like to read the Bible together once a week. We read a chapter or two at each time, and then discuss our insights. (Granted, this is a ve-ery slow way to read through the Bible. We finished our first go-round on our 15th wedding anniversary!) The other day, we came to Deuteronomy 1, which recounts the story of when the Israelites reached the Promised Land for the first time.

The Israelites had wandered in the desert for 2 years before coming to the Promised Land.

Year 1: After crossing the Red Sea, they made their way to Mount Sinai, where they stayed for almost a year. [1]

Year 2: They travelled in the wilderness before they made it to the edge of Canaan (also known as the Promised Land) at Kadesh-barnea.

That’s the place where God told the Israelites to go in and conquer the land. [2] The Israelites sent twelve spies into the area to survey it and report back to the people. After 40 days of exploration, the spies returned.

“The land is good,” they said, “but the people are giants and the cities are fortified. There’s no way we can defeat them.”

Only two of the twelve spies encouraged the Israelites to obey God. Joshua and Caleb said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” [3]

The people disregarded Joshua and Caleb’s advice and refused to obey God. They even threatened to kill Moses, Joshua, and Caleb.

That’s when God intervened. He appeared in His glory to the people of Israel, and promised that as punishment for their rebellion they would wander the desert for 40 years: one year for each of the days the spies had spent exploring the land.

Now, here’s the interesting part. In Deuteronomy 1:2, the Bible tells us, “Normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir.” (NLT)

Let that sink in for a moment. Even before the Israelites’ disobedience, God led them around in the desert for a long time. He turned a journey that could have taken 11 days into one that took a year.

So why did the Israelites spend an extra 300+ days in the wilderness, even before their rebellion?

We can never fully know the mind of God, but I suspect that one reason may have been so that the people could build up a repertoire of experiences where God had come through for them. Like the times that God provided water out of rocks, or all of those days when He miraculously supplied them manna to eat (or quail), or when He helped them conquer enemies who ambushed them along the way. With such a repertoire, when they were faced with a nation of fearsome giants at the entrance to the Promised Land, they would have built up enough trust in God to carry them through.

Except, things didn’t turn out that way.

When the people finally reached their destination, they rebelled in fear. Only two were obedient: Joshua and Caleb.

It makes me wonder:

Without the extra year in the desert, would Caleb and Joshua have been obedient?

Perhaps not.

This highlights an important reality:

It’s possible that for the sake of two men, and the eventual history of a nation, God diverted about 1,000,000 people in the desert for almost a year. [5] He invested more than 300,000,000 man days into Caleb and Joshua’s godliness. These two men would be key leaders in the nation of Israel when they finally entered Promised Land, 40 years later. Their time in the desert would germinate and fertilize a faith that would be instrumental to their eventual spiritual health and leadership.

This, in turn, leads us to an important truth.

God is not interested in human ideas of efficiency in ministry.

Let me give an example from the sphere of missions.

These days, it seems popular in Christian circles to talk about “efficiency” when it comes to missions. We’ve heard of Western speakers travelling around to different churches, exhorting congregants to consider transferring their allegiance from the traditional missionary model to something that supports “missions” by people within their own countries.

Today, I would submit a different idea to you. What if, when Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations”[6], He was creating a model of foreign missions that would always be relevant, no matter how many Christians might now exist in the various countries around the world?

What if the cross pollination of foreign missionaries is required for the overall health of the global church? (That includes missionaries coming from abroad to work in North America as well.)

What if, by virtue of their foreignness, foreign missionaries are able to think outside the box, take risks, and challenge the people of the church—both in their countries of origin and their adopted countries—in ways that would be otherwise impossible?

Where my husband and I serve in Japan, we partner with the local church to reach out to the communities around us, and share the good news of Jesus. In Japan, people largely stick within their pre-defined social structures, and Japanese society in general is set up in such a way as to make venturing into new groups of people socially prohibitive. You need an introduction if you want to talk with someone new. If you don’t have an introduction and try to approach a stranger, you could be seen as intrusive or rude.

But the rules in Japan are different for foreigners. Foreigners are allowed to approach others without introductions. The Japanese themselves are often willing to venture out of their normal relational boundaries to meet a foreigner.

By virtue of our foreignness, we can say and do things that would be completely inaccessible to the typical Japanese person. We have the ability to provide introductions between the church and people in the community, and act as bridges for people on their journey towards Jesus and His people.

This would not be possible without “foreigners as missionaries”.

I recently had a conversation with Higa sensei (the pastor of the church we work with) about one of our new ministries, answering spiritual questions via YouTube videos. He exclaimed, “This is amazing! A Japanese person would never be able to make the videos that you’re making. But because you’re a foreigner, you’re able to explain spiritual things in easy-to-understand language. These videos are very powerful.”

A Japanese person speaking about God to people they don’t necessarily know would have to use such polite language that it would be relatively inaccessible to the average person, similar in difficulty to Shakespearean English. However, because I’m a foreigner, the expectations on my language abilities are lower, and I can get away with using polite, but not super-polite, language. The Japanese are impressed that I can navigate their language at the polite level, and don’t expect the super-polite level.

This is just one example, from one country. Many missionaries have similar experiences of the power of God working through their weakness for the good of the kingdom of God, and for the glory of the One we love to serve.

God’s spiritual reality is so much bigger than our meagre human attempts to organize and systemize. We are to be responsible with our resources, but elevating efficiency above all else is not in keeping with God’s methods.

This makes me think of those verses in Isaiah 40:

Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord,
Or as His counsellor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?

(Isaiah 40:13-14)

God cares not a whit for our human efficiency. His plans and purposes are far beyond our imagination. How thankful I am that this is true, and that He also has infinite resources at His disposal.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

(Isaiah 55:8-9)


[1] Exodus 19:1 tells us that Israel arrived at Mount Sinai in the third month of the first year. Numbers 10:11-12 tells us they left on the twentieth day of the second month in the second year.

[2] See Numbers 13 and 14 for the full story.

[3] Numbers 13:30, NIV.

[4] See Deuteronomy 1:28.

[5] The census in Numbers 1:1-47 shows that the number of Israelites when they first set out from Egypt was 603,550. That’s only the males of fighting age. Add women, children under the age of 20, and all the people in the tribe of Levi, and you’ve likely got more than 1,000,000 people travelling together.

[6] Matthew 28:19, NIV.

(Picture source)