One of the striking features of Israel in the wilderness is their persistent unbelief. Here was a people that was led by the visible presence of God, was miraculously protected and preserved by God, and was provided for incredibly by God, and yet they did not believe.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that the exodus generation “could not enter” the Promised Land “because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). He tells us again that their exposure to God’s word was “not … mixed with faith in those who hear it” (4:2), and contrasts them with “we who have believed” (4:3). Warning his readers against sharing the unbelief of the exodus generation, the writer concludes, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11).

While the unbelief of the exodus generation is manifested throughout Numbers, the word “belief” is found only twice in the book. Those two instances show two different manifestations of unbelief that give us pause to reflect.

What does unbelief look like? It manifests itself in at least two ways, according to Numbers.

Passive defeatism

The first manifestation of unbelief is displayed in chapter 14. There, the twelve spies had just returned from surveying the Promised Land. Ten spies feared the Canaanites more than they feared God (13:25–14:4). Only Joshua and Caleb believed God (14:5–9), but the congregation chose to believe the ill report of the faithless spies and asked to return to Egypt (14:4), evening threatening to stone the faithful spies (14:10).

God’s response was to speak to Moses: “How long will these people despise me? And how long will they not believe me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (14:11). He threatened to disinherit them (14:12), but Moses interceded for the people (14:13–19) and so God said that he would not entirely destroy the nation, but only the unbelieving generation (14:20–38). Apart from Joshua and Caleb, none of the generation over the age of twenty (some six hundred thousand men, according to chapter 1) would enter the Promised Land.

The unbelief of this generation was manifested by passive defeatism. They ought to have taken the Promised Land but refused to do so. They had the promises of God but the giants in the land loomed larger than God. God had presented himself with them, had provided for them, had protected them, and had preserved them, but they refused to persevere.

Sometimes, our unbelief is manifested in similar passive defeatism. We have God’s word and know what it says, but circumstances tower over God’s promises.

For example, we may read of God’s promises to faithful parents in Scripture. We read, for example, “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed” (Psalm 112:1–2). Or, “The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you” (Psalm 102:28). Such promises to faithful parents are replete in Scripture. God gives us great reason to believe that he will save our children if we will raise them deliberately and intentionally in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Sadly, believing that the giants of this world are too powerful to overcome, we often simply do not exert the effort required by God to raise a godly seed. We do not seek to counter the godless worldviews that our children encounter in their schools and universities because we are ultimately uncertain about the truth of God. We don’t pray for them and discipline them as we ought to do. We expect the church or Sunday school teachers to raise our children, and the ultimate root of our passivity is disbelief in the promises of God.

Or we may read of God’s promises to faithfully supply the needs of those who are faithful to him with their stewardship (Philippians 4:18–19), but mounting bills and flailing stock markets tower above the promises of God. The result is that we simply fail to obey God because the giants seem to be bigger than his promises.

We may know that God calls us to evangelise and to make disciples. We hear his promise that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16) and that, in our disciple-making, he will be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20), but, in unbelief, we do nothing because, in truth, we doubt his ability to defeat the religious giants of our day. We  fear the rise of Islam and lament the increase of militant atheism, not really believing Christ’s promise that he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

If we fail to believe the power of God, our prayer lives will die. What use is it to pray to God if we don’t really believe God’s power to affect change?

In a myriad of ways, unbelief often drives us to faithless inaction and passive defeatism.

Active self-sufficiency

The second occurrence of the word “believe” is found in chapter 20. There, the Israelites complained once again about the apparent lack of water in the wilderness (vv. 2–5). They had done so once before, and at that time God had instructed Moses to strike a rock, from which water would flow (see Exodus 17:1–7). This time, God instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, and it would yield water (vv. 6–8). Instead, Moses took the staff (v. 9) and struck the rock twice (vv. 10–13). The rock still produced water, but God rebuked Moses and Aaron with these words: “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (v. 20).

Moses and Aaron displayed disbelief, but theirs was not manifested in passive defeatism. Quite the contrary, their unbelief moved them to action, but it was self-sufficient action. It seems that, rather than obeying God, they relied on what had worked before. God’s instruction was quite clear: They were to speak to the rock (v. 8). Instead, they took the staff (v. 9) and spoke “to them” (i.e. to the people) (v. 10). God had not authorised Moses to speak to the people, but he took matters into his own hands. And what they said to the people was significant: “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (v. 10). They were relying themselves rather than God to produce water. God’s staff (v. 9) had become “his [Moses’] staff (v. 11).

While unbelief often manifests itself in passivity, it equally often manifests itself in self-reliance. Unbelief can result in faithless inaction, but can also spur us to faithless action.

We can parent very morally, strictly and deliberately, but without faith in God. We can (and should), for example, exercise corporal punishment, but we can do with the belief that the punishment in itself will produce the desired results, rather than exercising it in humble reliance on God to change the hearts of our children. Effectively, we turn God’s rod into our own. We think that we can produce the desired results. And while such exercise of discipline may in fact produce a degree of morality (just as the rock did indeed produce water), if it is not carried out in faith it will not produce what God promises.

When it comes to stewardship, we can fall into the trap of viewing our faithfulness in tithing as a magical formula for prosperity. We can give to God and expect him, in return, to give us whatever we want. To be sure, we ought to be faithful in our stewardship, and we should do so clinging in faith to God’s promise that, as we are sacrificially faithful, he will provide all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. But we must never think that we have purchased God’s favourable provision by our faithfulness in giving.

We can likewise evangelise in self-sufficiency, believing that it is our clever arguments that will ultimately win souls. And so we can expend all our energy in refuting godless worldview without a reliance on God the Holy Spirit to transform lives through the foolishness of the cross.

When it comes to prayer, we can go through the motions, offering up vain words to God while thinking that it is the act of praying, rather than God’s grace, that will secure his favourable response.

Self-sufficiency is a dangerous thing. When John wrote to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2–3, he had something positive to say about each of the seven churches—except the self-sufficient church at Laodicea. That church was useless to him.

The astonishing thing about the story in Numbers 20 is that God still gave water from the rock, even though Moses and Aaron acted in unbelieving self-sufficiency. They were punished for their sin, but God still showed grace to his people for his glory. He showed himself to be holy, even though Moses and Aaron failed to do through their active self-sufficiency.

The cure for unbelief

The cure for unbelief, as with any spiritual malady, is to look to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ was by no means a passive man. He came to earth to do the will of the Father, and he accomplished what he was sent to do. Even before he went to the cross, he prayed, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). He was active in his obedience.

At the same time, Jesus’ obedience wasn’t the activity of self-reliance. He did not do what he wanted, but what God wanted (Mark 14:36). Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19) and again, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

Unbelief does not always look the same in every circumstance. Sometimes it appears very passive, manifesting itself in blatant refusal to do what God requires. At other times, it appears quite active, but under the surface is self-sufficient. Belief, on the other hand, actively does justice and loves mercy, but rather than doing so in self-sufficiency, walks humbly before God (Micah 6:8).

How do we overcome unbelief? Only by looking to Christ and, relying on God’s grace, emulating his example in faith.