In 1 Corinthians 10:1–5, Paul writes:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
I grew up in a Christian home. I gave my heart to Jesus Christ at an early age and was baptized in water a few years later. I entered full-time ministry. I edit a religious publication. And I am terrified by eight words in this passage: God was not pleased with most of them.
My fear is not grounded in theology. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Why would I fear such a God?
Rather, my fear is grounded in anthropology. Notice the condition John lays down in verse 9: “If we confess our sins.” We have nothing to fear from God if we are honest with him about our sins. But how often are we honest about ourselves? Verse 9 is preceded and succeeded by two verses that hint at our extraordinary capacity for self-deception: “If we claim to be without sin” and “If we claim we have not sinned” (verses 8, 10).
All human beings practice self-deception. We lie to ourselves about ourselves. But in religious people, that self-deception takes a special form. We tell ourselves that we are saved because we were baptized or because we take communion or because we are members of this or that church.
The ancient Israelites to whom Paul alludes in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5 participated in the Exodus. They saw God inflict plagues on the Egyptians. They walked through the Red Sea on dry ground. They ate manna and drank water from the rocks. Paul goes so far as to state that they experienced Christ in some way. And yet, God was not pleased with most of them. Their external circumstances changed, but their hearts did not.
As I read 1 Corinthians 10, I infer that Paul cited the Israelite example because the Corinthians’ practice was so similar. The Corinthians possessed doctrinal knowledge. They had spiritual experiences. They had received baptism, and they ate the Lord’s Supper. And yet, God was not pleased with them. They had the external trappings of religion, but their hearts were not filled with love of God and neighbor.
The question you and I must answer is this: Are we like the Israelites and the Corinthians? Is God pleased with us? First John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” To the extent that we fear, there is need for improvement in our love of God and neighbor. That tinge of fear is the conscience calling us to reject self-deception and embrace open confession.