Setbacks In Service

Title: Setbacks In Service

Bible Book: Exodus

Author: Calvin Wittman

Subject: Service; Failure in Christian Living; Unfaithfulness; Disobedience



Exodus 4:27 - 6:13

What to do When Obedience Makes Things Worse Exodus 4:27 – 6:13

We’ve all either known someone or been that someone for whom obedience to God’s direction seemed to make matters worse rather than better. It may be that you were faced with an ethical dilemma at work, and because you are a Christian you chose to do the honest thing, but in the long run it seems that you got in more trouble for that than if you had been dishonest. It may be that you spoke up for your faith, and the consequences were such that looking back on it, you have been tempted to think that you’d have been better off remaining silent. Or it could be that God gave you clear instruction to step out in faith and do something for His kingdom, only, when you did, it caused more problems for you than it solved.

These are the setbacks of service, when obeying God seems to make things worse rather than making them better.

All of us experience setbacks in service to the Lord. Let’s just be honest about that. All of us, at some time or another have experienced a setback in service. These are times when, after having obeyed, the bottom seems to fall out from underneath us; when we acted in obedience, hoping for some relief from our circumstances, only to be confronted with increased difficulties; when we stepped out in faith, only to find ourselves out on a limb. Many times new Christians or Christians who rededicate themselves to Christ suffer these kinds of hardships. Setbacks in service are a reality.

As we come to chapters five and six of Exodus this morning, this is the circumstance in which Moses finds himself. Our message is entitled, “Setbacks in Service: What to do when obedience makes things worse.”

Beginning in chapter 4:27, the stage is being set. Moses and Aaron meet up and after a warm reunion, they make their way back to Egypt where they convene the Hebrew elders and announce to them God’s plan for liberation. After seeing Moses perform a series of authenticating miracles and hearing that God was concerned about their affliction, the people bow down and worship the Lord.

From Moses’ point of view, things could not be going better. Everything was happening just as God had promised it would. The people believed that he was from God and they agreed to follow his leadership, so far, so good. Moses had received a much better reception than he thought he would. Things were beginning to fall into place.

Then, in accordance with God’s command, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. But instead of letting the Hebrews go, he says no and this is where things begin to go wrong. Pharaoh accuses Moses and Aaron of drawing the people away from their work. Not only does he refuse to let them go, but he gets angry with them for even asking, accuses the Hebrews of being lazy and intensifies his persecution of them.

For Moses this was clearly a setback in service. Moses had been obedient. He had, after all, gone to Pharaoh against his own will but in accordance with the will of God, and now the people he has been sent to lead are in a worse situation than they were before he appeared on the scene. And to make things worse, they are not saying, “Well Moses, you gave it a good shot, sorry old chap, but things just didn’t work out as well as we planned.” To the contrary, they are pointing the finger at Moses, joining in with Pharaoh and accusing Moses of ruining their arrangement with the Egyptians, such as it was.

Moses was suffering a setback in his service to God, just like you and I will somewhere along the way. It just didn’t seem to make sense. He had been obedient but that had made things worse.

I want to consider three things this morning: why we suffer setbacks, how to respond to setbacks, and what God has to say about them.

Allow me to give you 3 reasons we experience setbacks in service; reasons we sometimes feel that obedience has cost us more than we were willing to pay.

I. Three Reasons for Setbacks in Service

Now, from the beginning we must understand that from God’s perspective, everything is under control. He suffers no setbacks; it is we who, for various reasons suffer setbacks. Here are three of those reasons.

A. Selective Listening

Obedience has brought retribution from Pharaoh. This should have come as no surprise to Moses or to the people. In chapter 4:21 God told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh would not let the people go. Then, down in 4:30, the scripture says, “And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses.” The people should have anticipated Pharaoh’s response. But they acted as though they did not because they had not been listening to God.

As humans we have a tendency to hear what we want to hear and to ignore those things which are unpleasant to us. It was true with Moses it was true with the Israelites and unfortunately it is all too true with us. God had told them what to expect but when His word came to pass they acted surprised. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the scripture, and it seems to be a reoccurring theme in our lives.

Somewhere along the way we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been led to presume that a good God would never allow dangerous or harmful things happen to those who are in His will. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Acts chapter 14 tells us that after Paul preached the gospel to them, the people of Lystra stoned him and left him for dead. Scripture says that the disciples stood around him and he got up, returned to Lystra, to Iconium and to Antioch, “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith and saying, through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Selective listening will always lead to disappointment. A second reason we encounter setbacks in service is because we often have unrealistic expectations.

B. Unrealistic Expectations

Of course Pharaoh was not going to obey God. He did not know God. He had not seen God’s power displayed. It was foolish to expect that Pharaoh would simply take the word of Moses for this.

Pharaoh was going to have to see the power of God displayed before he would be persuaded to believe that God was real. God had told Moses this would be the case.

We live in a society that cares nothing for the things of God and refuses to acknowledge Him or obey Him. Thus we should not assume that when we follow God, when we are obedient, that somehow life will get easier. If anything, obedience to God in a fallen world always puts us at odds with those who are of this world. Obedience to God positions us against the fallen culture in which we live and against the system of the world. People who do not know God will not obey Him because they do not know Him and they have never seen His power displayed. How is it, you ask, that people in our culture will see the power of God displayed? In the transformation that occurs in your life and mine. Our lives are to be living testimonies to the reality that our God is who He is. If people around us don’t know God, if they don’t believe in Him, could it be that we shoulder part of the blame because we have failed to reveal Him in the lives we lead?

But there is a third reason we suffer setbacks in service, it is…

C. Limited Vision

This is our biggest problem in life: we can’t see around tomorrow’s corner. We do not know the future. The truth is we can’t even fully comprehend today. We are finite creatures, limited to one place at a time, and even unable to catch everything that is going on in our presence. So it should come as no surprise that we cannot see into the grand design and plans of God.

God is infinite, He is sovereign over all things, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, and there is no place He is not, nothing He cannot do and nothing He does not know. This vast difference between God and us is a major problem for us, especially when we are possessed by an attitude which demands understanding at all levels.

The children of Israel and Moses alike were afflicted with limited vision. They interpreted God’s plan in light of what they were experiencing instead of in light of what God had said. They were living by what they felt rather than by what God had declared. Is this not our problem as well? Do we not often get discouraged and disheartened when things don’t work out simply because we cannot understand?

Wisdom and faith both dictate that we reserve judgement, that we resist the urge of jumping to conclusions. Our vision is limited but God’s is not.

Understanding why we suffer these setbacks, let us, for a moment, consider how to and how not to respond to setbacks.

II. Responding to Setbacks in Service

It has wisely been said that we cannot control what happens to us in life, all we can control is our response. There is a marked difference between the response of the Israelites and the response of Moses. In some ways they are similar, but in one way they are uniquely different.

A. Israelites Response

1. They Seek Help from the Wrong Source

Look at chapter 4 verses 15-16

Instead of going to God in prayer, the Israelites go back to Pharaoh, the very person who is the cause of their pain and identify themselves as his servants instead of God’s servants. Fundamentally what they were experiencing was an identity crisis. Instead of realizing that they were God’s children, they see themselves as Pharaoh’s servants. They are seeking help from the very person who has them enslaved.

In a similar way, people today who find themselves set back as they seek to serve the Lord, often go to the wrong source for deliverance. But I’ve got news for you: You cannot bargain with the devil; you cannot discuss terms with sin. Sin is a cruel master and it will never let you go, it will never set you free. Before you can ever overcome the setbacks of service, you’ve got to know who you are, but more important, you’ve got to know whose you are.

You are a child of the king, a co-heir to the throne of God; you’ve been washed in the blood, filled with the Spirit and declared a saint. Sin has no power over you. You’re not a recovering sinner; you’ve been declared a saint. You’ve been set free. When you suffer setbacks in service, whether it is because you have given way to temptation or because unforeseen barriers stand in your way, the place to go for help is not back to the very sin which once enslaved you. You go to God, your Rock  and your Redeemer.

The Israelites may have fallen down and worshiped after seeing Moses perform the wonders in their sight, but they had not yet come to realize whose servants they were. Before you can be set free, before you can overcome the setbacks in service, you’ll have to go to the right source.

2. They Played the Blame Game

When hit with a setback, the Israelites respond in a very human way: They look for someone to blame.

Look at 5:20-21, “When they left Pharaoh’s presence, they met Moses and Aaron as they were waiting for them. They said to them, ‘May the Lord look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight, and in the sight of his servants to put a sword in their hand to kill us.’”

Instead of supporting Moses and Aaron and affirming to Pharaoh that these are God’s messengers and that he should listen to them, they blame Moses and Aaron for making their life worse when Pharaoh won’t relent.

When setbacks occur as we seek to serve the Lord, and they will invariably occur, what do we do? How do we respond? If the truth be known, what we most often do is begin to ask ourselves a series of questions. Have I really heard God correctly? Has God really chosen me? Has someone else led me to believe that this is God’s will, when in fact it is not? Does God really intend for me to do this or am I mistaken? Why would God lead me here and then let me fail? Why can’t I understand what God is doing? Someone must be at fault here, who is to blame? We do all this without ever giving thought to the reality that God is still in control.

It’s the blame game. Everybody’s got to find someone to blame. The same thing happened in the Garden of Eden and it continues to happen today. For some reason, as humans our focus is always on finding someone to blame. And when we can’t find someone else to blame, we simply blame God.

But not only do they blame Moses. In effect, they curse him. Look at verse 21, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you.”

3. They Cursed Moses

Because things go wrong, because of their selective hearing, their unrealistic expectations, and their limited vision, not only do they blame Moses, in effect they say, “We want God to bring down  judgment on you because you have made our lives worse.

Talk about an unwanted ministry assignment. These Israelites are a tough bunch to lead. When things go right, they’re right there with you, but when setbacks come, they’re ready to pronounce God’s judgment on Moses.

It is interesting how, when things don’t go our way, and because of our limited vision, we’ve convinced ourselves that it is someone else’s fault. We are just sure that God will get them, as if He is our personal heavenly hit Man. There is no love lost here. They are ready to lynch the guy. They curse Moses. Folks be careful what you ask God to do and why you ask Him to do it. Make sure your heart is right when you go before Him and remember that the question is not whether or not He is on our side but whether or not we are on His side.

B. Moses’ Response

He goes to God

But there is a major difference between how the Hebrews respond and how Moses responds. While Moses does indeed blame God, it is instructive to note that instead of taking his problems to men, Moses takes them to God.

Look at 5:22-23, “Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did you ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people and You have not delivered Your people at all.’”

Moses goes back to the One who called him. He goes back to God. Folks, when we suffer setbacks in our service, the only place for us to go is to God. He is the only One who understands why the setback has occurred; He is the only one who knows how the setback will be overcome; and He is the only one who can sustain as we suffer through the setback.

You’ve got to admire the honesty of Moses here. He goes back to God and lays out his heart. He asks God why. Why did have you brought harm to these people? He correctly recognizes that God is sovereign over all things and nothing could occur without God allowing it. He asks, "Why did you ever send me?" I mean, you’re the One who brought me to this place and told me what to do. I did it and now look at what’s happened. If you’d have just left me in Midian, things would not be this bad. Have you ever felt that way?

Moses is honest about his disappointment with God. He thought God was going to deliver Israel but instead things got worse.

Say what you will, but at least Moses brings his concerns to the right place. He realizes that God is the only One who can make a difference; He is the only one who knows what is going on.

The Israelites go to Pharaoh looking for answers, Moses goes to God.

Pharaoh curses the Israelites, calls them lazy and says they have themselves to blame for their miserable condition, but God responds to Moses, by reiterating His promise to liberate Israel.

III. What God has to Say about Setbacks

It is interesting here to note God’s response to Moses.

God does not directly answer the questions, or accusations, that Moses brings before Him. It is important to remember that God does not owe us an explanation. People might say, “I asked God why and He never told me.” He is not accountable to us and therefore is not bound to answer our every question.

But God is a God of revelation, and when we seek Him we will find Him. Moses seeks Him and Moses finds Him. God’s answer to Moses is filled with profound theology. That is, His answer tells us a great deal about Who He is and how He works.

Look at chapter six, verses 1-8 and notice several things here that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites.

A. You Will See What I Will Do

Folks, most often we encounter setbacks in ministry because God has to set the stage so that when He comes through He alone gets the glory. If Moses had been successful after his first encounter with Pharaoh, Moses would have gotten the credit. God is a jealous God and will not share His glory with anyone. He allowed the setback with Pharaoh in order that everyone would know who He was and that it was His mighty hand that was delivering Israel. Look at chapter 7:5 “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” God was not only going to show the Israelites, He was going to show the Egyptians that they were serving false Gods, and that He was and is the only true God.

God would answer in action, not merely in words. His answer would be seen by everyone, not simply heard by a few. God is still saying to you and me, “You will see what I will do.” The key for Moses, and the key for us, is to continue to trust Him, even when we don’t understand what He is doing.

B. I Am The Lord

Here in verses 6-8 God uses the phrase “I will” seven times and the phrase “I am the Lord” three times.

He begins in verse six by saying, “I am the Lord,” telling Moses and us that everything which follows will be predicated on His character. God was going to liberate the Israelites because He was and is a God of covenant, a God who keeps His word, who is always faithful and always true.

C. I Will Bring You Out

Then God speaks to His redemptive act. He says, “I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you.” These three things point to the same act of deliverance. They are repeated in a characteristically Hebrew fashion, to emphasize the depth of God’s promise. The verb, “I will,” is in what is called the prophetic perfect tense, essentially past tense verbs. This is important. Although it had not yet come to pass, because God said it would, it was as if it had already happened. When God makes a promise, you can count on it as if it were a done deal.

D. I Will Take You As My Own People

Next God speaks to His relationship with Israel. He says, I will take you as my own people; I will be your God. The Jews as a people, were and I believe still are, precious in the sight of God. He chose them for Himself, to be His people, to bless them, to protect them, to provide for them, and to use them as an instrument of His glory. Through the Jews He was going to demonstrate to the entire world that He alone is God. Here He comes back to the promise that they will be His people and He will be their God.

E. I Will Bring You To The Land

Finally God speaks to the realization of His promise to give them a land – He says, I will bring you to the land, I will give it to you, I am the Lord.

Instead of answering Moses’ questions, God simply says, “Moses, I am the Lord and I will do what I have promised. Tell the people that.” Instead of responding to their hysteria, God points them back to Himself. This is what God always does; He points us back to Himself, His character, His promises, and His plan. He is the answer to all our questions, trusting Him will give us peace and keep us from having setbacks because we know that He is and He will do what He promised to do.

But then look at verse 9. The scripture says that the Israelites would not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage. The Hebrew is very descriptive here. The word translated 'despondency' literally means shortness of spirit, or shortness of breath. So devastating was the suffering they were enduring that they were physically devastated. They were so down and despondent that they would no longer receive words of encouragement from Moses. They would no longer receive the word of God.


Sometimes setbacks can hit us that hard. They can crush us and send us into a spiral of self pity and despair. But folks, remember something. God is not acting based on how we feel. He is acting based on who He is and that never changes.

Setbacks will come as we serve Him. They may come in the form of opposition, they may come in the form of sickness, or your setback may be financial. There seems to be no limit to the way setbacks can come our way. But instead of blaming others, or blaming God, or even questioning whether or not God still cares, we must be faithful. Faithful to Him who has called us, and faithful to what He has called us to do.

What setback are you suffering this morning? What is it that God has called you to do, and you have suffered as a result of obedience? Or you are afraid to obey because of the consequences? God is calling you to Himself this morning. He wants you to know whose you are and that you can trust Him regardless of what your circumstances might seem to be.

Posted in


Scroll to Top