Breaking the Game?: The Beating of the Donkey (Numbers 22)

I can’t quite put my finger on why this is true, but for as long as video games have existed gamers have been committed to finding a way to “break” them. Not in a physical sense of smashing them (with the exception of Two Worlds, which I contend truly deserved to be smashed), but in terms of pushing beyond the boundaries of the game to explore what lies on the other side… typically in the hopes of finding a secret level or additional unexplored content. Escaping the walls that the developer created to keep the game on its’ designed narrative path is often part of the fun for many gamers, even if the rewards may not always be very “rewarding”. To be clear, there is a large difference between artificially trying to “break” the game as opposed to fully exploring a game to unlock all of the developer’s intentionally hidden “easter eggs”. Finding all the warp pipes in a Mario game or the hidden skulls in a Halo title? That is designed to be part of the fun as well as a reward for those who search them out. Finding a way to glitch outside of the playable space of the game and getting trapped in some horrible video game “limbo” that doesn’t allow you to either move forward OR return to the original path? That can feel exciting at first… until you realize there is no way back.

The first time I experienced this as a gamer was the infamous “minus world” in the original Super Mario Bros on the NES… after multiple attempts at painstakingly trying to recreate this “exploit” in the game that I learned about from one of my friends, I DID it. I broke the correct blocks, glitched through the wall, and went down the warp pipe into the mysterious “World -1”. The NEGATIVE world. I had accessed a forbidden underwater level that… well… it was actually just an unending water level. There was no escape from the negative world, there weren’t any special powers I could gain, and all I could do was swim around until the time ran out. I would swim frantically towards the end trying to find some purpose for this magical detour… but it was to no avail. All of my efforts to break free of the story didn’t lead to some incredible wonderland of infinite possibilities…it led to a never-ending level with no escape that ultimately served no purpose, except to strand those who went searching for it. And the cost? Oh… just my life. Which is fine if you have lives to spare… when you only have ONE, it’s kind of a high price to pay.

There is another reason that both gamers as well as non-gamers struggle to resist the siren call to “break the game”… we are inherently compelled to forge our OWN path in life and make our OWN choices, even when the path we were designed to walk on is clearly and obviously laying in front of us. We love our autonomy so much that the first time we were given a choice on something as simple as what we were going to eat, we LITERALLY chose the ONLY thing we were told NOT to eat (Genesis 3). Why do we do it? I suppose we do it in our games for the same reason we do it in our regular lives… we want to know if there are MORE choices available to us than what we see. I mean, think about it… a game can be filled with three hundred hours of content, and we will STILL continue to try to climb every unscalable mountain and break down every wall in an effort to try to find ways to access areas beyond the map. No matter how much we have already been given and all of the possibilities that are presented to us as explorable options, we are always looking for a way around it… even if we don’t have any idea what is waiting for us on the other side. And this curiosity to explore beyond the confines of what we were clearly told to do can come with some very gnarly side-effects.

The cautionary tale of Balaam is one of the most interesting case studies in the Bible… the tale of a man who simply would not accept the obvious and clear direction he was receiving from the Lord and desperately tried to find a “work-around”, looking for ANY game-breaking glitch he could find that would allow him to write his own narrative.

Numbers 22:5-15 Then Balak sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the diviner’s fee in their hand, and they came to Balaam and spoke to him the words of Balak. And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” So Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, ‘Look, a people has come out of Egypt, and they cover the face of the earth. Come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to overpower them and drive them out.’ ” And God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.”

That seems pretty straight forward… do NOT go with these guys, do NOT curse the people, do NOT pass “Go”, do NOT collect $200. But while Balaam obeys this command (for now), it is clear he is not really thrilled with this direction as he complains to his new friends that “God won’t let me come outside and play with you”…

Numbers 22:13-19 So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you.” And the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.” Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they. And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Therefore please come, curse this people for me.’ ” Then Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, please, you also stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.”

Balaam had already been told NO. It was made completely clear to him that this action was outside of God’s will… but Balaam continued to ask God if he can go anyways. And while the Lord does indeed permit Balaam to proceed down this disobedient path, He is clearly not thrilled that Balaam is so insistent on this course of action. And when we force ourselves out of God’s perfect will for our lives and choose to stubbornly forge our own path, we can deceive ourselves into believing that the Lord ALLOWING us to do something is equivalent to His blessing. Let’s see where this course of action ends up taking Balaam…

Numbers 22:21-28 So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. Now the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road. Then the Angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she pushed herself against the wall and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. Then the Angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”

When a donkey is the voice of reason in a story, that is NEVER a good sign. Balaam had made a decision to walk outside of the Lord’s will for his life, and as a result he could not even perceive the danger he was in. Blinded by his ambition and greed, Balaam had pushed beyond the guardrails that had been created for his protection and dropped into a dangerous “minus world” that had no escape. Balaam couldn’t perceive how precarious his situation was… and when he was confronted by his inability to pursue the path he had chosen, he lashed out in a fit of rage at the only being that could actually see how much danger he was in.

Numbers 22:30-33 So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face. And the Angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”

I feel the need to pause and point out that Balaam is so obsessed with pursuing this path that he is actually having a full-on conversation with his donkey in the middle of the road. And as humorous as that sounds, the reality is that when we choose to reject the wisdom of the Lord and attempt to follow our own moral compass instead, we will quickly find ourselves in arguments and conversations that are just as non-sensical. Too many times in my life I have found myself stubbornly insisting that “I knew what was best” and quoting portions of verses out of context like “the Lord wants to give me the desires of my heart”… breaking down bricks and pushing past walls that I believed were hindering me. I was more like Balaam than I want to admit, and everyone could see it but me. Rather than taking a deeper look at the flawed choices that he was making and where that had gotten him, Balaam tried to force his way into what he wanted by beating his donkey into submission. Balaam was willing to break the game to go where he THOUGHT an oasis of pleasure was waiting for him… but that path had been blocked off and guarded for a reason. A comfortable life of fame and fortune was not waiting for him on the other side of this journey… continuing down this path would ultimately lead him outside of the will of God permanently (Revelation 2:14) and Balaam’s story would eventually come to a tragic end when he perished at the hands of the very people he had been commanded to bless (Joshua 13:22).

I know this may sound odd, but bear with me for a moment. What is the “donkey” that we are currently “beating” in our lives? You know… the thing that is clearly NOT the Lord’s will for us, but we are trying to make it happen anyways? What has He clearly said NO to either in the Scriptures or through His conviction in our hearts, but we keep asking for it regardless? While there are certainly walls that we will face in life that the Lord commands us to march around until they fall (Joshua 6), there are also walls that are designed by Him to keep us on the straight and narrow path (Mathew 7:13-14)… and it is only through a combination of studying His Word and following the leading of His Spirit that we will be able to discern the difference (Hebrews 4:12, John 16:13).

In our video games, barriers exist for a reason… they protect the game experience and insure it plays EXACTLY as it was intended. Often times there is NOTHING on the other side of that mountain because the developer didn’t MAKE anything for the player beyond the point that we were meant to interact with it. And other times, the “new adventure” we find on the other side of those broken bricks is nothing more than an endless loop of pointless swimming in a world that goes nowhere and serves no actual purpose. Here is the lesson that Balaam failed to learn… the messages from the Lord and the actions of the donkey that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do were not there to restrict him, but to PROTECT him. NOTHING good was waiting for him on the other side of that bridge, and the Lord knew that.

In his stubbornness, Balaam persisted in his mistaken belief he could have his cake and eat it too… and in the end he found that the cake he was pursuing was indeed a lie. And if I am being honest, many times in our lives it can be difficult to tell the difference between prayerfully battling against the obstacles of our enemy and trying to stubbornly force our OWN will into God’s plan for our lives. But as we see in the case of Saul in the book of Acts, the Lord will ALWAYS faithfully shine a light and let us know if we are pursuing the wrong path… and it is up to US to make the decision on if we will listen to His guidance and reverse course or continue on a path that only leads to disappointment.

Acts 9:1-6 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Two different men, both on a mission to bring curses and destruction on a group of people that the Lord was determined to bless. One responded to the Lord’s direction and went on to become the man we know as the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary to ever live. The other became a sad footnote and a reminder that if we are arguing with a donkey about God’s will for our life, it is likely that WE are the one who has become the stubborn donkey in our own story. As the “Developer” of our lives, the Lord has a very specific plan for our path… some of which may be obviously to our benefit, and other areas that may seem hard to understand with our limited view of this plane of existence. But He is not trying to restrict our happiness or progress… He came so that our lives could be FULL of joy (John 15:11) and fulfillment (John 10:9-10). But we can’t get there by trying to break the game, forcing what we want into our reality, and finding ways AROUND His will into areas that we were never meant to explore. He has promised to direct the paths of ALL of His children… but it is up to US to listen to His direction, put down the stick, and probably apologize to that donkey, too. Breaking the game may lead to NEW places, but it NEVER leads to the places that we hoped that they would. The Lord has a specific path for each of us… and no two paths are identical. But these paths WILL all end up in the same victorious place if we are faithful to lean on HIS understanding instead of our own.

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