Most of us assume—effectively if not explicitly—that when life is good, that it’s because we’re good folks. But when things are going wrong, we assume that God isn’t pleased with us. You don’t have to read far in Scripture, however, to see that our circumstances aren’t a great barometer for how God feels about us. In fact, in many places, Scripture actually seems to say that circumstantial success is more dangerous than trouble itself.

You probably don’t believe that. Most of the time, I act like I don’t believe it either. But then I come across a passage like Exodus 33.[1]

By the time we get to Exodus 33, Israel has just left Egypt. They are on their way to the Promised Land, but make an important pit stop at Mt. Sinai to get the Law. As Moses is on top of the mountain collecting the tablets, Israel responds in the worst way imaginable: they melt their jewelry down and make a golden cow to worship. Not good.

God is understandably peeved. So we might expect him to tell Moses that he’s going to bring destruction, or stop blessing them, or just do something bad. But here’s what he says instead:

“Depart; go up from here … I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites … Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you.” (Exodus 33:1–3).

Don’t miss this: God promises Moses all the success he could desire. The Promised Land would be theirs. But there’s a caveat. God won’t be going with them.

Most people—particularly Americans—would actually consider this a dream offer. Outward success coupled with no real obligation to God? No religion, and just blessing? Think of it: if you could get all of the blessings of God with none of the obligations that come with his presence, isn’t that the best of both worlds? What could be better than that?

Moses, however, knows it’s a raw deal. “If your presence will not go with me,” he says, “do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). In other words, “What’s the point of getting everything we dreamed of … without You? You can keep all that success—money, health, legacy, family. If we don’t have your presence, we don’t have anything at all.”

Moses had a level of insight that most of us lack. He was able to see that God+nothing was the better deal, for two reasons.

1. Moses saw God as beautiful, not just useful.

Most of us come to God because we find him useful. We need help in a time of crisis. We need answers. We need purpose. And if God doesn’t deliver, we move on to someone—or something—else that we think can. But Moses had come to see God as more than merely useful; he had come to see God as beautiful. If someone is useful to you, you maintain the relationship until their usefulness ends. But if someone is beautiful to you, you delight in them for their own sake. You don’t ask yourself if they can “do something for you.” You just want them.

Imagine you were engaged to be married, and the week before your wedding, your parents blew all of their money on some stupid financial decision. Next thing you know, your fiancée decides to call off the wedding. You’d feel used, wouldn’t you? You were merely useful to that person, not beautiful for your own sake.

Why do we look down at someone for using others, but assume that it’s fine to treat God like that? Moses, for his part, knew better. He saw God as the ultimate prize, the ultimate reward—not a means to any other end, but the end itself. Many of us have got to ask ourselves a serious question: if we were given the choice between everything-without-God or nothing-with-him, what would we choose?

2. Moses saw that without God, everything else was useless.

We wouldn’t all go chasing after success if it weren’t so appealing. And yet, as Tim Keller puts it, earthly success fades. It fades itself, and it fades us.

Success fades. Today you’re on the top of your field; but tomorrow, you’re the old guy fighting for relevance. Today you have a strong family; but tomorrow, you’re gathered around a graveside. Today you’re beautiful; but tomorrow (trust me), things are going to sag and droop and ache. We can stem the tide, but there’s literally nothing we can do to stop any of this.

It gets worse. Success also fades us. Without God, putting our trust in success or beauty or riches will rot our soul. The quest for happiness consumes us, until we become a shell of our former selves. “Enough” becomes an elusive target, always just a step or two out of reach.

So when Moses chooses God over success, it’s not a matter of courage. It’s a matter of vision. He sees reality for what it is, which leads him to say, “You can keep it all. The six-figure salary, the toned body, the CEO status, the perfect family. If we don’t have Your presence, we have nothing.”

Moses knew what it meant to have prosperity without God. He had grown up as a prince in Egypt, the largest military power in the known world. He also knew what it meant to have nothing. He spent 40 years in the wilderness, with nothing but God and a handful of his father-in-law’s sheep. Yet when faced with the choice, he took the wilderness over the palace. Why? People who have experienced everything without God and nothing with God will take nothing with God. Every time.

For more, be sure to listen to the entire message here.

[1] It was Tim Keller (surprise to no one) who opened my eyes to this insight from this passage.