Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Knowing When We Are Ready

God was moving to deliver his people from the Midianites and had chosen an unconvinced leader, Gideon, to lead the troops.  This Manassite sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, plus Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, for men to fight (Jud 6:35), and when assembled, there were about 32,000 men gathered.  Not a large army, but willing nonetheless.

In order to use this as a lesson to rely on himself, the Lord said to Gideon:
The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, "My own hand has saved me."  Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead" (Jud 7:2-3).
This is a surprising turn for more than one reason.  Why were they afraid?  Why did God instruct Gideon to give the fearful opportunity to leave?

The answer to these questions can be found in Moses' instructions to the people of Israel, wherein he gives God's rules for waging war, which we see being followed by Gideon.

Rules of Warfare Battle of Jezreel Valley
Deut 20:3-4Priest promises God's presence and the victory. Jud 6:16God promises his presence and the victory.
Deut 20:8Officers inquire if any are fearful or fainthearted. Jud 6:3Gideon instructs any fearful to return home.

The reader may wonder why an opportunity to leave would be given to soldiers.  During the engagement, stress runs high as the soldier is on high alert.  If one falters and becomes afraid in the heat of battle, the effect is deleterious to those around.  Doubt enters into the minds of fellow soldiers, and panic can ensue.  That one becomes a greater menace than the enemy.  It is for this reason that Moses instructed the people: "Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own" (Deut 20:8).

Besides fear, a soldier was also allowed to be exempt for other reasons, again from Deuteronomy 20:
  • Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.
  • And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit.
  • And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.
Note the reason given for each is the very real danger of dying in battle—a disturbing and perplexing concept that contradicts a faulty theology of God ensconced in American Christianity.

The citizenry of industrialized nations has become increasingly comfortable with the notion that any national hardship can be overcome.  The historical rate of economic growth coupled with technological advances offers a false sense of security that anything is possible, if sufficient resources are brought to bear.  Somewhere along the way, the church embraces the same mindset.

For decades—even centuries(?)—Bible-wielding zealots have been preaching a gospel of glory, proclaiming that the most faithful will always overcome whatever might beset them.  The logic goes something like, "We are more than conquerors through Christ.  No weapon formed against us shall stand.  God will enable you to overcome the evil one in all things."  Taken separately these are true within their context, but the implanted message is that I cannot be defeated in any arena, assuming enough faith.  

God's promise in the above passages tells us something different.  No place does he promise that individuals will be free from suffering and death.  Rather he is with his elect and will bring victory corporately.  His plans and purposes are long-range, for Christ's body to function as a unit to continue the work until the final day.  People die in the work for Christ, sometimes violently.  We in the U.S. tend to be insulated from such trauma and carnage, but they are real and increasing.

Is the individual unimportant, then?  Certainly not.  He cares for each as they work together, each using the gift given through the Holy Spirit for use in the body.  Soldiers need to be properly trained to work as a unit and engage in warfare.  If a soldier is not ready, more time or training is required: he is not cast aside as useless.  God's exemptions given above tell us there are periods when a man can rightfully take the time until he is ready for service.

John Mark is a good example of someone who entered the fray too quickly.  He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their journey (Acts 12:25) but abandoned them in Pamphylia (see Acts 15:38).  While we do not have the reason, his abrupt departure was a real cause of concern for the missionary work.  Later, Paul and Barnabas disagreed as to his usefulness, so much so that they parted ways with Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:39).  Yet some years later, both Paul and Peter would later relate Mark's work and usefulness:
Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him).  (Col 4:10)
Luke alone is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.  (2 Tim 4:11)
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.  (1 Pet 5:13)
Christians are engaged in spiritual battles by virtue of their association with Jesus Christ.  Each one of these believers are at varying levels of spiritual maturity as they grow in him and will be called upon to engage the enemy in his relentless attempts to devour whoever is weak, isolated, or unprepared.  We are not called to rush into every fray.  Shepherds are placed in order to feed and tend, helping each to grow to a full maturity in Christ through the faithful teaching of scripture.  Allow them to do their job in your life and that of the local assembly.

You may not be ready now.  Do not let that discourage you.  Take a season for preparation.  The day of battle will come soon enough.

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