“So then, the Lord left some nations in the land to test the Israelites who had not been through the wars in Canaan. He did this only in order to teach each generation of Israelites about war, especially those who had never been in battle before. Those left in the land were the five Philistine cities, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites who lived in the Lebanon Mountains from Mount Baal Hermon as far as Hamath Pass. They were to be a test for Israel, to find out whether or not the Israelites would obey the commands that the Lord had given their ancestors through Moses. And so the people of Israel settled down among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. They intermarried with them and worshiped their gods.”
Carol and I have been getting ready for our trip to Israel next month and I have been reading up on recent history in the Middle East. I find myself thinking “How long is this going to go on? Are they ever going to settle this?” Of course, the answer is: probably not. It seems to be permanent and never ending.
That thought will lead you to this interesting passage in the Old Testament and our discussion this morning of His intentions to leave a number of enemies in the land instead of driving them out permanently. Let’s look at a few things about the passage that may also apply to our personal lives. In fact, there is no doubt they do.
1. First, it’s clear that God intends for war to be a way of life for each and every generation. You and I would like to have God drive them out completely so we can settle in without the conflict or the ever present prospect of conflict but God understands that there are reasons we need it. There are at least a couple of reasons for that.
Probably the most important is we need enemies to keep us obedient to God and dependent on Him. None of Israel’s enemies were ever conquered on their own. Neither are ours.
Moreover, the reality of never being completely at peace, never really settled and self-sufficient makes us, like Israel, constantly aware of our need for God. It’s not what we want.
Look at Greece or Spain right now. It is the result of a State that promised a life free of risk and no enemies. Full employment. Full pensions. Early retirement. Healthcare. All the enemies and stresses of life alleviated. Some of you are familiar with the kiwi bird in New Zealand. It has very small wings but they are useless. They do not fly. Why not? Because they have no natural predators. They will never fly because there are no enemies in their lives.
We want comfort and prosperity and security but God knows we need the constant threat of an enemy force to keep us obedient. We need to stay just enough at risk to stay close to God. He does not criticize us for that. He accepts it as a permanent condition.
Not everything hard in our life is an enemy – only those things that are obstacles to growth. There is a difference between enemies and demons. Jesus drove out demons but God uses enemies. There are things in our lives that are simply circumstances – permanent or temporary – and we bear them. Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew took his own life years ago. “But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.” Depression was not an enemy God left in the land for Matthew. Enemies are those things God leaves around us to make us trust in Him and to leave our idols.
Second, it’s interesting that God is so interested in our children being taught about war…and not by reading about it or hearing our stories. They are not to learn about war from video games or movies.
They are to be taught by practice. By being in the war themselves. That just goes against most everything we try to do as good parents today but it makes sense when you look at what we are doing to our kids in the name of giving them the “good things”.
“Studies done by prominent psychologist S.S. Luthar have found that teenagers in affluent communities have significantly higher rates of depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and addiction, anxiety disorders, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors than all other groups of teenagers. In many markers of mental health and development, affluent kids are worse off even than “high-risk” kids in the inner-city. According to adolescent psychology expert Madeline Levine, the root of these problems is that affluent teens display a disturbing lack of an independent self and are therefore quite fragile in the face of relatively minor adversity. This in turn leads to the need for self-medicating and self-destructive behaviors like those listed above.”
We are virtually consigning our children to being incapable of fending for themselves or being obedient to God. It troubles me to see the numbers of kids who spend free time and vacations hanging out around the pools, tennis courts, bars, grills and golf courses of the country clubs here. What are we teaching them about life? What “war” are they going to be capable of fighting or winning? The biggest surprise in their lives is there is a war and they are not exempt. I’m not proposing this literally but, as you know, in Israel everyone – men and women – over 18 are conscripted and serve for several years in the armed forces. Why? Because they live in a permanent state of war.
God knows we want to provide for them and protect them but He also knows we are fully capable of corrupting them without there being any “war” or hardship in their lives.
God says each and every generation should know what war is. He does not say that the role of one generation is to shelter the next from hardship. He knows where that leads.
I like the first sentence of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled: “Life is difficult”. You know, the sooner we find that out and accept it the better off we are for the rest of our lives.
In the same way, Peter says to the early Christians, “Do not be surprised at the painful test you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you.” Do not be surprised. But we are aren’t we? And we really do think this is not the way things are supposed to be. That’s the way it is…and the way it was designed to be. It’s not something unusual happening to me. Life is difficult. God is not going to drive out all the trials and tribulations that get in the way of my comfort. He has intentionally left a few in the land. I can tell you from my experience that nothing has been as effective in helping me toward obedience and dependence on him as those He has left for me. But nothing has been harder to accept.
It has helped me to understand that the purpose of the enemies is not punishment but a right relationship with God. The presence and pressure of the enemies is a test. Now and then I go to the gas station and go around and check the tires with an air gauge. Sometimes a tire is low and I put air in it. I don’t say “Bad tire!” do I? No, I’m just using the gauge to test the tires so I can keep them properly inflated. In the same way, I’ve not done anything bad to deserve these enemies. Quite the opposite. I might not do anything at all to grow toward God without their testing in my life. I like the way Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “But to keep me from being puffed up with pride because of the many wonderful things I saw, I was given a painful physical ailment which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud. Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away. But his answer was: “My grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.”
I do not want to be weak and I need those thorns more than I need to be free of them…and He knows it. I have a few thorns in my life who are there to keep me from becoming proud. I can tell you they are good at it! I have people volunteering for it. Lining up to get the job.
But I know they are there because God wants me to stay away from pride and I would not do it on my own. I’m too bent that way. The purpose of the enemies is not to create fear or anxiety but obedience and maturity. And the enemies are permanent because our bent toward other voices is permanent.
2. The root for our word “obedience” is the Latin “audire” – to hear. Obedience is simply the process of developing an ear for God.
A friend of mine, Jamie Clark was in the radio broadcast business for 28 years and we were discussing the differences between radio and television when they stayed with us. God often speaks of obedience as hearing and there are good reasons for that. In radio terms, listening requires the listener to take a big part in the process. It’s not a passive role. You have to be far more creative than in watching television where all the work is done for you.
That’s how it is with God’s words to us and our response to Him. We have to be a part of the process. We have to work at it. It’s not passive entertainment. You and I are surrounded in the world by what we could call “white noise” or “white sound”. If you have trouble sleeping you can buy a machine that produces it. It works because it generates 20,000 frequencies of sound that effectively mask any particular sound. It works by adding multiple sounds at the same level instead of trying to overpower another sound or to eliminate the sound. It simply makes it one of many and your ear loses its ability to pick it out from all the others. It doesn’t go away. It is simply one of many and the effect is, hopefully, sleep.
We use white noise for sleep and so does Satan. He lulls us into spiritual sleep with it.
Sin does not often shout. It does not try to be the only sound we hear. We would react to that.
It simply increases the number of voices so we can no longer discern God’s. Satan does not want to eliminate God’s voice. We might notice not hearing it and be startled into looking for it. No, he simply makes it one of many and masks it.
In a funny way, that’s the danger of our getting together to hear God’s voice once a week. It becomes one of many voices and we don’t even notice the change as it is so gradual. Satan is certainly willing for us to hear God once a week – if it’s only once.
I really don’t believe the Israelites intended to sin against God or to directly disobey. I think it was a gradual falling into sleep.
Look at the text for a moment. They were not violently conquered or overwhelmed with military force. They were just gradually and yet relentlessly absorbed into the ranks of the enemy. They lost their hearing. They could not live with the tension that God put in their lives to keep them obedient. God did not eliminate temptation to make sure they remained faithful. He put them right in the middle of all kinds of temptation and their only defense was obedience.
We live with “white noise” today in the form of fake news and constant lies. “Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.”
We live with a constant barrage of lies from all sides and it has an effect, doesn’t it? I read this from Hannah Arendt this week:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
3. We are not being shaped for success but for maturity and responsibility.
We are that “peculiar people” God created for His purposes and our trials and the presence of enemies in our lives has a purpose. It is not just their presence but their influence to turn us and them away from faithfulness. We are not isolated.
It probably does not make sense if you believe we only live these few years. Why should God waste so much of our limited and precious time with hardship instead of comfort? But we were created for eternity and we are being shaped for a particular role in eternity. What does Paul say? We are going to rule and manage and care for entire worlds one day. This is simply a training course for much greater things to come.
Trials are not accidents. Tests are not accidents. They are a part of God’s purpose in our becoming obedient and mature. Let me just mention three ways this works out for us this morning.
Some hardships we suffer are there to be illustrations of faith for others – even if we do not understand it at the time. Look at the 11th chapter of Hebrews. It is filled with illustrations of people who, by faith, lived with incredible hardship but they serve as witnesses for all who come after them.
You may have a life like that. Your life is being shaped into an illustration of what God can do with the relentless faith of a person. It may not be comfortable or prosperous or settled but God is going to use it to illustrate Himself to others.
Some trials are there to help us grow endurance and maturity and we see that in James 1:2-4: “My brothers, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure. Make sure that your endurance carries you all the way without failing, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” The only way to maturity is through endurance and that comes from facing trials.
Some trials are there to prepare us to comfort others. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Paul says, “God helps us in all our trials so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God.”
We cannot comfort others with having gone through the same trials and received the same comfort. I know this from experience. So do you.
There are some trials others are having in which I am completely useless but others which I share with them and I can comfort without having to say a word.
You don’t have to be able to tell them what to do. You just have to be able to listen with the same comfort that God gave you during your own time of trouble.
We each will have trouble but we are not intended to go through our trouble alone. God’s preparation for your being able to comfort is for you to have those trials yourself. Don’t hoard your trials. They may be there to comfort others.
As we leave, think about these things:
What enemies has God intentionally left in your land not as a punishment but as a test?
What are the “thorns” in your life that are there to protect you from pride and self-sufficiency?
What are the voices, lies and fake news in your life other than God’s?
Have you settled down and been absorbed by the culture around you?