No, God isn’t on Your Side (At Least not Unequivocally)

There are mostly two kinds of people in this world: the kind that think God is always for them and the kind that think God is always against them. I’ve met very few inbetweeners.

But the thing is it’s only the inbetweeners – those who don’t think God is for them or against them – who are holding a biblical belief.

Early on in Joshua’s tenure as Israel’s head honcho, the Lord/an angel/the pre-incarnate Christ appears to Joshua in the form of a man to give him instructions on how to conquer Jericho.

At first Joshua doesn’t seem to recognize this man is no ordinary man. Joshua approaches him and asks, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Joshua 5:13). Joshua realizes this man is not an Israelite. But some foreigners supported Israel, living among them and fighting with them in all their battles. So Joshua wants to know: is this guy on Israel’s side or Jericho’s side?

The man replied, “Neither…but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come,” (Joshua 5:14).

This revelation clues Joshua into the fact that this man is supernatural, sent by God to speak to him. Immediately, “Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?'” (Joshua 5:15).

That word “neither” was most unexpected to me. How can God not be for Israel and against her enemies always? Israel is His chosen nation! He’s giving her leaders step by step directions on how to violently conquer and destroy every single breathing human being in every single nation in her path. What does He mean “neither”?!

There are two possibilities I can think of.

One is perhaps all God is trying to communicate here is that the man before Joshua is not human, like he had assumed. He’s not an Israelite or a sympathetic foreigner, and he’s not from Jericho. He’s neither. End of story.

The other possibility is God is communicating that and more, the “more” being that God doesn’t choose sides, at least not unequivocally. 

I know, I don’t like it anymore than you do. I want to believe God is cheering me on in every single thing I do, turning to the angels from time to time to say, “Do you see her?! That’s my daughter! Isn’t she wonderful?!”

Perhaps He does do that on occasion. But I guarantee you He doesn’t do that all the time.

In fact, there are times He must surely say to Himself what I often say to my daughters, “Oh, no, ma’am! That is not acceptable behavior.” And then He doles out some discipline to let His hard-headed daughter know He is not at all for her when she insists on sinning.

This is the case with Israel.

Yes, the Israelites are God’s chosen nation. Yes, He empowers them to win quite a few battles and to take possession of a choice expanse of land.

But when the Israelites choose to do wrong, God is quick to drop His support. He disciplines them and allows them to suffer all kinds of terrible consequences as a result of their disobedience, sometimes even causing the tragic results.

A couple of examples:

  • He is lightning quick to thoroughly punish the Israelites when they get impatient with how long Moses and God’s powwow takes on Mount Sinai. They decide 40 days is a ridiculous amount of time to wait, so they make a golden calf and worship a hunk of shiny metal instead. And God is anything but for them, instructing Moses to kill the idol worshippers, some 3,000 Israelites, and sending a plague on the rest of nation (Exodus 32).
  • God doesn’t hesitate to punish the Israelites with a 40 year death sentence in the wilderness because they don’t trust Him enough to enter the Promised Land when He tells them to. Because of their lack of faith, God tells them to go somewhere else instead. Upon hearing this consequence, the Israelites try to renege on their choice to disobey and agree to go to the Promised Land the next day. Moses tries to talk them out of it, but they erroneously believe disobeying God’s command to go somewhere else in an effort to obey His initial command to go to the Promised Land will be acceptable. On the contrary, He lets them know it isn’t by allowing the Amalekites to destroy many of them and sending a plague on many more (Numbers 14).

I could go on. In fact, most of the Old Testament attests to the fact that God doesn’t unequivocally endorse anyone, not even those who are supposedly especially tight with Him. God doesn’t jump on our team or another team. He does not proclaim unconditional loyalty to humans.

Why not? Especially this side of the cross, shouldn’t He always be in our corner if we are Christians?

Not only is that logically impossible (think of how many times you and another Christ-follower were on different sides of an issue – how could God be “for” both of you at the same time?), but God knows how fickle people are, even believers. He knows how we can worship Him with all our hearts one minute and be nose-deep in sin the next. Is it any wonder He won’t support us or anyone else unequivocally?

The reality is God doesn’t pick sides; we do. 

God has a team; Satan has a team. Humans decide which team to be on, sometimes jumping back and forth at a nauseating pace.

The Story is about God and His Kingdom, not us and ours. God is not for humans; God is for God. Are we?

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Isaiah 43:11-13

Isaiah 43:11-13. I read it and smile. Because the Old Testament always points to the New. The Bible isn’t 66 books – it’s one book pointing us to our need for the one God.

“I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.”

God said this to the Israelites some 700 years before Jesus was born.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save a people that could be saved no other way.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save you and me because we can be saved no other way (John 14:6).

“I have revealed and saved and proclaimed… You are my witnesses that I am God.”

God revealed Himself to Israel in a number of ways… burning bushes and separating seas and babies for the barren and on and on.

God reveals Himself to us in the pages of scripture and in the pulse of His Spirit keeping time with ours and in promises proved sure and on and on (2 Timothy 3:16, John 16:13).

God saved His nation from enemy after enemy – Egyptians and Canaanites and Philistines and more.

God saved you and me from the death our sins worked hard to earn us when we accepted the gift only Jesus could afford to give us. And He saves us still from living each day as if we are still hell bound (Romans 6:23, Galatians 5:1).

God proclaimed to Israel over and over – speaking it loud to messenger after messenger – “I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 18:4, Exodus 20:2-3).

God proclaims the same message to us – speaking it loud in book after book – “I am the Lord your God,” (John 17:3, Colossians 1:16).

Israel witnessed God’s displays – grand and subtle – of His Godness. Passover protection and morning manna and lavish land…

Do we see?

Look around at our divinely orchestrated lives within a divinely complicated creation. He still protects and provides and pours out blessings too numerous to count and too good to convey on us.

We are witnesses when we choose to be.

“No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”

Not then. Not now. No one can undo what the Lord does. He has revealed and saved and proclaimed, and there will be no undoing any of it.

We can’t cover up His working. We can’t explain it away with scientific theories or paint over it with another coating of skeptical shellac.

He has revealed what He has revealed.

We can board a ship sailing away from Nineveh – we can try to flee His presence – but He goes with us. We can deny we love Him – deny we know Him – three times before the rooster crows, but He still claims us, holds us, preserves us, redeems us from ourselves.

He has saved whom He has saved.

We can say it’s all untrue – believe lies about ourselves and our God – but He still says what He says in scripture – we are His, we are forgiven, and He has good plans for us (1 John 3:1, Romans 8:1, Romans 8:28).

He proclaims what He proclaims.

Who can reverse it?

Not us.

Not any one.

Amen.

Why I Can’t Love My Neighbor as Myself

A common misconception is that Old Testament Jews were saved by keeping the law. A lot of people think if those who lived before Christ obeyed all the Jewish rules and/or made all the appropriate sacrifices when they did wrong, God would let them into Heaven. Wrong.

image via Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net
image via Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net

Keeping the Law never saved anyone. Paul, who kept the law faultlessly (Philippians 3:6), tells us the truth about the law, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin,” (Romans 3:20).

So the 613 commands given in the Old Testament were given, in large part, to prove how inadequate humans are. We can’t keep all the rules. We fall short daily, which proves to our prideful selves that we have a real need for a Savior.

(Note: Our friend Paul, who claims his “righteousness based on the law” was “faultless”, is prone to exaggeration. One commentator puts it this way, “Paul achieved the standard of righteousness which was accepted among the men of his day – though this standard fell short of God’s holy standard,” (Guzik).)

Knowing this about the law, fast forward to a peculiar verse in Galatians. Paul says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Galatians 5:14).

But what do we know about our ability to keep the law? WE CAN’T!

So, putting two and two together, we CAN’T love our neighbors as ourselves. When we try, our inadequacy quickly becomes apparent. Our need for a Savior to help us love well becomes glaringly obvious.

Realizing this, I can give myself a little grace when I don’t love well. I’m human, and I can’t expect myself to have the capacity to love well given that fact.

But much more importantly, I would do well to remember how utterly dependent I am on Jesus.want to love others well. I want to consider them more important than myself (Philippians 2:3-4). And I want to please God by obeying the commandment to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39).

But I need Him to help me. And He will. All I have to do is ask (1 John 5:14-15).

What to Do When You’re in Trouble

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (as long as you keep reading it): the Old Testament is relevant TODAY.

I’m 20 days behind on my read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year-chronologically plan. Impressive, no? I thought I’d have totally given up by this point in the year. You, too, can continue to read your Bible plan even though you haven’t kept up with the prescribed readings. Christ has set us FREE from the self-imposed legalism that says we can’t do things at all if we don’t do them perfectly. Also, GRACE.

I digress.

My point here is I read 2 Chronicles 20 the other day because my Bible plan said it was time. This isn’t a chapter or book I typically frequent because the historical accounts of Israel usually make my eyes glaze over.  Maybe if I were a Jewish history buff I could keep up with which king is which and what city is where and how all that ties together for a purpose. But I’m not, so I can’t. FREEDOM!

A lot of folks are tempted to skip the whole Old Testament (except the reader friendly Psalms and Proverbs) for reasons like this. But I testify, once again, that sticking to it and persevering through the hard-to-understand parts is will worth the reward of discovering golden verses hiding inside seemingly useless books.

Second Chronicles 20 is such a treasure trove, giving US a play-by-play example of what to do when we’re in trouble.

You ever face trouble?

Thought so.

So did a king of Judah named Jehoshaphat. Judah was a country where a small portion of Israelites lived after the majority of the Israelites decided to break fellowship with them over some shady leadership issues. Judah had a bunch of kings in a short period of time, and this one actually loved God (which was rare).

We learn in verse 1 some other people groups are rising up against the people of Judah. Jehoshaphat gets wind of this when some of his men tell him, “‘A vast army is coming against you…'” (2 Chronicles 20:2).

Our modern day application: trouble is on the horizon.

Jehoshaphat’s response, “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all of Judah,” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Now, this particular trouble was a corporate problem. So, in response to Jehoshaphat’s godly leadership, “the people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord,” (2 Chronicles 20:4).

Huh.

Unity. Right there in the Old Testament.

But not just any ole unity. They people of Judah didn’t come together to brainstorm war tactics and battle plans. They didn’t form a committee to analyze the probability of their defeat versus their success. They came together to seek help from the Lord!  Their lives were literally being threatened, and they responded by praying corporately.

When you and I sense trouble is near, we, too, need to rely on prayer more than we rely on our intelligence or strength for help.

Once the people were gathered together in front of the temple, King Jehoshaphat prayed aloud, first proclaiming the truth of who God is (2 Chronicles 20:6), and then recalling the truth of what God had already done for the people of Judah in recent years (2 Chronicles 20:7).

Why did Jehoshaphat do this? Certainly it was of not for God’s benefit. No, this wise leader understood his fearful people needed to be reminded of God’s position, power, and provision. The people of Judah needed their hearts re-calibrated to the truth if they would have a shot at trusting God this time around.

When trouble comes our way, we need to remind ourselves of who God is and what He has already done for us. We need our hearts to be encouraged that He is who He says He is, and He is trustworthy. When we face our troubles with this attitude, we are preparing ourselves to trust God despite what trouble our eyes may see before us.

In the next part of Jehoshaphat’s prayer, he describes the impending trouble to the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:10-11). He then acknowledges to God, “‘We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you,'” (2 Chronicles 20:12).

In other words, “God, we need you and we trust you.”  During trials, we should acknowledge our dependence on God while emphasizing our faith in God.

After Jehoshaphat prayed this, “All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord,'” (2 Chronicles 20:13).

What an insignificant detail. You know, if the Bible editors would just leave these kinds of sentences out, our Bibles would be a lot lighter. Trees would be saved. And we could get to “the good verses” a lot faster.

Unless this isn’t insignificant at all. What relevant idea could this verse be communicating?

How about after we pray we should wait and listen for the Lord’s response?

(Other possibilities not related to this article: families should pray together, teach your kids the value of prayer, let your kids see/hear you pray, women and children and little ones are capable of hearing from the Lord, not just men…)

As the people of Judah stood there, waiting for a response from God, the Holy Spirit spoke to and through a guy named Zechariah. (Relevant take away: sometimes God responds to us through other people).

God said to the people, “‘”Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s,”‘” (2 Chronicles 20:15).

Hmm. I wonder if that encouraged them at all? I wonder if God says to you and me, “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this horrendous trouble you find yourself in. For the trouble is not yours, but Mine.”

To be sure, we cause a lot of our own trouble. But God doesn’t leave us to face it alone. He claims it as His own, and He steers us through it. He views our trouble as His problem to solve. “How am I going to get my dear one through this?” He asks Himself. “Let Me take the responsibility of providing a way out of the thicket for My child.”

God then gives the people instructions to “‘”Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you,”‘” (2 Chronicles 20:17). In other words, God tells them not to do anything except to prepare to be delivered by His actions.

How can we prepare for the Lord to deliver us from our troubles? I imagine we need to be waiting expectantly with our spirits dialed in to anything and everything the Holy Spirit is doing around us, looking for God’s method of delivery so we can be ready to cooperate with Him.

Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah were overcome with God’s response. Some “fell down in worship”, and others “stood up and praised the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice” (2 Chronicles 20:18-19).

When the Lord speaks to us, we, too, ought to be moved to respond in worship and praise.

The next morning, Jehoshaphat led his people head on into trouble. And as they went, they sung to the Lord and praised Him (2 Chronicles 20:21-22).

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

What lunatic walks into the fray singing Chris Tomlin songs? How delusional do you have to be to joyfully step into financial hardship? an interaction with your belligerent teen? a doctor’s appointment with an oncologist?

Well, unbelievers may consider this attitude crazy, but those who take God at His word are set free from worry and panic and despair, even when the circumstances may call for such feelings.

As it turns out, God kept His promise to Jehoshaphat and company, defeating their enemies without them lifting a finger (2 Chronicles 20:22-24).

And that same God offers to fight our battles for us.

The Truth About God’s Promsies

Sometimes the Old Testament seems irrelevant.  I yawned my way through the dividing of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel (Joshua 13-21).  And when I was just about to nod off, one gem of a verse caught my heart and made all that boring reading worth it.

When the land was completely allotted, the Israelites finally got rest from their enemies.  The years of fighting off the natives came to a close, and Israel rested in full victory, just as the Lord had “predicted” in Genesis 12:6-7 (Joshua 21:44).

Reflecting on the Lord’s faithfulness, Joshua writes, “Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled,” (Joshua 21:45).

You mean God’s trustworthiness wasn’t affected by Israel’s disobedience?

You mean God didn’t change His mind and not deliver on His promises because Israel rejected Him for a golden calf?

You mean Israel’s constant grumbling about the Lord’s choice of leaders and disbelief in the Lord’s power didn’t cause God to abandon them all together?

He could have walked away from Israel completely.  From a human perspective, He would have been totally justified in doing so.  But He didn’t.

And that is relevant news for us today.

The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament and beyond.  God’s promises are reliable.  There is nothing you or I – believers in Jesus – can do to make God go back on His Word.  If He said He will do something, He will do it, regardless of the many persuasive reasons we give Him not to.

Not one of the Lord’s good promises to me will fail; every one will be fulfilled.

Know those promises.  Trust those promises.

Grace: Not Just a New Testament Doctrine

I had the pleasure of spending time with some remarkably brilliant women on Thursday morning.  We were training to lead a new Bible study in January, but really what we were doing was dissecting Genesis 1-3.

Yeah, THAT Genesis 1-3.  The section of the Old Testament we’ve all read a million times.  The accounts of the Creation and the Fall that bore us to tears anytime a pastor preaches on them.

Only instead of being bored, we were all riveted.

Our gifted teacher, Iva May, lead us through these pages of scripture by asking questions like “What is God doing here? Why would He do it this way?  What does this say about God?  What does it say about God’s relationship to man? What do we learn about man?  What do we learn about our own sinfulness?” And on and on the questions went, producing a lively discussion via some of the most tired stories of the Old Testament.

And, as a result, God became a personal God again.  It seemed like Genesis was written FOR me to be able to better understand who God is, what our relationship is like, and what He WANTS our relationship to be like. And it seemed that way because it IS that way!  The scriptures are for US.

Perhaps the most significant thing I learned through that time of study is that God has ALWAYS been a God of grace.

I know sometimes we consider the God of the Old Testament (who is the same as the God of the New Testament, by the way) to be a pretty angry, vindictive Guy.  It seems like He is constantly losing His temper and smiting thousands upon thousands for their blatant disobedience.  And, don’t get me wrong, He does do that in the Old Testament.

But you know what else He does, He offers grace.  From the very opening pages of Genesis, God offers second chances to His creation, not wanting any of them to perish.

Take the very first sin (Genesis 3), for instance.  Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and how did God respond?  He said, “Where are you?”  He was inviting the pair to come to Him.

Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And God asked another question, “Who told you you were naked?”  I can hear the disappointment in God’s voice.  Adam was never supposed to be aware of his nakedness; that wasn’t God’s plan.  God never intended for Adam to ever know what it felt like to be ashamed or embarrassed or self-conscious.

Then God asked another question, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

Why would God ask that when He knew full well Adam had eaten from that tree?  Perhaps God was giving Adam a chance to confess.  In other words, maybe God was setting Adam up to receive grace.  But Adam didn’t accept that invitation.  How might the story have been different if Adam had confessed instead of blaming Eve and God for his sin?

Fast forward to 3:21 and we see another act of grace on God’s part.  “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”

Why would God do that?  Because He felt compassion for them.  He knew Adam and Eve felt embarrassed of their nakedness, and, out of His empathy, He remedied that problem.  God is a great Daddy – He cares tenderly  for our hearts.  He clothed them with animal skins and grace.

And then He boots those rebellious kiddos out of Eden.

Where’s the grace in that?

Let me show you.

In 3:22, God says, “‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'”

Once Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their innocence was forever destroyed.  Sin had entered their lives, their beings.  And if they had also eaten from the tree of life, that sin problem would have become permanent.  Their eternal fate – separation from God on account of the presence of sin – would have become permanent.

And that was too much for God to bear.  So He banned them from the Garden, preventing them from having access to the tree of life while He was working out a plan for their salvation.  He would provide a way out of their sin problem for them, but He had to ensure they didn’t muck things up in the interim.

So we see that His kicking them out of Eden was actually the most gracious response to their sin He could have had.  It was the only way He could ensure they’d have a shot at reconciliation.

Grace.  Three instances of God’s grace in Genesis 3.  And, guess what… His grace is in Genesis 4, too.  And Genesis 6.  And the rest of the Old Testament as well.

God has always been a God of grace.  It isn’t just a New Testament thing or a trendy topic to talk about.  His grace is at the core of who He is and our relationship with Him.

Do we believe that?  Do we live like we believe that?  How would our lives change if we truly bought in to the doctrine of grace?