James 1:2-3 gives the standard Christian answer to this question:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance…
Of course, knowing the Sunday school answer and being okay with it are two different things entirely, but this week, I have gained a new perspective on the question that I thought I would share with you. Here are some significant verses from my devotional reading this week:
Judges 2:20-3:4 (New International Version)
20 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did.” 23 The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.
Judges 3:1 These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan 2 (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): 3 the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo [a] Hamath. 4 They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the LORD’s commands, which he had given their forefathers through Moses. — Judges 2:20-3:4
Three phrases in this passage stood out to me when I read them:
“Because this nation has violated the covenant…”
God had clearly commanded the people of Israel to enter the promised land and to oust all the people who were living there. He had given them three really good reasons. First of all, the land was what God had promised to Abraham, and it was rightfully theirs. Secondly, God was using them to judge the Canaanites for their idolatry and wickedness. Thirdly, God knew that if they Canaanites weren’t totally driven out, they would be a stumbling block to the Israelites forever.
However, the Israelites didn’t do the job all the way. They left certain societies untouched, and they began to adopt the religious practices of those societies. God’s response was much the same as it was in the days of Kadesh Barnea. Back then, God told them, “If you won’t enter the land I give you, then I will prevent you from entering the land for 40 years.” Now, it’s as if God is saying, “If you won’t drive out all the people who live there on my time schedule, I won’t let you drive them out ever. I will let them remain.” As a result, those other nations were a consistent source of frustration, irritation, and distraction for the people of Israel throughout their history.
This clearly indicates that sometimes God allows us to struggle with difficult circumstances because we have failed to act according to his will. Sometimes we waited too long to get our act together with God and now we face the consequences. Sometimes the irritating circumstance you find yourself in is the direct result of God allowing you to taste your own medicine.
“I will use them to test Israel.”
This second phrase actually shows up twice in the passage I quoted above, and it gives us the second reason God will allow us to face trying circumstances. Specifically, God is “testing” us. That is, God will allow us to face difficulties so that he can gauge the temperature of our heart toward him. If we have rosy lives, we could give great lip service to God while practically living like he doesn’t exist.
However, if we face difficulty, that experience of crisis will force us to make a decision. Will I press on with my own way or will I continue to give my life to God? Will I live by faith in him, or will I take matters into my own hands? Will I obey his will even when it doesn’t make sense or will I follow my own path?
Difficulty is always a better testing ground than is success, pleasure, or ease. External peace can mask the rotting soul within, but trials expose the heart to the light and let us see what we are really made of.
Sometimes God lets you go through a difficult time simply because he wants to test you. Like a coach with a stopwatch timing your 40 yard dash, God will sometimes ask you to run an uncomfortable distance at an uncomfortable pace to see where you stand with him.
“…he did this only to teach warfare…”
This phrase is the one that took me off guard. See, the other two phrases fit perfectly well in my worldview of a God who isn’t really wrathful anymore because of Jesus, but who allows us to go through difficult times for different reasons. However, this phrase here indicates that God is a God who values warfare.
Now, of course, we could sanitize this statement and say that it was really only for the ancient Israelites. See, the young people who survived the desert wandering and were part of the initial conquest of Canaan were now old and dying and the next generation was coming up. It seems quite reasonable that they would need to learn warfare, but check this out: If God had driven out all the other peoples, there would be no need to learn warfare, right? Instead, God intentionally allowed the other peoples to remain because he valued the lessons of warfare for his people!
What’s up with that? What could warfare possibly teach us? How could it possibly be good for us?
After reflecting on this for a couple days, I think I have a few answers.
Warfare Teaches Bold Faith
Throughout the book of Judges, you see story after story of someone who was called by God to act on bold faith. Gideon was called to attack the Midianites with only 300 men carrying trumpets and flashlights. There is no life experience that so dramatically teaches people the lesson of trusting God in the face of fearful circumstances as warfare does.
Are you going through a time of struggle now? Perhaps it is God’s will to teach you bold faith as you stand up for him and his word, as you live according to his principles regardless of how it feels.
Warfare Reveals Leadership
Another lesson that seems to only be learned in warfare is the lesson of leadership. As humans, we tend to be overcome with the desire for independently following our own way. However, the most common biblical word describing God and his relationship to humanity is LORD which means that He is in charge of us and not the other way around. Neither are we in charge of ourselves.
Thus, at the core of humanity’s sin problem is a leadership problem. We want to lead ourselves, but God is the only true leader. As a result, then, one step in our spiritual growth is the ability to relinquish leadership to others when appropriate and take it up when that’s appropriate. Warfare puts us in the place where we recognize the need for good, strong leadership and where we either learn to exercise it ourselves for the sake of others or to follow someone else who is appointed to lead us. Whether as leader or follower, you learn leadership in the crucible of warfare.
Are you going through a time of struggle? Perhaps it is God’s will to get you to grasp leadership. Is there a leader to whom you need to learn to submit? Is there a leadership role you have been reluctant to take? Is there a leadership role you have been abusing?
Warfare Is How God Moves the World
God had given the ancient Israelites the task of “cleaning up” Canaan. He was tired of the wickedness of the people who lived there, and just as he brought the flood in the days of Noah, so now he was bringing the Israelites into the land to wipe out the Baal worship and Asherah worship and child sacrifice and other detestable practices. God wanted to eliminate the Canaanite wickedness and chose to use the mechanism of earthly warfare to accomplish his purposes.
God has known for a long time that the process of changing people always involves death. Either they need to die to themselves and begin to live for God or they need to die to the earth and be sent to the grave, but without one of those deaths taking place, each person will remain in a state of selfish pursuit, and the society made of such people will follow the same path. Therefore, in ancient days, God moved the world through earthly warfare, and he moved against the people of Israel as much as he moved on their behalf.
Are you going through a time of struggle? Perhaps God is preparing you to be an earth-shaker. Or perhaps he has a plan to do something big in the world, and part of his greater activity intersects your life. It doesn’t mean he’s mad at you. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you. But it might mean that you are a simple foot soldier in a bigger battle he’s orchestrating.
Oh, and this “warfare moves the world” concept doesn’t end with the cross. No, in fact, God is still using warfare to move the world, but a lot of the warfare he employs these days is of a spiritual nature. Today, he is moving the world by getting people to die to themselves and give themselves to Jesus, and doing that requires a great deal of warfare in the soul of those people. I’m sure you know stories of the warfare in the heart of a loved one or two. Perhaps you have a story of the struggle in your own heart. But if God is going to move the world by changing hearts, he must have foot soldiers who are equipped to handle that kind of warfare too.
Perhaps your struggle is simply God’s way of giving you the preparation you need to speak into the heart struggle of someone you know.
God’s People Always Face Opposition
Finally, on this warfare concept, I recognize that God’s people have always faced opposition. Sometimes the opposition comes in the form of earthly warfare, physical persecution, economic hardships and more, but we would be missing a great deal if we forget the “spiritual warfare” that is going on around us all the time.
I don’t talk about spiritual warfare that much simply because I’m convinced that in the cross, Jesus has already defeated the powers of hell, making a spectacle of them (Colossians 2:15), making us more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). I believe that Christians need fear nothing because we have overcome the world and it’s power by the power of Jesus himself (1 John 4:4). Nevertheless, I also believe that Christians face a struggle not against flesh and blood but against all kinds of dark powers (Ephesians 6:12).
I also don’t talk about spiritual warfare because those who practice “spiritual warfare” these days often do so with a specific set of techniques and prayer styles that aren’t found in the Bible.
Nevertheless, the Word of God is clear that we have a spiritual struggle on our hands, and we must be prepared to oppose whatever schemes Satan throws our way (Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Corinthians 2:9-11).
Are you going through a trial? Sure it could be the result of a satanic “scheme” against you, but it could also be that God is training you for the kind of warfare that knows how to hold ground against future more stringent attacks.
I was surprised to see these three lines right there in this passage so clearly display the reasons God sometimes chooses to “not drive out” our opposition. We want a God who will pave the way before us, but of course, we want him to pave it on our time schedule. He, however, wants a people who are obedient and who are capable to fight the battles he has planned.
Sometimes he leads us through places of trial and struggle because he wants to test us. Sometimes it’s because we have failed to follow him and are simply facing our due consequences. Sometimes it’s because he is preparing us for “warfare.” But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the time, it’s a mixture of all three.