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March On

I am amazed at the way ordinary discipline exposes me to extraordinary discoveries. It happens often with the regular reading of God’s word. It occurred just this morning with the reading of Judges 5. I almost skipped it because I thought, It is the song of Deborah after Barak defeated Sisera. I already read the story of how the army of Sisera was scattered by Barak’s men and how a woman named Jael drove a tent spike through Sisera’s head to secure the victory – that’s pretty crazy! I am sure the song is just a repeat.
After deliberating, I decided to read the song anyway and I encountered a phrase I am sure I have read before but this time it jumped out at me. “March on, my soul; be strong!” (Judges 5:21) Deborah and Barak were celebrating the remarkable victory God had given them. Prior to battle the odds were not good. They had a long track record of losing as Sisera “had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years.” (Judges 4:3). God led to them to go into battle, however, and they won. Now it was time to celebrate and remind themselves that they could walk in victory. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
As soon as I read the statement, I realized it applies to so many situations in life. Many of you reading this have a long list of tasks you need to complete. The list is daunting and it is hard to imagine how you will ever get it done. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Many of you are facing relational challenges that appear to be insurmountable. You have your own personal growth moving forward but someone you care about deeply (a spouse, a child, a family member or close friend) is operating somewhere between difficult and impossible. It is clear to you what this person ought to do but you are powerless to make them do it. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Many of you are struggling with personal challenges that improve very little year to year. Nagging habits repeat themselves despite your desire to live differently. Addictions keep trying to lure you back. Unhealthy reactions to stressful events seem to take over before you have time to consider what you want to do. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Still some of you are trying to sort out new career choices as your chosen path has been interrupted and is no longer available to you. “March on, my soul; be strong!” Or, you may be in a boring season of your career and it just feels long. You know this is where you should be but the days drag on. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
As if to fuel our resolve to stay strong, the song ends with a simple, motivating statement, “Then the land had peace forty years.” (Judges 5:31) The peace they experienced lasted twice as long as the time of oppression!
“March on, my soul; be strong!”

Obstinate Hesitation

“I will not,” can be one of the most useful or most harmful phrases in our lives. When it comes to moral decisions, the phrase “I will not,” can be quite useful. “I will not lie to improve my situation,” “I will not compromise myself sexually,” “I will not take credit for what others have accomplished,” are all statements of virtue and strong character. When it comes to following the clear guidance of our God, however, the phrase “I will not,” is a stubborn announcement that we lack confidence in His leadership.
I encountered an example of this in Judges 4. “Sisera, the commander of his [Jabin king of Canaan] army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.” (v. 2-3) “Now Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time.” (v. 4) She said to Barak, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” (v. 6-7)
I think you will agree that these are clear instructions. Barak doesn’t need to interpret the words or try to decipher the meaning. That is important to keep in mind because there are many times in life when we need wisdom to figure out what course we need to take. This is not one of those. God is clearly laying out what He wants Barak to do.
I fully understand Barak’s hesitation. Sisera is a skilled, well-equipped and brilliant military strategist. Israel has been losing battles to him for twenty years. I even think it would have been okay if he had vulnerably said to Deborah, “I am hoping you will go with us because God’s hand of favor is obviously upon you. It would help my confidence.” Instead, Barak was stubborn in his response, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” (v. 8 ) His hesitation is not the problem. It is his stubborn attitude toward what God has asked him to do.
We all recognize that many challenges in life appear to be impossible, or at least intensely unattractive, so we naturally ask ourselves, “Am I really willing to do this?” I almost always encounter this when I teach on forgiveness. From a human point of view, there are many people who do not deserve forgiveness for the things they have done. Hesitation is understandable as we wrestle with the pain and disappointments created in our hearts from the actions of others, even though we know God has called us to “forgive whatever grievances you may have” in Colossians 3:13. Saying, “I am having a hard time forgiving, will you help me figure this out?” is commendable. Stubbornly saying, “I will never forgive that!” sets us up to have a bitter heart.
As a result of Barak’s stubborn hesitation, Deborah responded, “Certainly I will go with you. But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (v. 9) Barak was going to see God’s victory but the credit would go to another.
Jesus, next time I am faced with a big challenge, give me the grace to willingly follow despite my hesitation.

The Power of Who

We all become like the people we spend time with. In a warning, the Bible states the principle as, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33) In an inspiring challenge, the Bible proclaims, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) The principle is the same, “Who we hang around with affects who we become.”
This is one of the major themes of the book of Judges. In chapter 3, we are reminded that:
• Our relationships shape our spiritual convictions. “They [the Israelites] took their [previous inhabitants of Canaan] daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.” (v. 6) It has long been known that men are greatly influenced by the women in their lives. Even in “modern times” studies show that men tend to change their behavior when they are around women so that they become less competitive, gentler in their conversation and more careful about their attitudes and behaviors. Women, on the other hand, do not change their ways of interacting and behaving much when they are around males. For the nation of Israel, this meant that the men shifted to the spiritual heritage of their wives much more often than the wives were won over.
On a side note, this is one of the reasons men get so angry with women. They are incredibly influenced by the most important women in their lives and they get defensive when that influence doesn’t feel right. Too often men then overreact. It is not right for us men to do this but it is a common reaction. It would be better for us to calmly communicate and learn to negotiate effectively but history has shown that it is an advanced skill for most men.
On another side note, we need to keep proclaiming for the benefit of those who are not married that “Who” you choose has the potential to determine “What” you will believe.
• Our relationships shape our morals. “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.” (v. 7) The people of Israel didn’t set out to make God angry and make bad choices. They didn’t make it their goal to be rebellious or “do evil.” They simply failed to see the consequences of being intimate with people who didn’t share their convictions in life. We are certainly on the earth to be an influence for good. If we want to maintain that influence, we need to choose as our closest allies those who share our moral convictions. It has always been my goal to be friends with people who disagree with me but I am determined that my closest friends will hold tightly to the lifestyle choices I depend on.
• Our relationships shape our opportunities. “He raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them . . . So the land had peace for forty years.” (v. 9-11) The people did better simply because of the presence of Othniel. He was a leader. He had a clear vision of what the nation ought to do. He was solid in his convictions, steady in his morals and sold out to the mission. The rest of the people gained confidence from him and discovered a new way of life.
Lord, remind us today that who we choose to align our lives with will greatly determine what we are capable of in life.

A Long View of Life

Galatians 6:9 reads, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” It has always been easy to apply this verse to my life as I struggle with the realities of life. Work requires patience and perseverance. Owning a home is a constant relationship of maintenance. Helping others is a rollercoaster of victories and disappointments. It would not be difficult to become selfish if I didn’t keep in mind that this phase of life is short and God is faithful to reward us at the proper time.
It hadn’t occurred to me until today that this is a commentary on God’s relationship with His people. Early in the book of Judges, we discover that the people God cared most about are a difficult lot. “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD . . . They forsook the LORD . . . They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the LORD’s anger.” (Judges 2:11-12) In an attempt to get their attention, “the LORD gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them.” (v. 14-15)
It would be easy to conclude at this point that the Israelites were not worth the effort. They were given the greatest privilege on earth. They knew God and had His personal protection, provision and partnership. They were guaranteed success and security as they cooperated with Him. Instead of embracing the privilege they despised it and sabotaged it. They rejected the One who truly loved them and had worked tirelessly to give them a good life. They trivialized the commitment they had made to one another to become involved in silly, self-destructive behavior. Even when life became hard for them, they refused to return to their senses.
Many of you who are reading this are starting to insert names because this scenario has been written over and over in the history of mankind. Spouses can be extremely difficult to love at various stages of their lives. Kids can be nearly impossible to raise at times. Friends can quickly change from comrades to competitors. As I work with people, the same question seems to rise regularly, “Should I hang in there with this person? Are they worth the effort?”
It is, without a doubt, an agonizing question that searches our souls to see how selfless we truly are. It has helped me to realize that God has gone before me in this venture. When the nation of Israel got to the point that “they were in great distress, then the LORD raised up judges.” (v. 15-16) He could have rejected them but instead He raised up judges. He could have given up on them but instead He raised up judges. And the people were ridiculous. “When the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors . . . They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.” (v. 19)
The question remains, why would God continue to love and protect these people? It was for the harvest! God knew that the Savior of the world would be born in the nation of Israel. Today they were hard to love but in due time they would become a blessing to the whole world.
Oh God, give us eyes to see the harvest when the ground seems too hard to plow and plant.

Sticky Influence

Over the years, I have developed an interest in helping people work through the major transition points of their lives. It has become evident that midlife is one of those developmental passages that we don’t talk enough about. We are all familiar with adolescence and resources abound for the retirement years but the preparation phase for the second half of life gets little attention. Within the last month I met a physician who said to me, “I think there should be a training course that everyone goes through as they approach midlife. So many people seem to just go crazy during that time.” The interesting thing about this statement is that we weren’t talking about midlife at the time. It had simply been on his mind and he wanted to talk about it.
I have discovered that this transition is all about influence. Since most of us anticipate living into our eighties (compared to life expectancy of early sixties during the 1960s), the influence curve of our lives has shifted. Our greatest potential for influence occurs now during the years from 50 to 70. Since I am in this stage of life, it has become a major theme in my heart. That is why I think Judges 2:10 stirred my heart when I read it this morning, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” Joshua had faithfully led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land. Along with Caleb, they unified the people with enthusiasm, direction and conviction. Their faith was real and their lifestyles reflected spiritual strength. The next generation didn’t catch it, however, and that bothers me. During my twenties and thirties, I was primarily concerned with my productivity. How was I going to make a living? How was I going to be productive enough to keep up with the needs of my family? How could I discover God’s will for my life?
The forties shifted my focus and I started asking different questions. How am I going to help others discover God’s will for their lives? How will the world be a better place because I was alive? How can I help my grandkids and great grandkids discover a vibrant faith and quality lives?
I believe Judges 2:10 contains the formula. First, I need to pray diligently for those I want to influence. The potential always exists for another generation to rise up who does not know the Lord. Loving God is always a matter of the heart that comes down to a personal decision by every individual. At some point, everyone I love will be confronted with the remarkable love and grace of Jesus. I can help them hear the message but I can’t decide for them. I have resorted, therefore, to begging God for the hearts of the next generations. I ask Him consistently to have an encounter with each of them and I pray they will have soft hearts when it happens.
The second part of the formula is to tell the stories because the potential also exists that the next generation will not know what God has done. Part of this is a matter of the heart but part of it is in how we tell our history. When the things God has done are told with a context of “I remember when . . .” they are relegated to history. It is easy to conclude that He used to do those things or He had to do those things because we needed more help than the modern world. The stories ought to be told with an attitude of “let me tell you who God is.” His working in our lives is simply a preview of what He is going to do in their lives. As a result, we ought to work on telling the stories with a sense of anticipation and enthusiasm. The stories have influence when they are aimed at building anticipation of what He is going to do next rather than on what He used to do.
Lord, help us live in such a way that those who come behind us know you and the way you work!