An Honest Approach to the Mystery of Suffering

Topical Scripture: Psalm 3

It’s been a hard week in the news. From a three-year-old boy attacked with acid to flooding victims on the East Coast to shootings in Canada to wildfires in Greece and bombings in Pakistan, the headlines have been painful.

When we learn of such unfairness, we want to ask how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow this world to be the way it is. If I were God, infants would never be attacked; shootings and bombings would never occur; fires and floods would not happen. I’m sure you’d say the same thing.

Before we study this week’s psalm, let’s explore the issue we need it to address.

Hard answers to a hard question

I know the traditional theological responses: One, we live in a fallen world. In the Garden of Eden, storms didn’t rage, and wildfires didn’t kill people. Two, Satan is alive and well. As the Bible says, he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Three, people can misuse their freedom. It’s not God’s fault if people choose to attack children and adults. Four, God suffers as we suffer and promises to give us all we need for the hard days. Five, he redeems for greater good all that he allows.

However, if you’re like me, there’s a “but” in the back of your mind. I understand all of that, but still—if I were God, it wouldn’t be like this. If God can still work miracles, why didn’t he on the East Coast and in Greece? If he’s more powerful than Satan, why does he let the devil steal, kill, and destroy?

I understand the importance of free will, but the Lord sometimes prevents the consequences of misused freedom, as when he freed Peter from Herod’s prison and Paul from his Philippian jail. He will help us through hard days, but we’d rather not face them at all. He will redeem what he allows, but we’d rather he not allow it.

Now consider another factor: It’s illogical for God to make a world in which there is human free will but no evil and suffering. If we don’t have evil as an option, how are we free to choose? If there are no consequences to wrong choices, did we really have a choice?

But that’s just what he will do for us in heaven. We will still be ourselves—even more fully ourselves than on earth. But in heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

If there, why not here?

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know. I don’t know why we can have free will in a perfect paradise in heaven but not on earth. I don’t know why God sometimes intervenes miraculously but not always. I don’t know why three-year-olds get attacked and families die in fires and bystanders get shot.

I can choose to let the mystery of suffering drive me to atheism, concluding that there cannot be a biblical God in a universe like ours. But then I must account for all the good that makes no sense in such a godless world.

I must account for the astounding beauty and complexity of creation that so surpasses supposed evolutionary purposes. I must account for the goodness of people who sacrifice so unselfishly for each other. I must account for the basic human drive for morality that makes no sense apart from a Creator who bestowed this impulse.

And if there is no God, I must account for the overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture, the existence of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and the transformed lives of his followers. I must account for the billions of lives changed by his saving grace.

And I must admit that by definition, my finite, fallen mind cannot comprehend the nature and purposes of an infinite, perfect Deity. Just as a mathematician could not explain calculus to my four-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is!), a God as described in the Bible could not fully explain his ways to me.

I am left with a binary decision. Either choice requires a commitment that transcends the evidence. The universe is not so evil that its depravity proves God does not exist. It is not so good that its virtues prove he does.

So, it seems to me that our decision when facing the mystery of suffering is practical rather than theoretical. We can let suffering drive us further from God, or we can use it to draw us closer to him. Neither decision can be proven before it is chosen. It is as though we’re facing two roads and cannot know their destination until we travel on them.

Here’s why we should choose the road of faith.

Three steps to the grace of God

Psalm 3 is one of fourteen psalms linked to actual events in David’s life. As we will see, the setting of this psalm makes it especially relevant to this message.

Note the presence of three “Selah”s. This is a musical term instructing the worship leader and congregation to pause, reflect on what has just been said, and praise God as a result. We will use them to divide the psalm into three sections.

Tell God about your suffering

David begins: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me” (v. 1). The setting explains his suffering.

Psalm 3 was composed by King David after his son Absalom staged a successful revolt against him. This was the greatest crisis of his life. The king was forced to flee Jerusalem, with no guarantee that he would return to his throne or even survive the night.

Things were so bad that Absalom’s armies were taunting David: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’. Selah” (v. 2). Note the three-fold repetition of “many” in these two verses, emphasizing the danger of his situation.

Rather than allow this crisis to drive David from God, he used it to seek God. He turned to his Lord in honesty, describing the peril and grief of the moment.

Unless your son has rebelled against you and sought to kill you, you have not met circumstances like these. But Psalm 3 is in the Bible for all who face suffering and tragedy of any kind. Its beginning is God’s invitation to turn to him with our suffering in honesty and pain.

Not because we’re telling God what he doesn’t know, but because we’re admitting our need of his provision and power.

Turn to God in faith

In spite of his peril, David did not give up on his Lord: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (v. 3). “But you” is emphatic in the Hebrew.

Note the present tense. Despite all appearances, despite the dangers he faces and the peril of the moment, David chose to believe that God is a “shield about me” who bestows glory on him and lifts his head when it falls in discouragement.

How can this be so? “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah” (v. 4). “His holy hill” refers to God’s presence prior to the building of the Jerusalem temple. It was from his high and holy presence that God heard his suffering child and answered him.

Our circumstances change nothing about God. Whatever he was before Absalom rebelled, our Lord is after his rebellion. If he was our shield yesterday, he is our shield today.

Because David prayed, God could answer. A doctor cannot serve a patient who will not seek her help.

Act in trust and courage

As a result, David testified, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Sleep was the most dangerous and vulnerable time in war, but after David prayed to God and claimed the fact that the Lord was his shield and protector, he “lay down and slept.” When he woke again the next morning, he discovered that the Lord had sustained him.

His experience of God’s provision in the present encouraged him to trust God with the future: “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v. 6). Now he could pray specifically, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (v. 7a).

He could claim his Lord’s omnipotence: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7b). God can do what David cannot do. But he can act only if David will ask.

David concluded: “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (v. 8). Salvation “belongs” to God and thus comes only from him. If we will not turn to him, we cannot have what he alone possesses. But if we will use our suffering as a bridge of faith, we will find his “blessing” on the other side.


Who is your Absalom? What suffering are you facing today? Choose with David to turn to God in honesty and faith, and you will be able to act in faith and courage.

There are some lessons that can be learned only the hard way. One of them is that God provides in the depths of life’s greatest challenges.

And there are some decisions that can only be made in hard times. One of them is the choice to turn to God in honesty and faith. When we do, we discover that we can act in trust and courage.

An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

So can we be. This is the promise and the invitation of God.

Blessed is the Nation Whose God is the Lord

Topical Scripture: Psalm 33:12

Welcome to the Fourth of July weekend. Last year, over the holiday weekend, Americans spent $6.9 billion on food. We consumed 150 million hot dogs—that’s enough hot dogs to stretch from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. We also ate 700 million pounds of chicken.

In addition, we spent $825 million on fireworks, and we imported $5.4 million of American flags, most of them from China.

As we celebrate the 242nd birthday of this nation we love, I’ve been thinking about a single verse in Scripture. God’s word states: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).

The word “blessed” means “to be envied, to be so blessed that others want what you have been given.” “The Lord” is Yahweh, the personal name of God himself. We all have some god, something that is our highest priority, something in which we trust above all else. When a nation puts God first, trusts first in the Lord, surrenders to him as King and Lord, that nation is blessed so that it is the envy of others.

This weekend we will sing and hear “God Bless America,” not just at baseball games but at parades, concerts, and across the land. Can God bless America? I’d like us to remember four stories, then see how they impact our story today.

Four crises

Scene one: The children of Israel are on their exodus from Egypt to their Promised Land when they find themselves against the Red Sea. The Egyptian army—the largest and most powerful the world has ever seen—is marching up behind them. The sea is before them. If they go forward, they will drown. If they turn and fight, they will be slaughtered. If they surrender, they will be enslaved again. What should they do?

Scene two: The children of Israel are standing on the edge of the flooded Jordan River. It is fifteen feet deep and as much as a hundred feet across. If they go forward, they will drown. If they retreat, they will return to the wilderness and face enemies on every side. If they stay where they are, they will use up the meager resources available to them and they will starve to death. What should they do?

Scene three: David has been anointed by the prophet Samuel as Israel’s next king. Now he finds himself facing the giant warrior Goliath. The most specific description of anyone in the Bible is devoted to this man, highlighting the crisis David faces. 1 Samuel 17 says he is “six cubits and a span” in height (v. 4), over nine feet tall. Such height is not impossible even today, as proven by a man named Robert Pershing Wadlow. He stood eight feet eleven inches tall at the time of his death on July 15, 1940 at the age of twenty-two.

Goliath’s armor weighs 125 pounds. His spear’s point weighs over thirty pounds. He marches against the shepherd boy with his shield bearer before him to give added protection. If David runs into battle, he will be killed. If he runs away, he will lose face and never be king. What should he do?

Scene four: It is July 4, 1776. Congress has officially adopted a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The colonial population is outnumbered three to one by England. Their army never numbered more than 17,000 men, compared with nearly 50,000 battle-hardened British troops. The American navy consists of eight frigates; the British have the greatest naval force the world had ever seen. In other words, the British are the world’s greatest superpower and the Americans seemingly have no chance.

Four responses

What did Moses and the Israelites do at the Red Sea?

Here’s the biblical text:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses (Exodus 14:21–31).

What did the Israelites do at the flooded Jordan River?

As soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), 16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. 17 Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan (Joshua 3:15–17).

What did David do when facing Goliath?

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled (1 Samuel 17:45–51).

What did the Americans do when facing the world’s greatest superpower in 1776?

Earlier that year, the Second Continental Congress proclaimed March 16 a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer. This was the purpose of the day: “That we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”

This faith commitment stood on the foundation of others.

When Christopher Columbus set foot on land in the New World, these were his first words: “Blessed be the light of day, and the Holy Cross we say; and the Lord of Verity, and the Holy Trinity.”

The first set of written laws for the New World was the Mayflower Compact, ratified in 1620. Some have called it “the first American Constitution.” John Quincy Adams called it the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. It states that the pilgrims undertook their voyage “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.” According to William Bradford, their governor, when they came ashore “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”

Next came the “Fundamental Orders” of 1639, the first written Constitution in the New World. Its preamble states the colonists’ purpose: “To maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess.”

Now, as our first Commander in Chief sought to lead his army to victory over the mighty British forces, this is what he told his troops:

“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own. . . . The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. . . . Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”


Our four stories illustrate our text: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Let’s be clear: The Lord does not love America more than he loves other peoples. His grace is for us all: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God will bless any nation whose people make him their Lord. In fact, he seeks to offer such blessing today: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).

But it is also a fact that the first Americans positioned their nation to be blessed. They stepped into covenant relationship with the Lord of the universe. They sought his favor with their faith and their lives. Our first Commander-in-Chief and president did the same.

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Can God bless America today? More personally, can he bless you? What challenges are you facing on this Fourth of July weekend? What decisions do you need to make? What problems do you need to resolve? As you stand before your Red Sea, your Jordan River, your Goliath, your superpower, will you trust in him or in yourself?

The American Automobile Association predicts that a record 46.7 million Americans will travel over the holiday weekend. That’s the highest number since AAA started tracking Fourth of July travel eighteen years ago.

Many of them will spend time at a lake or on the beach. There are many to choose from.

There are 307 million lakes in the world. And that doesn’t include the 1,450,000,000,000,000,000 tons of water in the world’s oceans. And that’s just on this tiny planet, one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in our universe.

And God made all of that. Now, what’s your problem?

Freedom is Never Free

Topical Scripture: Judges 2:6-16

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Independence Day is always a deeply moving experience for me. I love the flags on display, the parades, the concerts. Each year our nation looks to our birth with gratitude, so we can look to our future with commitment.

And we remember that freedom is never free.

Edward Gibbon explained the fall of the Roman Empire this way: “In the end, they wanted security more than they wanted freedom.” It has been noted that “following the path of least resistance is what makes rivers and men crooked.”

By contrast, Andrew Jackson observed that “one man with courage makes a majority.”

As we continue our exploration of Judges, we come today to a time when one man made a majority that saved his nation. On the Sunday before America’s Independence Day, it seems appropriate that we remember such courage and its value for our nation. And that we choose it wherever we need the power of God today.

Prepare as though everything depended on you

I once heard a preacher describe his work this way: prepare as though everything depended on you, then preach as though everything depended on God. First, we’ll explore Gideon’s preparations, and learn their practical lessons for us. Then we’ll discuss God’s response, and the ways he still works today.

As the story begins, “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands” (Judges 7:2). When was the last time a general faced this problem? Imagine a pastor saying to his staff, “We have too much money for our programs this year.” Or a mission leader saying to missionaries, “We have too many people for that mission field.” Yet that is precisely what God said to what must have been an astounded Gideon.

Remember the size of their foe: “The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (v. 12). No wonder the place where the Hebrew army camped came to be known as the spring of “Harod” (v. 1), a word which means “timidity” in Hebrew.

Camels were the desert tanks of the ancient world. Bands of marauders on camelback were too fast and strong for foot soldiers; such an advantage was the main reason the Midianites had become so oppressive over Israel (cf. Judges 6:3–5). Picture a vast army filling an entire valley, its tanks as numerous as sand on a seashore, and you’ll get a sense of Gideon’s problem. Any wise general would want all the men he could muster in attacking such a foe.

But the outcome of the battle was not in question, for God had already promised, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (Judg. 6:16). In question was whether his people would learn something significant from the victory they were about to gain. Whether they would return to their pattern of sin and its tragic consequences or learn to trust in the one true Lord once and for all. Whether they would follow Gideon or follow God.

The Lord’s motive was clear: he would work “in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (Judges 7:2b). God will not share his glory. To allow us to trust in anyone but him would be to encourage idolatry. His glory is always to our good.

So he instructed Gideon to reduce the size of his army in two ways. First, he was to release any of the men who “trembles with fear” (v. 3), reducing the 32,000-member force to 10,000. Such fear would discourage the rest of the army: “Is any man afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too” (Deuteronomy 20:8). And such numbers would take the glory from God.

But still the army was sufficient to believe that it won the victory in its own strength, so the Lord required a second test. He led them to the spring of Harod; those who “lapped with their hands to their mouths” were to stay, while those who knelt at the water and drank with their mouths were dismissed (Judges 7:6). The former were more ready for battle, with one hand at their sword. The latter were on their hands and knees, easy victims for attack. This second reduction left Gideon with three hundred soldiers, who picked up the provisions and trumpets of the others (v. 8).

I stood at this very spot the last time I was in Israel. The area is unprotected and susceptible to assault. The very act of leading an army, already reduced by 66 percent, to this unsafe place where they could be reduced by another 97 percent, was implausible in the extreme.

From Gideon’s example we learn to listen to God before we act for him. His ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8).

And we learn to be obedient with today and trust God for tomorrow. Nothing of Gideon’s preparations made any military sense. To dismiss 22,000 fearful soldiers was bad enough, but to release 9,700 men who were ready to fight to the death was to commit battlefield suicide. But if Gideon had not obeyed the Lord’s direction, God would not have given him the victory.

Obedience is always the key to understanding. We stand up to Pharaoh before God defeats his armies. We step into the Jordan River before God stops its flood. We march around Jericho before it falls. We trust God in the lion’s den before he stops the lion’s mouth. We praise him before the fiery furnace and meet him in its flames. We must get out of the boat before we can walk on the water to Jesus.

Who are your Midianites? What battles are you facing this week? Have you listened to God? Have you obeyed God? If so, you’re ready to fight on his side. And he hasn’t lost a battle yet.

Fight as though all depended on God

Now Gideon and his tiny army were ready for battle. They were outnumbered beyond belief. But they had the high ground at the hill of Moreh, so that “the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley” (Judges 7:8). And they were prepared to attack “at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard” (v. 19). The Jews divided in the night into three “watches”: sunset to 10 p.m., 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and 2 a.m. to sunrise. So, the Midianite army would have just gone to sleep when the battle began. The strategic advantage was Gideon’s.

These decisions did not cause the rout of the Midianite armies, however. A crucial strategy was giving each of the three hundred men a trumpet to blow and an empty jar with torches inside to hold (v. 16). The “trumpet” they used was a ram’s horn, a very loud instrument (cf. Exodus 19:13, where a single horn was loud enough to signal to the entire Hebrew nation that it was safe to approach Mt. Sinai).

The fact that the entire original army of 32,000 needed only three hundred trumpets indicates the strength of their sound. An opposing army hearing such a loud blast, right on their camp, would obviously assume a much larger force than Gideon’s army possessed.

Like the trumpets, the torches were carried only by a small number of troops in a conventional army. They made it difficult for the soldier to wield a sword or shield and exposed his position to enemy attack. Nighttime hand-to-hand battles were more effectively waged in the darkness as well. A large number of torches would be counterproductive to the army’s success.

What torches the army required were kept in clay jars, so they would remain lit but their flames low; in this way the army could creep up in the night undetected. When they broke the jars, the sudden flames surrounding the Midianite camp would be a second indication of a massive army on their perimeter.

Note that the Hebrew army held their torches in their left hands and their trumpets in their right hands (v. 20a). They had no sword or shield in hand when they began their battle, only the sword of their mouths: “they shouted, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon'” (v. 20b). Gideon’s army was reduced by 99 percent, and those who remained for the battle were completely unarmed. Has any army ever waged a more unconventional battle?

What was the result? The entire Midianite army was routed. They had no time to light their own torches and were too far from Gideon’s to see those around them. And so, they attacked each other in the night, probably assuming that the Hebrews had run into their camp and were at their side (v. 22). Not to mention a likely stampede on the part of the frightened, massive camel herd.

Those who escaped the camp slaughter fled into the Jordan valley, where they could have retreated to the south, crossed the river, and regrouped. So “Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites” (v. 23). These tribes were located in the area of the battle and could join in the military pursuit. Clearly an army of 300 could not defeat the Midianite forces in open terrain, but the reassembled Israelite battle forces were sufficient to the task.

Still the Midianites had a lead on their pursuers, so Gideon sent messenger to the hill country of Ephraim to the south, calling them into the battle (v. 24). Ephraimite soldiers got to the Jordan ahead of the Midianites and cut off their retreat. When the fleeing Midianite soldiers got to the place they thought would be safe, they found themselves opposed by an army which now possessed the numbers to defeat them (v. 25).

Meanwhile, Gideon and his army of three hundred were not finished with their unlikely victory. They crossed the Jordan further north, pursuing the Midianites who had fled that way (Judges 8:4). They found the remaining enemy force of 15,000 men, fell upon the unsuspecting army, routed them and killed their kings (vv. 10–12, 21).

What was the final military tally? The Midianites lost more than 135,000 men (Judges 8:10), defeated by an army which began their assault with 300 in number. The Midianite threat against Israel was destroyed, finally and forever. All because one man was willing to prepare as God directed and fight as God empowered. And God was glorified by one of the most stunning, unlikely victories in military history.


What army has you outnumbered today? Where are your class members fighting against long odds? Have you been defeated by temptation, discouraged by hardship, or isolated by loneliness?

Listen to God and do as he says. Make your preparations to be used by his Spirit and for his glory. Then step into the battle, trusting him to keep his promises. Whatever he has said, he will do. Wherever he has called you, he will go before you.

A torch and trumpet in the hand of a soldier of God will defeat an army of swords and shields, every time. “One man with courage makes a majority.”

Just be sure you’re the one.

God Has a Dream

Topical Scripture: Judges 13:1-7

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Lately, the heavens have been especially eloquent.

In recent days, the moon and Venus have been the brightest objects in the nighttime sky. Though they are millions of miles apart, they seemed to nearly touch each other.

By the end of July, Mars will come closer to Earth than at any time between 2003 and 2035. On Sunday, the night sky will feature (from left to right) Venus, the star Spica, the planet Jupiter, the moon, the planet Saturn, and the planet Mars.

When we look at the sky, we are reminded of the omnipotence of our Creator and the finitude of our lives. And yet, our God loves us so much he considered our eternal lives worth the death of his Son. Even while ruling the entire universe, he still has a “good and acceptable and perfect” will for each of us (Romans 12:2).

Is his goal for your life the same as your goal for your life?

Years ago, I found this wise saying: “If you don’t have a goal, you’ll never reach it.” What’s your empowering life goal? Do you have a defining, catalytic purpose for your present and future? A “north on the compass” which guides your steps?

God has a dream for your life and work, your ministry and responsibilities. He wants you to know his dream and invites you to partner with him in fulfilling it. Let’s learn how.

Expect sin to lead to judgment (Judges 13:1)

The Judges cycle continues: “Again the Israelites did evil the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years” (Judges 13:1 (NIV)).

Who were the Philistines? Why did God use them to bring judgment against his people?

The Philistines were a sea people who migrated to the Mediterranean cost, settling from Joppa to south of the Gaza area. As this Maritime Plain was extremely fruitful, its inhabitants developed into a very significant nation and military power.

They originated on the island of Caphtor (Amos 9:7; Jeremiah 47:4), a location usually identified with Crete. Some scholars identify them as Indo-Europeans. According to Egyptian depictions, they were tall and Hellenic in appearance. They invaded Egypt during the time of Rameses III (1195-64 BC), but were repelled. They eventually came to southwest Canaan, where they settled.

Their chief god was Dagon (Judges 16:23). He was thought to be the father of Baal, the god of weather and rain. Dagon was represented as half-man, half-fish (dag means “fish” in Hebrew). Since the people lived on the coast and prospered by fishing, he was seen as the deity they had to honor in order to prosper.

Because of their expertise with iron works (cf. 1 Samuel 13:19–22), their armies would prove to be Israel’s most consistent and formidable adversary during the period of the Judges and into the reign of David (1 Samuel 17–18). They were still a problem for Uzziah and Hezekiah, three centuries later (2 Chronicles 26:3–7).

For forty years before Samson’s birth, the people suffered under their oppression (v. 1). This was the longest period of foreign occupation in the book of Judges. And it reminds us of the human propensity to return to sin again and again.

Scripture warns us, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Yet we see this pattern again and again in Judges: the people sin and face punishment, then repent.

And we see it in our lives as well. Here’s the reason: according to Jesus, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). That’s why we must turn to God immediately, seeking his forgiving grace (1 John 1:9) and asking him to break the chains of sin that enslave us.

If we don’t, we may change our behavior, but we will not and cannot change our nature.

Only Jesus can give us a new heart. Only he can make us a new person. That’s why time with him is our best antidote to temptation. Charles Spurgeon: “We know of no cure for the love of evil in a Christian like abundant intercourse with the Lord Jesus. Dwell much with Him, and it is impossible for you to be at peace with sin.”

Are you dwelling “much with him”?

Expect God to work in surprising ways (Judges 13:2–5)

God wants to deliver his people from themselves and from their enemies. But he works in ways we seldom would anticipate or expect. If we limit his answers to our prayers to what we want him to do, we frustrate his providence and miss his omnipotence.

God’s story of redemption begins with a man named Manoah and his unnamed wife. He was “of the tribe of the Danites,” which had originally been assigned the coastal plain where the Philistines now lived (Joshua 19:40–48). When this territory “was lost to them” (v. 47), they moved to a region further north.

However, some apparently remained behind in their original land. Samson was descended from such a brave family.

Here was the tragedy that made his birth so surprising: His mother “was sterile and remained childless” (Judges 13:2). This was an unspeakable tragedy for a woman of their day. They did not understand the various reasons why a couple may not be able to conceive or know of medical options for such a problem.

So it was for Sarah (Genesis 11:30; 16:1); Rebekah (Genesis 25:21); Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2); and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:31). Many naively and unkindly attributed this painful condition to the judgment of God.

But not God: “The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son'” (Judges 13:3). God knows our individual need and specific problem far better than we do. Our prayer does not provide information he did not know, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

God’s dream for this faithful couple was simple: “Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazarite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (vv. 4–6).

What was a Nazarite?

“Nazarite” translates the Hebrew word for “separated” or “dedicated.” Numbers 6 provides the requirements for those who would live in this unusual status: they were to abstain from anything that comes from the grapevine, never shave their hair, and refuse to touch any dead body. By these actions they would be set apart from normal life, both in activity and appearance, to be used completely by the Lord for his purposes.

Such vows were typically temporary in duration, with requirements to be fulfilled when their commitment was completed (Numbers 6:13-20). But Samson was to be “a Nazarite of God from birth until the day of his death” (Judges 13:7). Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15) were similarly dedicated to God for their entire lifetimes.

Why were Samson’s parents specifically ordered to eat nothing unclean? The Mosaic law was specific regarding kosher dietary laws. All of Israel was to heed these restrictions. Clearly many did not, for this couple was specifically called to such obedience. They could transgress no command of God’s word concerning their diet and, by extension, their lifestyles. They were to set an example for their son, as we are for our children today.

Note that God’s command to Samson’s mother is clear indication that life begins at conception. If Samson would not become a Nazarite until he was born, why would it matter what his mother ate during her pregnancy? We understand the health benefits of such a diet today, but they had no such conception. This mother was asked to keep a Nazarite diet for the sake of her unborn son, because he “shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb” (v. 5).

Here’s the point for us: God can use people the world has abandoned to fulfill a purpose the world would not imagine. He used a barren woman to conceive a future deliverer of the nation. Her faithful obedience to his word and will led to the birth of one of the most remarkable men in all of Scripture.

Embrace God’s dream as yours

As a result of her obedience, “the woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Maheneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol” (vv. 24–25). “Samson” means “sun” or “brightness,” a hopeful prediction for their son’s future.

God has a similar dream for you today. Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life.

Jackson Pollock’s most famous “drip painting,” titled “No. 5,” sold for $140 million. Mark Rothko’s most famous painting, titled “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $86.9 million. Neither convey objective truth. Both ask you to decide what the paintings mean to you.

By contrast, God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Even though they were enslaved in Babylon, with no hope and no future.

God dreamed that Noah would save the human race. He dreamed that the childless Abraham would be the father of the Messiah. He dreamed that the shepherd Moses would give his laws to the world. He dreamed that the young shepherd boy David would be king of his people.

He dreamed that the fishermen Peter, James, and John would lead his global church. He dreamed that the persecuting Saul of Tarsus would take his word across the Empire. He dreamed that the imprisoned John would write his Revelation. And so it was.


God has a dream for you. For every day there is a dream. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how healthy and prosperous you are or aren’t. If God had a dream of greatness for an unborn boy, he has dreams for you.

How can you know it?

First, choose his dream. Decide that you will do what he wants you to do. Decide that his purpose is your best purpose.

C. S. Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite you is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Second, ask to know his purpose. He will make his dream known to you if you want to know it. But he will give only what you will receive.

Jesus promised us: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8). However, we have not because we ask not (James 4:2).

Third, listen for his purpose. Your Father will speak to you intuitively, his Spirit with your spirit, if you will listen to his word and world. If you will take time to be still and know he is God (Psalm 46:10). If you will give his Spirit space to speak to your heart.

He will speak to you pragmatically through your circumstances, open and closed doors, opportunities for service which he clearly blesses. He will speak to you rationally, as you read his word and apply its truth to your life. Learn your spiritual gifts and find effective ways to use them. Love God with all your mind (Matthew 22:37), reasoning together with your Creator (Isaiah 1:18).

God wants you to know his dream, more than you may want to know it. When last did you ask God to reveal his dream and will for your life and day, and listen to his response?

Amy Carmichael:

Strength of my heart, I need not fail,

Not mine to fear but to obey;

With such a Leader, who could quail?

Thou art as Thou wert yesterday!

Strength of my heart, I rest in Thee,

Fulfill Thy purposes through me.

Will you make her prayer yours today?

How Not to Do the Will of God

Topical Scripture: Judges 11

The big news of the week was President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court. For the next several weeks, we will learn a great deal about Judge Kavanaugh. Those who support his nomination will tell his story very differently from those who oppose it.

By contrast, one of the remarkable facts about Scripture is the objective transparency with which it tells its stories. A less honest biographer would have left Noah’s drunkenness out of his narrative and Bathsheba out of David’s. Not everything the Bible describes is behavior it prescribes.

A prime example is the judge we will meet this week. If you want to learn how not to do the will of God, study his example. Jephthah makes two mistakes that we are prone to repeat today. But we can choose to make his negative story into our positive story of faith today.

Where do you need to know God’s will today? Here’s what not to do, and thus by contrast, what to do.

Become a prisoner of your past (Judges 11:1–11)

Our story begins, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (Judges 11:1). “Mighty” translates a Hebrew word meaning “powerful” or “brave.” This man was a renowned fighter of great reputation. What’s more, his father was Gilead, who was the head of their entire clan.

However, his mother was a prostitute. As a result, his brothers sought to disinherit him: “And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman'” (v. 2).

As a result, “Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob” (v. 3a). “Fled” implies that he ran from them, perhaps indicating that they sought to kill him. He chose to live in the “land of Tob,” a pagan area east of the Sea of Galilee. “Lived” means to “settle down” or “make a place your home.” This decision may indicate that his mother was a Canaanite and that he fled to her relatives or acquaintances.

While he was there, “worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him” (v. 3b). “Worthless” translates a Hebrew description for someone who is impoverished and reckless. They “collected around him,” indicating that they joined him rather than him joining them. Apparently, they became a band of bandits together, taking advantage of Jephthah’s superior fighting skills and marauding in the region.

The story turns when “after a time the Ammonites made war against Israel” (v. 4). These were descendants of Ammon, living as a people east of the Jordan River. The threat was so severe that “when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob” (v. 5). This must have been humiliating for them, but their action further demonstrates Jephthah’s remarkable military skill and leadership.

The elders made Jephthah an offer: “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites” (v. 6). They were in essence asking him to take charge of their military but not serve as their judge or national leader. Jephthah agreed only if they would make him their ruler: “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head” (v. 9).

The elders were so desperate that they agreed (v. 10). So the people “made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah” (v. 11). The latter statement is interesting, since we have no indication that there was a sacred shrine at Mizpah. It seems that Jephthah took his vow of judgeship in the presence of the army encamped there, not before the Lord at his place of worship.

Note that at no point in this narrative did anyone consult the Lord. Not Jephthah’s family before they drove him away, or Jephthah when he fled to a pagan land. Not the elders when they faced the Ammonite threat or when they enlisted Jephthah to lead them. Not Jephthah when they came to him or when he entered the judgeship.

This is as secular a story as you are likely to find.

From this part of the narrative, we learn that if you want to fail the will of God, become a prisoner of your past. Decide that what you have been is all you can ever be.

And refuse to consult the Lord with your future. Follow your own initiative and make your own plan. Decide that you know best and follow your direction rather than the Lord.

But know this: self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide. Jephthah’s lack of submission to the will of God will cost him more than he can imagine. The same is true for us.

Bargaining with the God of the universe (vv. 29–40)

Jephthah tried to reason with the Ammonites, but they refused his call to compromise and peace (vv. 12–28). So he was forced to lead his nation into battle, and “the Spirit of the LORD was upon him” (v. 29).

This is a common Old Testament phenomenon. The same happened with Joshua (Numbers 27:18), David (1 Samuel 16:12–13), and Saul (1 Samuel 10:10). Through the book of Judges, we find the Spirit coming “upon” various leaders.

But this was a specific, one-time empowering by the Spirit for a particular purpose. In the New Testament, we find that the Spirit comes “into” us as Christians (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19–20) and never leaves us. This indwelling of the Spirit came as a result of Jesus’ atoning death for us.

In our text, the Spirit came “upon” Jephthah to lead and strengthen him. However, such empowering wasn’t enough for him to be confident of victory in the upcoming battle. So he made a horrible, tragic mistake: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (vv. 30–31).

Nowhere in Scripture does the Lord ask us to make such a deal with him. He is not a God we can coerce by bribery. He is not a peer but the Lord of the universe. We cannot bargain with his omnipotence. Nowhere did Jephthah pray before making this commitment to God, or he would have been instructed by the Almighty not to utter such a foolish vow.

Jephthah and the army then defeated the Ammonites (vv. 32–33). But when he returned home, “behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter” (v. 34).

Rather than focus on her plight, Jephthah focused on himself: “As soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me'” (v. 35a). His reaction transferred blame from himself to her, as though it was her fault that she came out of the house to greet him.

He explained: “For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35b). Note that he did not go to God with his dilemma. If he had, God would have made clear to him that this vow was not of God and that this father did not need to fulfill it.

Nor did Jephthah teach his daughter good theology. Her response, while noble, was also unbiblical and made without first consulting God. She said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites” (v. 36).

She asked only that she be allowed two months with her friends to “weep for my virginity” (v. 37), a request he granted (v. 38). The word translated “virginity” is better rendered “motherhood.” She was grieving because she would not live to bear children.

Then, “at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow that he had made” (v. 39a). As a result, Jephthah’s family line died with her. But her story lived on: “She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (vv. 39b–40).

To recap: Jephthah did not consult God before going into battle, even though the Spirit of God had come “upon” him to empower him. He did not consult God before making his rash vow with him. He did not consult God when his beloved daughter appeared before him. Nor did she consult God when learning of her fate.

Jephthah made a bargain with the King of the universe. This is always bad theology and a tragic way to relate to our loving Father.


Jephthah refused to ask God to redeem his past or to lead his future. As a result, he became one of the most tragic figures in Scripture.

It does not have to be so for us. Nothing you have done in the past is beyond God’s redemption in the present and providence for the future. What matters is not where you begin the race, but where you end. The key is to seek God’s will and purpose at every step along the way.

Robert McFarlane was Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corps, and the architect of the Iran-Contra plan. When his plan failed, Mr. McFarlane resigned his position and later attempted suicide.

I heard him speak several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast. He told our group his story. He described the incredible power he had achieved, the ladder to success he had climbed. But then Bud McFarlane told us with tears in his eyes that it was nothing. He got to the top, and there was nothing there. Only after he fell off that ladder did he discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall—that life really consists of loving God and loving people. Nothing else.

Then he discovered that God could redeem his past and use his present for a redemptive future. So, this man of such power and significance dedicated the rest of his life to telling his story and calling people to trust God with their lives.

You can follow the example of Jephthah or the will of Jesus, but you cannot do both.