By Neil Earle
As I write, Oklahoma and the Midwest are being pummeled by monster tornadoes that we have just had to fly over twice to visit my wife’s family in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a memorable week, coming and going.
It is astounding how we human beings can trust airline pilots, meteorologists and TV weathermen with our very lives as we leap from airport to airport at speeds of 600 mph at 35,000 feet in the ether. But when we Christians speak about faith and trust in God the whole scene can seem so remote and unreal to many people.
Five times the Bible says “the just shall live by faith.” And the most common command in both Old and New Testaments is “fear not.”
“Fear not.” That seems like a good word for living Biblically along tornado alley these days and in the dangerous fires bedeviling our own state of California. How can we get more of that faith that saves and delivers, the life strategy that will help us meet every obstacle circumstances keep throwing at us?
This is always a good subject for a church to ask itself. For if we are to please God we must believe He exists and then seek Him diligently (Hebrews 11:6). But how can we trust this invisible God and how can we be motivated to keep him before us?
The good news is that God is much more dedicated to developing saving faith in us then we are ourselves. Sometimes a case history, a field study can make things real, for faith can be a tricky subject. Sometimes Jesus said “according to your faith” and other times he raised dead people who had no faith at all. So as a case study let me present…Gideon from the biblical Book of Judges.
Gideon is one of the heroes of faith mentioned in what we call “the Faith Chapter,” God’s Hall of Fame (Hebrews 11:32). Gideon’s life shows us how to go from being a Zero in faith to, just maybe, a Hero, at least in our public “circle of influence” where God wants us to shine the light of his grace.
Gideon lived about the 1200s BC in ancient Israel. The biblical Book of Judges describes the careers of 11 or 12 “deliverers” from oppression that God raised up when Israel had got themselves in trouble with their neighbors. The word means more like an emergency sheriff or marshal appointed like in the Wild West. The pattern in the Book of Judges has been described as Israel’s “saw tooth history” – they sinned, God allowed neighboring nations to invade, they cried out to God and he sent them a deliverer.
This is the pattern when we first meet Gideon in Judges 6:1-10. The Midianites and their allies from the desert regions totally dominated Israel with their highly mobile camel forces. Camels gave them the advantage of being a swift cavalry swooping in from the heights and after several years of this the Israelites were hiding in the hills and caves. This was particularly true in the rich plain region of northern Israel which was the nation’s breadbasket. Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress when the Angel of the Lord met him. Winepresses were recesses cut from the hills and offered some secrecy, which is why Gideon was there.
The first thing we see in Judges 6:11 is the Angel of the Lord appearing to encourage him and addressing him as a “mighty warrior.” Yet Gideon – like Moses – fiercely objects to his commission from the Lord Yahweh. He retorts in typical “oh, yeah” mode – “the Lord has abandoned us” (verse 13).
Now that’s starting at a pretty low level of faith. But that’s the way it sometimes goes. Fortunately God is merciful. He doesn’t judge quickly. Just notice Lesson Number One – he is very patient with Gideon – and with us!
The Lord persists in giving Gideon strong encouragement to believe but Gideon protests that no one will follow him – he is from the smallest tribe, and his family is poor (6:15). This is an exaggeration as we will see but again – how human! When we are challenged to take a new step or face a new problem in life it is often our weaknesses and insecurities that come bubbling to the fore. Not only that but our God has this habit of calling the most unlikely people to do his bidding but he promises to equip us for the task (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Next step? Gideon asks for a sign.
Quite often in the Bible and in pastoral work people who ask for a sign are usually weak in faith. The Bible says we “walk by faith not by sight.” We think seeing is believing,” said one pastor,” when the truth is seeing is merely seeing and believing is believing. They are two quite different things.” After all, if we only go by what we see we wouldn’t believe in atoms, the most powerful particles we know.
But…the Angel of the Lord plays along with Gideon and waits patiently at his rock while Gideon prepares a meal which the Angel promptly turns into a “hot plate” with a touch of his staff. So for a while Gideon is convinced. He obeys God's command to cut down the altar of Baal, the local fertility god – a small “baby step” before he goes up against the Midianites but an important one. But…notice. Gideon does this at night. He has faith – but in the dark. This shows Gideon is not at all perfected in faith. At least not yet. He is still hedging his bets.
Gideon’s village gets mad when their local altar is destroyed but Gideon’s father comes to his aid (6:30-32). The lesson here is that often God sends us help from unexpected sources. Gideon’s dad is the proprietor of the local Baal shrine but now he speaks up for his son. Ok yes, so often God sends us help through other people, people not necessarily overtly Christians. It’s something I tell people to be on the lookout for as they go through the week. God wants to send us help and sometimes it comes from quarters we overlook. We have to be alert to those interventions in our lives.
Gideon’s action provokes the enemy. Often we don’t know how many enemies we have until we try to obey God. In the realm of faith, every action provokes a reaction, it seems. We can expect trouble when we set out to do God’s work – it is indeed through “much tribulation” we enter the Kingdom and “ many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Acts 13; Psalm 37). But God does deliver and our trust in him is enlarged.
After this minor deliverance, Gideon steps out on faith. He blows the trumpet to gather the other tribes to come to his assistance (6:34). When that happens God does something wonderful – he clothes Gideon with his Spirit of power, the ultimate weapon, and the missing ingredient that can make weak believers strong in faith. Being clothed with the Spirit is a theme in Judges and it shows where God is working. It is equivalent to a conversion experience in the New Testament church. This is what marks us out as a man or woman of God and things are never the same.
But Gideon still hesitates. He is only human after all. He decides on one more test that turns into a doubleheader. If God will cause dew to fall on a piece of fleece and not on the ground then that will be a sign. It happens. God patiently obliges. But as Gideon looks out on the numerous Midianite forces camped in the Valley of Jezreel his faith wilts yet again. “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow the one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew” (Judges 6:39-40).
God obliges and Gideon is almost ready. But consider the patience of God or as the Bible calls it, his “longsuffering.” God was very patient with Gideon. He does not change. He will be patient with us.
One thing we learn in the Christian life that as we start out on our “baby steps” of faith is that God will allow things to come up and try us. Just as we test God’s patience quite often, God has a right to test us. Judges 7:1-7 should be read in this context. God orders Gideon to cut down the size of his army. In a flash the army shrinks form 32,000 to 10,000. But even that is too many. God does not want Israel to think this is “their” victory – a wise precaution knowing how humans are all too prone in battle to “do God’s work for him.”
Gideon is left with 300 men. God knew this is a daunting worry to his Judge-in-chief. The Lord urges Gideon to reconnoiter enemy lines to see what the enemy is thinking. This is a good “intelligence” tactic. Know your enemy. Gideon and his servant crouch through the undergrowth and overhear a dream one Midianite has of a large piece of barley cake crashing into the Midianite lines and destroying their force. His partner interprets this as the army of Gideon coming to smash Midian (7:13-14).
Gideon’s faith is activated. He worships God there on the spot probably repeating a prayer of thanksgiving warrior-poets such as David will utter years later: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life…Though a host of men rise up against me yet shall not my heart be afraid. He will set me up upon a rock and hide me is his secret place of strength” (Psalm 37:1-10).
“Get up!” Gideon tells his brave 300, “We’ve dallied long enough.” God has no doubt inspired the winning tactics. Each man takes a jug and a trumpet. Into the jug he will place a torch and at a given signal the three companies of 100 will light torches, blow their bugles and stampede the enemy. This is exactly what happened. Gideon the Zero becomes Gideon the hero. He sends messengers out to alert the tribes and a smashing victory is won. The land is saved and Israel has rest for forty years. Gideon has given Israel a new slogan, “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon!” That very phrase shows he has learned his lesson; He has become a God-follower and a man of faith. God goes first in his life and he proves it by refusing to be nominated King over Israel (8:22-23).
What a story! What a lesson in God’s patient persevering with us in faith.
Here are four specific lessons that can help us as we face our enemies and obstacles.
First, though we Christians may be weak and insignificant of ourselves, God sees things he can use in us. This is why the Angel greeted Gideon with a title that he has not yet earned – mighty warrior. God is like that – he calls things that are not as though they are. He has faith….in us!
Second, God never gives us too much to handle. He trains us. He starts us out with “baby steps” of faith knowing how difficult it can be to trust in Him whom we cannot see. He will bless us for that.
Third, God provides both strategy and tactics. Often we are up against real issues at work, on the job, on the freeway, via the weather, in our families, in our schools. Yet God will make a way for us as he did for Gideon’s army. His help is brilliant and practical. Remember the torch and the trumpet tactic!! He will do something similar for you.
Fourth, God is in there with us patiently teaching, correcting, upholding, encouraging. It is by his power he infuses us with godly faith as we yield to him so that it can be truly be said, it is his faith in us returning to him again.
Thank God for recording Gideon’s story. It was written for us as we set out to face life’s obstacles.