The soldiers in the Philistine camp froze when they heard the roar of excitement coming from the Israelites across the valley. What had the Israelites so stirred up? The Philistines had already beaten them soundly earlier that day, and now both armies were back in camp, licking their wounds and regrouping for the next day. So why all the ruckus?
Pretty soon a report came back. A god had just come into the Israelite camp! This news shook the Philistine soldiers to the core. They had heard what this god had done to the Egyptians. They had heard what had happened at Jericho and Ai and Hazor. And now this god, this Yahweh, was here to fight against them? The Philistine soldiers slunk back to their tents in dread of what was to come.
Back at the Israelite camp (or Club Yahweh, as it was now known), the soldiers were having a grand time, dancing around the Ark of the Covenant until way past their bedtime. Sure, they had been whooped that morning. But now…well, they too had heard all the old stories about what Yahweh could do when the enemy made him angry. Tomorrow they would unleash Yahweh and see for themselves what would happen…
Tomorrow came. The frightened Philistines fought like cornered lions until the only Israelites left alive were running home as fast as they could. Left behind on the field in Philistine possession was the Israelite ‘god,’ the Ark of the Covenant.
Something had gone terribly wrong. The defeat and loss of the ark seemed to demonstrate the incompetence of Yahweh. The Philistines could now claim the superiority of Dagon over Yahweh (though not for long. Just read 1 Samuel 5). What to do, what to do? Hadn’t Yahweh promised them victory over their enemies? Hadn’t the Israelites fought the good fight with Yahweh on their side? Didn’t he want Israel charging into battle screaming his name?
Well, maybe, except they hadn’t exactly been “fighting the good fight,” not for many, many years. The history of Israel ever since the conquest had been a downhill tale of rule-breaking and overall naughty behavior. The ark was carried into battle by the two corrupt sons of Eli who really needed a good spanking. Too late now, though. They lay dead with the rest of the Israelite army.
Maybe they had duped themselves into thinking that Yahweh would always go with them into any battle they deemed advantageous. Maybe they just assumed that their God would fight for them, regardless of their behavior. Never mind the little idols in the living room. Yahweh was their God, and he would fight when they needed him. He would fight their battles, rather than they fighting his.
Sometimes I think that we evangelicals are no different than those Israelites from 3,000 years ago. And, like them, I think we need to learn that just because we go into battle armed with Scripture and tradition, our symbols of God, it does not necessarily mean we are fighting God’s battles. Perhaps sometimes we are dragging him into the battles we want to fight.
The evangelical church in America has been out picking fights for quite some time now, labeling our crusade a “culture war” and fighting as though the Kingdom of God depended on it. Recently one prominent evangelical leader finally said what we have all known for a long time: We have lost the culture wars. In light of this defeat, I think it is time we learned a lesson from the Israelites.
There are two ways we could take this defeat. One would be to take the position of many evangelicals right now when it comes to issues in which the church is getting beat. This position says that the church is getting whooped in the culture wars because we have too many internal sin issues that should be dealt with before we cast stones at others. We should work on our faithfulness so that God will grant us his favor once again.
It is a satisfying answer that makes sense of our troubles to many, and there is something to it. We have glossed over far too much within while casting disapproving glares without. Just like the Israel we find in 1 Samuel, how can we expect God to fight for us when we haven’t been completely devoted to him ourselves, when we keep our own kinds of idols in our living rooms and bedrooms and garages?
However, I don’t completely buy that answer. I don’t buy it because I don’t believe that God’s power to work in this world is completely dependent on righteous human behavior. God isn’t sitting around, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for us to get our act together. If that was the case, nothing would ever get done. God would be waiting forever. I don’t think we need to fix ourselves and then jump back into the battle. I think we have been fighting the wrong battles.
I prefer a different approach, one based on sensitivity to where the Spirit of God leads us to encounter and influence our world. I do believe that God wants to partner with us to advance the Kingdom of God on earth before he brings it in its fullness one day in the future. And so, instead of worrying about our behavior and the behavior of everyone else inside and outside the church, I think we need to know three things about God that will help us get on the same page as God.
First, we need to ask if the battle we want to involve ourselves in is actually one of God’s battles. This takes discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Will the Kingdom of God be spread through my pursuit of this “battle”? Or does it simply fulfill my need to combat someone or something I disagree with.
The Christian must always stand firm in Biblical truths. But all too often the Christian will use Biblical truth as a means to attack the other. We can be right and still lose lots of ground, and I think that has been the case at times in our culture wars. Other times we have been just plain wrong, like when we chose to stick our heads in the sand and ignore science rather than dialogue with it.
Choose your battles carefully. True, we have been armed with the sword of truth, but that doesn’t mean we should run around everywhere flailing it over our heads. Remember that the battle is the Lord’s. He will command us when to put away our swords and when to plunge our swords into the heart of darkness.
Second, we cannot confuse the artifacts of our faith with God himself. The Bible alone isn’t God, nor will it do the work of God just because we quote it. In other words, simply saying “the Bible says” or “the church believes” in American society today will be about as effective as taking a giant golden box to a sword fight. No one respects it, and we will probably end up running home to mama.
We can choose to lament Scripture’s demoted place in society, but we don’t have to. We can worry that our God has been defeated because his church and his scripture seem so beat down and defeated right now, but to do so misses the point. If you are upset that the evangelical church’s stand on Scripture seems overwhelmed, then your faith is in the wrong place.
Just as the Philistines could not possess the ark (again, see 1 Samuel 5), the secular world cannot truly possess our scripture. Skeptics and atheists do not worship our God and cannot grasp the power and truth in his Word. But, if we have been guilty of idolizing it in place of the God who gave it to us, maybe it won’t hurt for it to be out of our hands for a little bit. Let us learn to maintain a very high view of Scripture without idolizing it.
Finally, just because it seems our own artifacts of God have been captured, Yahweh remains free and powerful still. Many evangelicals fear any dialogue between science and God or between a seeking secular society and God, but why worry?
Are you afraid that science will disprove God? Why not seek instead to understand all you can about our God-designed universe? Are you afraid that sinful people will somehow taint him? You didn’t taint him, so why should anyone else?
They may seem to take away our Ark for a time, but they cannot capture our God. God will be God, and he doesn’t need us to defend him to the world. Rather, we need to preach, in the words of Paul to Timothy, “God our Savior and Christ Jesus our hope.” Such a Living God is no artifact of a bygone era. He is Yahweh. He is the I Am. And he always will be.