Billy Sunday used to say, “If we Christians were as weak physically as we are spiritually, we would all need crutches.” The colorful baseball-player-turned-evangelist was saying that if you’re not growing spiritually, you ought to be worried. Growth is the normal and natural result of life; and if there isn’t growth, that life is in jeopardy. We’re not surprised when we grow physically; we expect it. If, by chance, growth doesn’t occur, we immediately know something is wrong and attempt to uncover the problem.
And yet we often look upon Christians who have grown and are growing as extraordinary specimens of Christianity. As a pastor I was always excitedly surprised to find members who were really spiritual. They became the major sites of interest I pointed out to visiting ministers, who never failed to share my excitement and coveted the same phenomenon for their own church. But if I had driven him around town pointing out this fellow who had grown an inch in the last year, and that one who had gained five pounds, he would have thought me crazy.
I believe as Christians we have no right to call ourselves normal until spiritual growth becomes as natural as physical growth. The apostle John prayed that his friend Gaius would prosper and be in good health, “just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2). Would you want someone to pray the same thing for you? Frankly, if our physical and financial prosperity were determined by our spiritual prosperity, we would probably be crippled and bankrupt.
If growth is the normal consequence of life, then where’s the problem? Just as there are enemies to physical growth, there are also enemies to spiritual growth. Our spiritual development is never unopposed. We do not simply drift into maturity. To grow we must swim upstream against the stubborn currents that try to hold us back. In the last chapter we discussed the follow-through of the Christian life. We saw that every authentic experience is a lasting one with continuing results.
OK, you accept that and desire it, but it isn’t happening. You know your experience was real, and there has been some progress, but it is pitifully small, almost microscopic. What’s the problem? Joshua 17 contains an instructive story. The people have entered the land and, according to God’s instructions, Joshua is dividing it among the people. In verse 14 we hear a complaint from some of the tribes:
Then the sons of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me only one lot and one portion for an inheritance, since I am a numerous people whom the Lord has thus far blessed?”
Note the significant phrase “thus far.” They are saying that in the past God had been good to them; up to this point the Lord has blessed them. The phrase implies some doubt about God’s blessing from here on. Sounds like some of us, doesn’t it? “The Lord used to bless me, but something’s happened. For a while everything was going just great, but now….”
This passage from Joshua 17:12-18 throws some light on why we fail to grow.
WE FAIL TO GROW WHEN WE EXERCISE PARTIAL CONQUEST.
There’s a telling statement in verses twelve and thirteen:
But the sons of Manasseh could not take possession of these cities, because the Canaanites persisted in living in that land. And it came about when the sons of Israel became strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely (Preacher’s emphasis).
Now don’t miss this point: although Israel had conquered the land, many of the Canaanites–the enemy, if you please–still lived there. In Joshua 16:10, we read, “But they (Manasseh and Ephraim) did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites live in the midst of Ephrairn to this day, and they became forced laborers.” And over in Judges chapter 1 we discover an important clue concerning their problem.
But Manasseh did not take possession of Bethsean.. .so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land. And it came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely. Neither did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants Asher did not drive out the inhabitants. Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants (1 Judges 1:27-31, 33)
Before Israel entered the land, God specified in no uncertain terms that all the inhabitants of the land were to be driven out completely–not a single Canaanite was to be left. But again and again, with monotonous significance, we read that they did not drive them out. Now the land teemed with both natives and newcomer. No wonder they complained of crowded conditions!
Suppose you meet me on the street and ask how I am
“Not so well,” I answer. “We need a larger house. There are only four of us, but we’re crowded.”
“I can help you,” you say. “There’s a twelve-room house for sale real cheap. A family of seven has lived there but they’re wanting to move.
“Thanks, I’ll look into it. Off I go and buy the house and move my wife and two children into the twelve rooms.
A few days later you meet me again on the street and ask how I am.
“Not so well,” I answer. “We need a larger house.”
“A larger house?” But there are only four of you in that twelve-room castle! How could you be crowded?”
“Well, the former owners–seven of them, you know–are still living there, and it’s pretty crowded.”
It wouldn’t require a genius to solve my problem. Move out the former owners’ What right do I have to complain about crowded conditions when I am not using the room I have?
And that was exactly the case with the complaining tribes. They had plenty of room–but it was occupied by the enemy. You see, it’s foolish to ask God to give you more blessings when you haven’t lived out the blessings you already have. No use asking God for additional truth when you haven’t obeyed what you already know. My friend Manley Beasley was speaking to a ministers’ meeting when he suddenly stopped and closed his bible with this exclamation:
“That’s enough preaching. You know more now than you’re living up to!” Painfully true.
Let me put it to you in the phrase Alan Redpath used to describe this incident. “Are you living up to your capacity?” Look around; have you allowed some Canaanites to remain in your life? God told you to drive out every one but there were two or three you were especially fond of and so you’ve allowed them to hang around. Of course, you’ve given them strict orders to behave themselves–and for the most part they’ve done so. Let me tell you, there can he no continuing growth as long as you tolerate the presence of a single Canaanite.
It’s interesting to note some of the reasons we keep Canaanites around:
(1) A spirit of compromise. God said that every inhabitant had to go~ We reason that surely one or two won’t make any difference. That’s the way it begins. We know a thing is wrong–but just a little bit. And after all, no one is perfect; we know of worse things in some of the Christians and they seem to get along OK. But no matter how we say it, we are compromising the Word of God, and that is plain, unadulterated disobedience.
(2) A spirit of complacency. Did you notice that when the tribes allowed the Canaanites to stay, they put them to forced labor? That means they made slaves of them. Sure, they had been the enemy; but now they were slaves and under control.
Who says the Bible isn’t up-to-date? I can’t count the number of people I’ve heard reason the same way. “Yeah, I know it’s not altogether right–but I can handle it. It’s a problem, but I have learned to control it.” Have you ever heard someone say about his drinking, “Oh, I can take it or leave it”? What’s so great about that? That’s all anyone can do–take it or leave it. There is no third alternative. But I have observed that those who say that usually choose to “take it,”
The truth is, the Israelites couldn’t handle it. The Canaanites refused to be slaves. And if the Israelites couldn’t do it, neither can we.
(3) A spirit of cowardice. If it weren’t so tragic, this would be funny. Look at chapter 17, verse 16. Joshua had told the people that if they wanted more room, they should go up to the forest and clear the land. Here’s their reply: “And the sons of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us, and all the Canaanites who live in the valley have chariots of iron…”’ There’s the real reason. First they said that the hill country wasn’t big enough but actually they were afraid of the armed Canaanites. But I thought the Canaanites had been put to forced labor. I thought they were slaves and under control, If so, then those are the strangest slaves I’ve ever heard of!
Years ago I heard this story. I don’t know whether it’s true, but it’s good. It seems that during a heavy battle, a captain commanded his lieutenant to pull back to a certain position. The lieutenant replied, “I can’t sir.”
“Why not?” the captain asked.
“I’ve taken a prisoner, sir.”
“Bring him with you.”
“He won’t come, sir.”
“Well, leave him and come yourself”
“He won’t let me sir.
One of the big reasons we don’t try to drive out the Canaanites (these pet sins and hidden habits) is that we’re afraid we can’t. We avoid a direct confrontation, It’s much more comfortable living with the illusions that we can drive them out any time we please. You say you can quit that habit any time you want to–why don’t you, then? Is it possible that you’re the real slave?
(4) A spirit of covetousness. “They put the Canaanites to forced labor.” Why drive them all out? They make good workers–and cheap labor. It could be very advantageous to keep a few of them around.
How does this apply to us? Here’s a businessman who realizes that it is the Lord who gives him the power to gain wealth, that it is actually His business; so he decides to operate on Christian principles, but in case God doesn’t come through, he keeps a Canaanite of worldly business tactics in the back room.
Or perhaps a teenager commits himself to Christ and wants Him to occupy first place in every area of his life, but it may be that being a Christian won’t bring him everything he wants in popularity and pleasure, and so on occasions he resorts to a Canaanite of doubtful behavior.
Maybe a pastor has decided that the gimmicks and gadgets he has been using to attract people to his church aren’t Christ-honoring. From now on his ministry will be conducted solely on the principles the Holy Spirit approves. But the immediate visible results he had hoped for don’t come. He was afraid that might happen and cleverly kept one or two of the old Canaanite gimmicks around. They will build up that attendance in no time at all.
WE FAIL TO GROW WHEN WE EXPECT PREFERENTIAL CONSIDERATION.
Manasseh was the firstborn of Joseph; the Ephraimites were relatives of Joshua, the head man. Surely they deserved special treatment. You couldn’t expect someone as great as they were to live by the same rules as everyone else. It was the VIP treatment for them.
I’m amazed at how many believers actually feel this way. They know the laws governing growth and spirituality–faithful Bible study and prayer, up-to-date confession of sin, diligent obedience to the Word of God, God’s glory desired in all things. And yet they expect God’s blessings without them. As far as they’re concerned, they have been lifted above the disciplines of discipleship. I’ve counseled with Christians who had lost the joy of their salvation and wanted to recover it but refused to submit themselves to those disciplines. They were searching for an “experience” that would catapult them effortlessly back into a right relationship- with God.
Our passage reveals two factors that contribute to this attitude.
(1) Arrogance. The sons of Joseph boasted that they were a great people and had been singularly blessed by the Lord. this, they thought, should qualify them for preferential treatment. Pride is an insidious termite that eats away the foundation of Christian growth. It can attack a denomination, a church, or an individual with equal deadliness. A denomination may assume it’s great because it’s a church because it’s wealthy; a person because he’s talented. Blessings can easily become curses. A respected position in the church, widely acclaimed talent, past blessings, high honors–any one of these can inflate us with the hot air of arrogance.
(2) Indolence. I’m convinced the main reason Christians are not more spiritual, more mature, more dedicated, is that they are too lazy! That’s right. The major problem with most Christians is laziness. It was so with the crowd in Joshua 17. Joshua told them if they wanted more land they could have it if they were willing to work for it. Cut down the trees and drive out the Canaanites, were the only stipulations. But that’s exactly what they weren’t willing to do. They didn’t want to build or battle; they just wanted to beg. And we’re often the same way. At this precise moment we are as spiritual as we really want to be. Oh, I know we moan and groan, wishing we were more spiritual; but wishing won’t get it. It’s useless to beg God for more growth if we’re not willing to build and battle for it
One day a father took his son to Spurgeon’s College to study for the ministry under that prince of preachers. When Mr. Spurgeon told the father the course of instruction would require several years, the father said, “My son is an unusually bright young man! I’m certain you could arrange for him to finish much sooner.”
Mr. Spurgeon replied, “Sir, God takes twenty years to grow an oak tree and only six months to grow a squash. Which do you want your son to be?”
There are no shortcuts to maturity. To reach it demands discipline and determination.
WE FAIL TO GROW WHEN WE EVADE PRIORITY COMMITMENTS.
Here was Joshua’s solution to their problem:
And Joshua spoke to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, saying, “You are a numerous people and have great power; you shall not have one lot only, but the hill country shall be yours. For though it is a forest, you shall clear it, and to its farthest borders it shall be yours; for you shall drive out the Canaanites, even though they have chariots of iron and though they are strong” (Joshua 17:17, 18)
Clear out the forest and drive out the Canaanites. That was the simple solution to their growth problem. But as we’ve already seen in the first chapter of Judges, they refused to accept his answer. Priority number one according to Joshua, was to accomplish these two thing. Until then, no expansion could be expected. The land was theirs–but before they could possess it, these things had to b e done. So it is with us
Although they evaded this priority commitment, I trust we will not; so let’s examine more closely the two tasks Joshua assigned to them. I call them priority commitment’s’ for growth, as necessary to our growth as they were to theirs.
(1) We must clear out the harmless things that clutter our lives. The first step was the clearing of the forest. Now there’s nothing wrong with trees; they are a beautiful and useful part of God’s creation. But if they occupy the ground you want to build your home upon, they have to go. Building your home is a priority commitment, and in order to fulfill it, you must clear the land.
The trees symbolize the many harmless things, even good things, that fill the agenda of our daily lives. I’m certain that when we’ve talked about the necessity of a daily time of prayer and Bible study someone has said, “Oh, that would be great, but I’m just too busy. I don’t have room for another thing in my day.” The truth is, we all have the same amount of time, twenty-four hours to the day and seven days to the week. I find that people usually manage to make time for what they think is really important. And if you don’t have time to do everything God intends you to do, it simply means that you are misusing some of your time. There is time to do everything you are supposed to do. The trouble is that most Of us are so busy being good, we don’t have time to be godly.
In Matthew 13, Jesus described this situation in the parable of the sower. It is really a parable of the soil, for the soil is the main subject of the story; The part that concerns us tells about the seed that fell into thorny ground: “And others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out” (Matthew 13:7). Jesus explains the meaning in verse twenty-two:
And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
The ground of his life was so cluttered with the cares of this world, the Word of God was strangled before it had a chance to grow. What a description of so many! No wonder the Word of God never produces anything fruitful and lasting in their lives–it can’t compete with the thorns.
You will never find time for God; you will have to make time. This means some trees will have to be cut down. Perhaps late-night television will have to be eliminated so you can rise earlier in order to have time to pray and read the Word. That’s only an example of what I mean. If you really want to know, God will show you the trees you need to clear away.
(2) We must clean out the harmful things that corrupt our lives. After the trees come the Canaanites. Let me point out something interesting. It would seem more reasonable to drive out the Canaanites first. After all do you think they’re going to lounge around watching us chop down those trees? Why, all the Canaanites in the world will come swooping down upon us. It will be another Little Big Horn! But no, Joshua had the order correct. Cut down the trees; then you will be able to drive out the enemy.
You will never have the power to drive out the habits and hangover sins in your life until you give priority to a daily time of fellowship- and communion with God. Once you have accomplished this, the divine strength you receive will enable you to drive out the enemy. Remember, we saw that although Israel entered the land ready to fight, the first thing God had the nation do was worship. That’s the divine order: worship before warfare.
The principle of growth lives within every believer; hut as with our physical development, we must cooperate with the laws of spiritual health if that growth is to be realized.
think none of us who met God in that place will ever be the same. Praise the Lord for all who were here interceding for that retreat. What a ministry Intercession is!
©Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2002