Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
Not My Side, But the Lord's Side
I cannot remember a time when there was not a culture war. Perhaps it is the nature of civilization to be perpetually at war with itself regarding its values and vision for the future. Regardless, Christians can find themselves today pressed hard to pick sides in an ongoing battle.
Personally, I struggle to resist the definition of terms and construal of battlelines I am offered in favor of a truer account of reality. In every conflict, all people seek to construe their side as morally superior. Sometimes, some of those people are even correct. But the danger in focusing on that construct is in viewing the world through the narrow lens of “me against my enemy.”
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” Perhaps he had been reading Joshua.
In Joshua, there is a brief story of Joshua meeting a man with a sword. “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand” (Joshua 5:13). Joshua, a warrior and general, interpreted this chance meeting through the lens of his own struggle. How else was he supposed to interpret a man holding a sword?
For Joshua, there was a war going on, and surely this man with a sword must be on one side or the other. We can understand how Joshua took on a self-centered view of the moment. He asks, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” This is an either/or question framed by an immediate conflict and context.
The man simply responds, “No.”
The man says “no” first of all because he is not a man. More than that, the sword wielder says “no” because his sword was for another conflict altogether. “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord” (Joshua 5:14). No, he was not fighting for Joshua’s enemy, but neither was he particularly devoted to the cause of Joshua. He served another master altogether.
It would have been easy for Joshua to take umbrage in pride. Was not the military of Israel the army of the Lord? Was not Joshua himself the commander of the army of the Lord? Moreover, how could any person who claimed to serve God not clearly know his loyalties in the battle between the Hebrews and the pagan tribes of Canaanites?
This story reminds us that the ongoing strife of our moment in history can be a distraction from the actual story playing out all around us.
We have a tendency to identify an enemy - sometimes rightly so - and then, by default, frame the whole world in terms of us and the enemy. Instead of seeing a moral war waging within ourselves and all people, we imagine that we are the angels and that others must be the demons.
Are there forces at work in our culture that aim to subvert the kingdom of Heaven, undermine the gospel, and lead humanity into a dismal, unholy, dystopian future?
Sure, I suspect so. I think I might have even met a few of those folks.
But that does not mean I am morally superior for recognizing that fact. According to Scripture, I have been working for the enemy, too.
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3).
Are we then locked in uncertainty? Is there no way to know if any side of a conflict is right or at least less wrong?
Do not despair. Instead, follow Joshua’s lead.
Rather than rising up in pride, fall down and worship (Joshua 5:14).
There is no shorter route to a humble appreciation of the big picture than through worship. In praising God and heralding the gospel, we remind the world and ourselves that we are not the central characters in this drama. The story is about God defeating sin and death through Jesus Christ, not about me “winning” some trifling battle centered around myself.
From knees bowed down in worship, ask for direction rather than crafting a strategy.
“What does my lord say to his servant” (Joshua 5:14) is a far better question than “whose side are you on?” We cannot see the whole picture, and we need perspective from someone who does, the author of the whole story himself. What does he see? What does he desire of us?
When you ask that great question of the Lord, be prepared for an unexpected answer.
“And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15). I do not know what battle plans Joshua had in mind that day, but I can promise you that taking his shoes off was not one of the contingencies.
I feel like a lot of what God says has the feel of “take off your sandals.” How do we defeat the cultural forces against us? Love your neighbor as yourself. How do we overcome a world full of wolves? Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. How do we counteract violence? Turn the other cheek. How do I right wrongs? Forgive.
These are solutions we would never have written and will never accept so long as we believe that we understand the nature of the battle. As long as I am at the center of the story, the only way forward is to define what I am against and defeat it.
But if a far greater war is raging, and I am no innocent bystander, the whole shape of the world changes. I learn, like Joshua, that I do not even understand where I stand. I thought I was on a battlefield fighting for my cause. Instead, I was on holy ground being called to serve his cause.
The short story ends with four simple words. Joshua was commanded to take off his sandals and accept that the world was not as he saw it at all.
“And Joshua did so.”
If we want to be transformed rather than conformed, we have to accept that faith and obedience will take us out of the battlefield of the moment and into the far stranger world of God and angel armies.
In short, we will better understand our world if we think less about who we are against and more about the One that we are for.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.