And the LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel claim glory for itself against Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’”

(Judges 7:2)

 

Fantasy # 1

I have just died (hopefully it didn’t hurt too much). There is a small gathering at church, with friends and family in attendance.

The presiding pastor opens the meeting for comments. My dear friend Lawrence steps up to the podium, offers some gracious remarks, and closes with this:

“You know, whenever I would call Dean and ask how he was doing, he would say, ‘Pretty good for a guy who’s still trying to figure out what he’s going to be when he grows up.’

“Well, now he knows.”

————

Don’t laugh. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve found myself in the fetal position—spiritually AND physically—groaning before God, wishing, hoping, praying that I might see a straight path—a clear life course— spreading out before me. Alas, it’s going on 40 years since I first met the Lord; and yes, by his precious grace I’ve definitely had the pleasure of doing a few things in his name. Yet somehow I still don’t feel I’ve gotten the complete picture; that I have seen, or said, or accomplished . . . enough.

Do you ever experience this malaise? If so, our text from Judges—and a few others like it—may be of some help.

What exactly is its message? In essence, it is this: There is something sinful in sinful man—something dark and deep—that inclines his entire fallen being to orbit around himself,  and because of this, to glory before God in his own accomplishments.

God clearly dislikes it.

But why? The text itself supplies the profound answer: He dislikes it because when we claim glory for ourselves, we are actually doing so against him! In other words, when we boast of our power to save ourselves, we are boasting against the truth: the truth that salvation never ever comes from man, but always and only from the Lord.

And so, to help Israel get the point—and to memorialize it forever for us, upon whom the ends of the ages have fallen—God used a mere 300 men to defeat an army whose numbers were like the sands of the seashore for multitude.

Our Gideon

In these last days, when the great mystery of God has at last been unveiled, God has done something even greater: he has used one man to rescue us from every enemy we ever had—including his own wrath and retribution—and to bring us safely home to himself.

Listen to these rich New Testament passages, which teach this very thing, warning the saints to boast, not in themselves, but in God’s very own Gideon:

But by his doing, you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption—that as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” –-1 Corinthians 1:30

By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, and not of works, lest any one should boast. -Ephesians 2:8-9

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, by a law of faith. –-Romans 3:27

We could go on, but you get the picture. Just as in the days of the judges, so now: God takes no pleasure in the self that revolves around itself; in the self that is consumed with its own labors, its own accomplishments, its own merits; the self that subtly seeks—whether in pride, or fear, or some strange mixture of both—to commend itself to God on the ground of its own good works, even if they are works that God himself has enabled that self to do!

Why are the Scriptures so emphatic on this matter? Well, now that Jesus has come, we can finally understand: He is emphatic about it because  to glory in one’s own works is to glory against the finished work of Christ. But He who loves the Son—and He who desires all to honor the Son even as they honor him—will have none of it.

Therefore, in love and faithfulness, God must sometimes cast us into a sick bed—into the absolute immobility of the fetal position—where we groan and writhe and pray and plot and plan and connive and capitulate, over and over again, until—at long last—the dreadful fever to justify ourselves finally abates, and the compulsion to win God’s love through our own good works finally spends itself, like a hurricane crashing into the mainland.

It hurts. But here is the good news: When the ordeal is finally over—when all has become strangely calm—we open our eyes, and like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, we see none but Jesus alone.

How he has grown! How beautiful his person! How stunningly all-sufficient his manifold works for his beloved people: his gracious descent from heaven, his incarnation as a baby boy, his humble and submissive youth; his eager response to the Father’s call to ministry; his pure delight in doing his will; his words of wisdom, his deeds of power; his tenderness and strength, his goodness and severity; his lamb-like surrender to rejection, injustice, abandonment, stripes, mockery, wounds, and the wrath of God itself; his courage, compassion, and dignity in the face of death . . . and his lion’s roar on resurrection morn, miraculously sealing his final words upon the Cross: It is finished!

Beloveds, when we see our dear Christ like this—adorned with the many-colored coat of God’s own works—we will immediately see something else: the ugliness and  futility of our sinful obsession with our own! Like the apostle, we will therefore cry out, “God forbid that I should ever again boast in my own works, lest, in so doing, I find myself boasting against the Lord’s!”

Such a man—who has now begun to understand the meaning of worship—could actually be quite useful to his Lord.

In fact, he might even be able to rout the armies of Midian!

Fantasy #2

I have just died (I still hope it didn’t hurt too much). My spirit enters heaven and comes before the throne of God.

There at the Father’s right hand, I see the Lord. He is smiling.

“Come near, my son.”

I do (they’re very big on obedience in heaven).

Immediately, he issues a command: “Bring the sacks!”

And now, seemingly out of nowhere, two angels appear, one with a big sack, the other with a small.

The angel with the little sack places it at the Lord’s feet. Opening it, the Lord himself begins to take out one tiny crown after another, each about the size of a walnut.

I get what’s happening: These are my good works.

As he carefully places them on the white marble slab between us, he lifts his eyes to mine and comments:

“Good job . . . Way to stick . . . Messy, but very precious . . . That one was SOOOOO fun  . . . Pretty heady, but look: some veins of pure gold . . . Awesome! Ninety-nine percent flesh free! . . . Yeah, you got bucked off there, but hey, you stayed in the saddle quite awhile . . . and got back in it after you fell!”

And so on.

When at last the little bag is empty—and my little crowns are all laid out like a row of pennies on the Washington Monument—something strange happens: Nothing! They simply disappear!

Once again I hear the Lord’s voice: “Now, bring the second sack!”

I hate to say it, but this sack is really impressive. It’s way BIG—and heavy, too. In fact, it takes several huge angels just to lug it over to the throne!

“Open it!”

Now things are getting a little scary, for a crowd is beginning to gather around us.

As the sides of the sack fall away, I can hardly believe my eyes! There before me is a single golden crown: enormous, radiant, and studded with all kinds of beautiful jewels and gems.

The host of heaven gasps with pleasure. Reflected light flashes everywhere. Music, song, and laughter start swirling through the air.

“Do you know what this is, my son?” he asks with a wry smile.

“No sir, but I can tell you one thing: It sure isn’t anything I did!

“Well, I hear what you’re saying. But actually, it is indeed something you did. Or rather, it’s one thing that you did many times. I’ve seen it, for I keep a close eye on things like this.

“You did it walking through the park. You did it curled up on your living room floor. You did it working boring jobs. You did it when you ventured and failed. You did it when no one wrote, or called, or came. You did it when I fell silent; when I let the devil sift you like wheat; when I brought every thought, purpose, and plan of your own heart to a grinding halt. You did it amidst sighs, tears, anger, and even laughter. Oh yes, you did it quite a lot!”

“But Lord, what in the world are you talking about? What in the world could possibly be so great a thing as this?”

“I will tell you. What I’m talking about is all the times you said, from the deep and quiet place, ‘Well, one good thing: In the end, it’s not about my work for him; it’s about his work for me! Which means, I guess, that it’s also not about my love for him, but about his love for me! Dude, those are pretty happy thoughts! And Lord, I’m SO glad they’re true!’

“Up here we call this worship. My Father enjoys it so much. We all do!”

Now at this point, my fantasy begins to get a little fuzzy.

I seem to hear myself offering one final objection:

“But Lord, why should I get any credit at all for this? You’re the one who brought me to the end of myself; you’re the one who enabled me to see that it’s all about you; you’re the one who taught me how to worship!”

To which he replies, “You’re right!”

After which, he immediately extends his hand, grabs the crown (which suddenly looks much smaller), and places it on his head, as though it were his very own.

More music, more song, more laughter filling the air; a cascade of sound, like rolling thunder; saints and angels falling, falling, falling to the ground . . . and I’m back, working on my blog, trying hard to keep in mind all I’ve seen and heard, lest ever again I should glory against Him.