April 10, 2007
“I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the LORD to walk in it as their fathers did, or not.” – Judges 2:21-22
A big problem in our society is that people view disadvantages as excuses for wrong behavior.
Here is my thesis for this thought piece: Disadvantages may be reasons for wrong behavior, but they are not excuses for wrong behavior.
Judges chapter 1 describes the war campaigns of Israel after Joshua had died. Unfortunately, these campaigns reveal Israel’s disobedience to God. They did not drive out all of the pagan nations that God had commanded. Therefore, in Judges 2 God decides that he will not help Israel to drive out any more pagan nations but, rather, to leave them in the land to coexist with Israel.
Toward the end of chapter 2, God explains a further reason why he chose to leave these nations. God wanted “to test Israel by them.” In other words, God decided to leave Israel in a less than ideal situation in order to evaluate their obedience to him. They were now disadvantaged but nonetheless accountable.
Let me explain further. There is no question that the temptations of the Canaanites upon the people of Israel were powerful. For God to leave idolatrous nations scattered all around his people was for God to leave his people in a tough position. If God had wanted, he could have raised up a new generation of Israelites to drive out the evils of idolatry completely from the promised land, but he did not. According to Judges, God decided to test Israel’s future generations through this difficult scenario. They inherited a disadvantage, yet they were still expected to worship Yahweh alone. This example indicates a common biblical principle: People are not excused to disobey God even in disadvantaged circumstances.
We can observe this principle throughout the Bible. Take the Garden of Eden for example. Now, we usually don’t think of the beautiful garden as a place of disadvantage. However, God did not have to include the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden’s center. It certainly would have been more advantageous for Adam and Eve if God had left the tree way to the eastern fringe of the garden or simply not included the temptation at all. But God did include this tree, and with desirable fruit on it, while still expecting Adam and Eve’s obedience.
Another example is the person of Job. God allowed Job–he actually volunteered Job–-to suffer from many circumstances that could have potentially destroyed Job’s faith. Even Job’s wife was ready to “curse God and die.” However, we learn from the book that God allowed such difficulties so that Job could show the true depth of his obedient heart.
Another example is the prophet Jeremiah. God told Jeremiah that his ministry would be exceedingly difficult. God told him that the people would be opposed to his message. Nevertheless, God expected Jeremiah’s complete obedience and perseverance in his calling. Had Jeremiah eventually given out because of the difficulties, he would have certainly displeased God.
Another example is the lame man whom Jesus healed in John 5. After Jesus had performed his miracle, he told the man to “stop sinning” (John 5:14). Jesus did not say to the man, “I know that you have been in a disadvantaged state your whole life. So you are not accountable for your bitterness, anxieties, and disbelief.” No, he said that the man had been living the life of a sinner who needed to repent. Even though he had been disadvantaged, he had not been excused.
Peter actually learned this principle firsthand from Jesus. After Jesus had indicated that Peter would die a harsh death and after Peter inquired about John’s destiny, Jesus simply said to Peter, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). What was Jesus saying? He was saying that the various advantages and disadvantages to which his followers are subjected are a matter of his sovereign decision. Jesus explained to Peter that the temptation of a difficult death was no excuse for not following him in obedience.
I could go on and on with illustrations of individuals or groups of people who were subjected to disadvantages and difficulties while still expected to obey God: Joseph, Habakkuk, Hosea, Paul, the recipients of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, etc. In fact, I submit that you can see in virtually every biblical character’s life, disadvantages that could have led to sin.
Here is my big point. In all of the above examples, the disadvantages were potential reasons for disobedience, but in none were they potential excuses for disobedience. So then, a reason for Israel’s persistent disobedience to God was that they were in a difficult environment, but this reason did not count as an excuse before God.
I started this piece by saying that a big problem in our society is that people view disadvantages as excuses. I suggest that this problem is evident all around us.
Here are some conjured up examples.
Example 1: Many in our society would consider a person who has had a tough week on the job or who has experienced a wrecked relationship as legitimately excused to go out and get drunk for the weekend. The reasoning? “He was really struggling so he just lost a little control for the night.” This reasoning is frequently the focus of popular music where “wasting away in Margaritaville” is celebrated. The problem with this logic is that it fails to understand that the tough work week and the relationship loss are opportunities to show God an obedient heart. When people romanticize drunken coping skills over godly behavior, they use disadvantages as an excuse for evil. You see, a bad week may be their reason for getting drunk, but it is not an excuse.
Example 2: Many in our society believe that homosexuality would be justified if it could be shown to have genetic factors. But again, the biblical principle of expected obedience in spite of personal disadvantages refutes this thinking. Now, I don’t believe that such a genetic link could ever be proven given the incredible complexity of life influences upon a person. But my point is that God expects obedience to his righteous plan regardless of genetic influences.
Example 3: Many in our society would consider an employee as completely justified who gossips about his boss because of difficult work expectations. Many would excuse employee blow-ups as mere venting that helps to relieve stress. Many would even say that if the boss is an “idiot,” he brings the slander upon himself. But according to God, a difficult employer is no excuse for a gossiping employee.
Example 4: Many in our society would consider a high school student who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as having a special excuse for not paying attention in school. The reasoning? “Because he struggles with attentiveness, he should not be disciplined for his sloppy work.” Now, I am not denying that A.D.D. is a reality and a struggle. What I am denying is that it is an excuse for sloppy work. The biblical principle is that a high school student is still accountable for proper behavior even if he is somewhat disadvantaged. The disorder may be a reason, but it is not an excuse.
Example 5: Many in our society would consider a two-and-a-half-year-old who is tired and cranky as excused from obeying a clear instruction from his mom or dad. The reasoning? “That poor kid just needs a nap so he should not be accountable for that temper tantrum.” Again, I believe this reasoning is dead wrong. Certainly, parents should not be foolish about a child’s need for a nap and a for parental patience, but sometimes parents have to ask their children to obey even when it is difficult. At these times, children should be held accountable, not excused. Their fatigue may be a reason for the tantrum but not an excuse.
I do not have time to continue to list examples of the improper excusing that takes place in our society, but I suggest that if you watch for this mentality, you will readily see it around you and even in your own walk before God. I further suggest that a sugar-coated view of human responsibility does not help another person or yourself to overcome vices. In our society, we desperately need more accountability, both personal and external.
Let me finish by offering two disclaimers.
First, I am not saying that there are never extreme circumstances that may excuse people from otherwise inappropriate behaviors. Such possibilities are not the focus of this piece, nor are they the norm in our society. This piece is, rather, meant to address the many common disadvantages that people tend to use as moral excuses.
Second, I am not saying that there isn’t a place for grace and understanding when people go through disadvantaged circumstances. I think that we should view the dejected drunk with compassion, the inflamed homosexual with love, the gossiping employee with understanding, the distracted teen with patience, and the tirading two-year-old with tenderness, but I also think that their behaviors should carry consequences. According to the Bible, their behaviors are not acceptable regardless of the disadvantages.
We need to help people see that disadvantages are opportunities to show the depths of a pure and obedient heart. If someone learns this lesson when he is two-and-a-half, maybe he won’t ever visit Margaritaville as an adult.