14 “Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord!
15 “And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua was a man after God’s own heart, and at this late point in his life, he had seen and been part of more than a few miracles performed by God. Joshua had grown up a slave in Egypt and went on to lead Israel in claiming the land promised to Abraham many generations before. Here near the end of his long life, he had finally finished the long campaigns to take the Israelites’ inheritance. It might be nice to think Joshua had always been so confident in the presence of the Lord, that he had always understood God’s place and presence in the lives of His people, but there was a time when Joshua wondered the same things we often do. After the rousing victory at Jericho, the Israelites suffered a bitter defeat at Ai.
7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Lord GOD, why have You brought this people over the Jordan at all–to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? Oh, that we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of the Jordan!
8 “O Lord, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies?
9 “For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will You do for Your great name?”
A few days ago, someone asked me a question about God that reminded me of Joshua’s dejected plea before God: Why would an omnipotent and omniscient God create people who would perform actions that are morally offensive to Him–such as murder or homosexuality? Further, why would an almighty God allow nature to run rampant and create suffering in the world? There is actually a whole branch of Christian apologetics that focuses on this problem of sin and pain, and greater writers than I (such as C.S. Lewis) have tackled the long answers with great effect. The short answer can be summed up in God’s own words to Joshua:
10 So the LORD said to Joshua: “Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?
11 “Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. For they have even taken some of the accursed things, and have both stolen and deceived; and they have also put it among their own stuff.
12 “Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies, because they have become doomed to destruction. Neither will I be with you anymore, unless you destroy the accursed from among you.”
In other words, we doom ourselves to destruction by our own actions. As the Lord told Adam and Eve, the very ground itself is cursed for our sake because we were not obedient to God’s explicit commandment. (Genesis 3:17-19) God told us not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we ate. God tells us to have no other gods before him, and we idolize fame, power, money, and sex. God tells us not to murder, steal, cheat, or lie, and what do we do? We lie, cheat, steal, and murder. God tells us to abhor adultery, homosexuality, sorcery, and drunkenness, and instead we glorify those things in our lives and our entertainments! Worse yet, instead of teaching God’s Word to our children as He commanded (Deuteronomy 6:6-9), we teach our children to ignore God, to find their own path, to be self-sufficient instead of relying on God to guide their lives.
And yet we expect a whole, sinless, and easy world?
God swore to Noah that He would never again wipe the world clean with a Flood, but it’s not like He hasn’t been tempted! The only thing keeping God from utterly eradicating the human race is His promise to bless us–a promise which, since He is the immovable, immortal, and righteous God that He is, He cannot break. But WE break our side of that covenant all the time, and STILL we asked for blessings! We are the cockiest creatures we could ever imagine. We are not the innocent little Oliver asking his cruel keeper, “Please, sir, could I have some more?” We are mean and selfish and arrogant, and we ignore God until things go horribly wrong, and then we have the gall to ask the loving and righteous and merciful God, “Why, Lord?”
“But why are sexual sins included in the things that offend God?” we ask. “Isn’t homosexuality a ‘victimless crime,’ so to speak?” It may seem that sexuality is private and it isn’t necessarily something we ought to worry about, but that is not what God thinks. He has made it quite clear that sexual relations are for the marriage bed, and that homosexuality, bestiality, and adultery are abhorrent to Him. Those things are not part of the “nature” He intended for us–no more so than murder or idolatry.
We make conscious choices every day to be either moral or immoral. Some little voice in our heads warns us away from bad behavior or else tells us it’s okay to do something, and we heed that voice as we shape our daily behavior. Every day we make a conscious choice to be the person we are right now. As much as we like to think we are better than the murderer or the rapist or the bully, the sad fact is that a very thin line separates us from such beasts. It is not so much that we might snap one day and suddenly go on a rampage that is completely counter to our previous behavior. No, it is more that the person who goes on a killing spree is making ethical and moral decisions based on what serves him or her best, the thing that would most satisfy his or her feelings of anger or lust or shame or fear.
For most of us, the “moral” decision is a self-serving decision to get along with others because on some gut level we understand our dependence on others, but for some few, the decision is to harm others so that we do not get harmed. For the murderer, the moral compass no longer points toward God or society, it points toward the self, and so whatever satisfies one’s own desires is the best decision, regardless of what anyone else thinks. And don’t we ALL make decisions like that now and then? Don’t we all look at the world around us and at God’s natural order and choose to do something that is utterly self-serving and counter to all that we see around us? And haven’t we been making such selfish decisions all our lives, so that today we have formed our own personalities by what we have chosen to do in the past? Haven’t we been formed by one or two fateful decisions we made as teenagers, decisions to go one way instead of another, decisions that, when we really think about it, were completely selfish? We may like to think that the way we act today is just our “nature”, but the fact is that we ourselves have shaped that “nature” by repetition and habit over the course of years and decades, and we ourselves are therefore responsible for all we do–especially for our sins before God.
Still, scientists are trying to tell us that many behaviors–including homosexuality–are hardwired into us at birth. In a way, they are right. From birth we are selfish creatures, prone to satisfying our own desires. Is there anyone among us who, when we were children, didn’t sneak a snack before dinner sometime or swipe a toy from another child? Who among us can lay claim to never having stolen, lied, or cheated at some point in our lives? Who among us can say they haven’t lusted after someone or something and then acted on that desire? Who among us can claim they didn’t at least once think about hurting someone who angered or hurt us? Yes, we are hardwired for sin, and the Bible wholly agrees.
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Jesus came to challenge us to change all that. Jesus came to save us from a life of “human nature” and lead us into a life of the Spirit. Jesus came to tell us we DO have a choice in how we act, that we need no longer simply follow the selfish dictates of our hearts but instead may follow a holy path that is ultimately satisfying to both ourselves and to God.
16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
And a thousand years before Christ was even born, Joshua understood that we have all been given that choice of which way to go. Would we serve the “gods” of our own lives and the desires of our hearts–which, by the way, have brought us little more than temporary satisfaction–or would we follow the God who created us and who calls us to be His beloved people? Would we serve the idols of lust, selfishness, and compromise, or would we serve the God who saved us from all of that? It is our choice, and Joshua presented it to the Israelites just as Jesus did, as an absolute yes-or-no, black-and-white choice. There is no middle ground: we either choose God and Jesus, or we choose to serve ourselves. Only one choice leads to blessings and eternal life, and that is Jesus Christ.
“But I can’t stop being who I am!” we protest. Actually, yes we can stop being who we have been before knowing Jesus. We can consciously choose to act in a way that is counter to who we have been, and we can consciously make the choice to fill our lives with something other than the self-indulgence that has been our norm for so long. It is hard to change, but not impossible. It is not impossible for the selfish tax collector to repent and repay what he has long stolen from others. It is not impossible for the adulterer or the whore to repent and find fulfillment in a relationship with their spouse. It is not impossible for the murderer to repent and seek to rebuild what he has worked so hard to destroy in the world. It is not impossible for you or for me to finally make a change in our lives that focuses more upon others than ourselves. And it is not too late for us to quit seeking honors for ourselves and instead choose to honor God with our lives.
Rather than asking why God has allowed suffering, why He has allowed some to have feelings that are counter to His moral will, we ought to be asking how we can CHANGE, how we can face the challenges of this world with strength and wisdom. And the truth is that we cannot face those challenges–repentance and a world seemingly full of tragedy–without God. We may try to face those things with worldly ways–with pessimism or nihilism, with self-centered meditation, with addictions, with self-gratifying sexuality, or perhaps even by calling out to our government to solve the problems of the world–but none of those things can adequately and permanently satisfy us, and none of those things can lift us out of the world and closer to God. And although we may cry out to God “Why?” we must realize that His answer will always be “Because the world is broken through sin.” His answer will be Jesus’ answer in His first sermon:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
In other words, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”
As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Father God, thank You for giving us this choice. Thank You for not utterly destroying us nor leaving us without a way to face the trials and temptations of this world. Thank You for Jesus Christ. Amen.