I know I probably shouldn’t be picking on this guy as much as I do, and I know that I run a risk because his books are very popular. Many of you probably watch his weekly TV shows and have read his books. He is the pastor of the largest Protestant church in America, and the king of positive thinking. Just listen to his latest blog entry from May 19, 2010, entitled, “It All Starts in Your Mind”:
I used to play basketball with a gentleman who was in his seventies. He was in great shape. He could run up and down the court with the twenty year olds. One day, we were talking and he said, “Joel, it’s kind of funny. When I was forty, my doctor told me that my knees wouldn’t hold up with me playing as much as I do, but I just kept playing. At fifty, my doctor told me my back would start hurting if I kept running and jumping like this. But I just kept on. At sixty, he told me I could never keep up physically, but I could still run with the young guys. When I hit seventy, finally he told me to just keep playing as much as I wanted to.” I laughed and said, “How long are you going to play?” He smiled and replied, “I’m going to play until I get old.”
I like his perspective because really, old is in your mind. Your body may age, but if you’ll stay young in your heart, it’ll help your body to age even better. The scripture says that as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. This man had the heart of a twenty-five year old physically and mentally. He was always grateful, always happy, always in a good mood. You could tell he wasn’t making plans to get old and worn out; he was planning on living out his life joyful, vibrant, and in good health.
Today, I encourage you to examine your outlook on life. Are you making plans to be healthy, strong, and vibrant? Are you making plans to be all that God has called you to be? Remember, your life will go in the direction of your thoughts. It all starts in your mind. Make the decision today to set your mind in the right direction so you can move forward into the destiny God has prepared for you.
The Power of Positive Thinking is not just a book title, although it sold a lot of books for Norman Vincent Peale. There is a whole philosophy of life built around the principle that your thoughts will determine your reality. The Success Consciousness website says,
Positive thinking is a mental attitude that admits into the mind thoughts, words and images that are conductive to growth, expansion and success. It is a mental attitude that expects good and favorable results. A positive mind anticipates happiness, joy, health and a successful outcome of every situation and action. Whatever the mind expects, it finds.
Positive thinking definitely has its place. After all, the Bible does tell us to let our minds dwell on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4.8). And who likes to be around people who are always thinking negatively or expecting the worst of any situation?
But the danger of positive thinking is that we believe that the positive thoughts themselves have the power to create reality. Sure, a positive attitude and winsome personality may open doors and endear you to potential employers, but is it enough to defeat the spiritual forces of darkness? When Paul wrote about spiritual warfare, that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (see Ephesians 6.12), what was his solution to the problem? Did he just tell them to think positive thoughts and to imagine a better reality? No. He said to them,
13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6.13-18 NIV)
Spiritual warfare was not about positive thinking, but about joining God in a battle, a battle that used the weapons of truth, righteousness, faith, the Word of God, and prayer.
Gideon, Faith, and Warfare
One of the great stories in all of the Bible about what it is like to join God in a spiritual battle is the story of Gideon in Judges chapter 7. We have already read that Israel had been oppressed by the Midianites for seven years (Judges 6.1), and that the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) had called Gideon to be His instrument to deliver Israel. Now it is time for Gideon to take action.
1Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. 2The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her… (Judges 7.1-2 NIV)
To put this in perspective, Midian has come to the field of battle with 135,000 trained soldiers (see Judges 8.10). In comparison, Gideon was able to muster up 32,000, or about 1 soldier to ever 24 of the Midians. Not very good odds. We might expect God to come to Gideon and say, “You don’t have enough workers here. Let me do some more recruiting for you and see if we can get another 100,000 people to join the cause.” But He doesn’t. On the contrary, the Lord issues one of the most striking statements in all of the Bible: “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.” In God’s eyes, Gideon had too many resources for Him to move.
How could God think such a thing? Because God knew that if Gideon’s army was strong, the soldiers and the nation would think that their own strength had saved Israel. And this was one of the great faith lessons that Israel was supposed to be learning, to trust in the Lord and not in their own strength. This is what David learned,
Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. (Psalm 20.6-8 NIV)
What God is doing among Israel is more than just liberating them from Midian. He is teaching them to trust in Him to fight against the enemies. And today, whatever our battle is, whether it is depression or looking for a job or marital strife or addictions, the battle will be won by the power of God at work in us, through us, and around us. Our strength will not be the source of victory.
God Works In Strange Ways…For A Reason
And to teach us that, the Lord often does very strange things. If you have followed the Lord for any length of time, then you know that God puts us in strange situations so that we can learn of His power through our weakness. Look at what the Lord asked Gideon to do,
3…announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.
4But the LORD said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”
5So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink.” 6Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.
7The LORD said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place.” 8So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites to their tents but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. (Judges 7.3-8 NIV)
I have heard many sermons about how God weeded out of Gideon’s army those soldiers unfit for battle. With the fearful gone (see Judges 7.3) and with the non-vigilant removed (see Judges 7.5-6), the small army was an elite fighting force. But I think that misses the point of what God said to Gideon. God did not say, “You have too many scared soldiers in your midst. You have too many soldiers who don’t know how to stay vigilant at all times.” No, the Lord said, “You have too many soldiers.” The problem was not with the type of soldiers but with the number of soldiers. The point of the sifting process was not to put Gideon in a stronger position but in a weaker position.
Can you imagine what Gideon must have been thinking? With 300 men, he was going to face off with an army of 135,000? The odds were not all that good to start with, but now they were 450 to 1. Insurmountable. But the promise of the Lord was very clear: “With these 300 men, I will give the Midianites into your hands.”
God’s Grace to Gideon
Gideon must have been fearful of what the next day held, because the Lord was gracious to him during the night. As Gideon’s small group was camping on the hill that overlooked the massive army of Midian, the Lord graciously spoke to Gideon.
9During that night the LORD said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. 10If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah 11and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. 12The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.
13Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”
14His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”
15When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped God. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The LORD has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” (Judges 7.8-15 NIV)
In the midst of an awesome calling, the Lord was gracious to Gideon. He knew that Gideon was trying to be a man of faith, but that fear was still very present. He knew that Gideon was raised in a home that trusted in Baal, not in the Lord (his father had built an altar to Baal and Gideon was originally given the name “Let Baal Contend;” see Judges 6.25 and Judges 7.1). He knew that this was going to push his faith in the Lord to new limits. So the Lord encouraged His chosen servant.
And we should not miss the depth of the encouragement. Not only were they able to sneak into the enemy camp undetected, but they were guided to the tent of two unknown soldiers. The Lord had given one of them a dream about a loaf of barley bread striking and overturning their tent. The barley loaf was the food of the poor because it was made from the cheapest of all grains.
If that was not enough, the unnamed Midianite soldier understood the meaning of the dream, that Gideon would be the victor over Midian. Can you imagine what it must have been like to hear your own name spoken by the enemy soldiers? This was clear evidence that God was at work. Gideon’s faith was renewed, and he returned to the camp with the confidence that the Lord was going to give Midain into his hands.
Strange Battle Plans
But the strange working of God was not over yet. Not only did the Lord need to reduce the number of troops to demonstrate the battle was his and not Gideon’s, He also had to use a battle plan that was sure not to work.
16Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside. 17“Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. 18When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon.’” (Judges 7.16-18 NIV)
We are not specifically told that the Lord gave this battle plan to Gideon, but I believe that He did because this is so like God. Think of the Battle of Jericho and marching around the city for seven days and blowing on the trumpets (see Joshua 5.13-6.27). God seems to like battle plans that are so silly that only He can get the glory.
19Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. 20The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” 21While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.
22When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the LORD caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. 23Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. 24Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them as far as Beth Barah.”
So all the men of Ephraim were called out and they took the waters of the Jordan as far as Beth Barah. 25They also captured two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was by the Jordan. (Judges 7.19-25 NIV)
Again, I think we miss the point when we try to point out that the attack took place at a shift change or that the light from their torches made the army of Gideon look much larger than it really was or that the sound of the trumpets drove the Midianites to fear. The reason that Gideon won the battle was that “the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords.” Just like in the Exodus story, the Lord threw the opposing army into confusion. The battle was the Lord’s! Gideon won the battle because the Lord did what only the Lord could do.
God’s plans for handling our struggles with the forces of evil are often counter-intuitive. He calls us to be kind to our enemies and to feed them when they are hungry (see Romans 12.17-21). He calls us to forgive those over and over again who offend and hurt us (see Luke 17.4). He calls us to turn the other cheek and to walk the extra mile (see Matthew 5.38-42). He calls us to give a blessing when we are insulted (see 1 Peter 3.9). Often, God’s ways of handling our trials are as silly and ludicrous as facing off against a giant army with only a few hundred soldiers.
But in trusting the Lord to win the battle, we put our trust in the plan of the Lord. So we send home all of the resources, and we light our torches and yell out our battle cries, and we hope and trust that the Lord will do His part.
Of course, we should not be so foolish as to minimize the importance of what Gideon and his 300 men actually did. While the real victory came because the Lord caused the men in the camp to turn on each other, God used the torches and trumpets to do that. He worked through the torches and trumpets. If the torches had not been lit and the trumpets had not been blown, the Lord would not have been able to do His thing. That means that the steps of faith He calls us to take are every bit as important as His work in the camp.
The story of Gideon is an important illustration of how we work out our salvation because it is God who is at work within us (see Philippians 2.12-13). In our partnership, it is the Lord’s hand that trumps all, but He chooses to move His hand through the faith steps He puts before us. What victory is He calling us to today? What faith steps must be taken in order to allow the Lord something to work with?