The high call

Sometimes the real issue is not the pressing issue. Sometimes a more basic principle is at play that we dare not violate. Especially when we think we can handle a tricky situation ourselves, we can choose an expedient solution, only to find that we’ve made the situation far worse. The devil’s most effective time of getting us to stumble can be when we least expect it.

All my Christian life I’ve been inspired by the life of good king Asa. Asa became king of Judah after Israel had split off. He had ten years of peace initially, and he used this period to purge Judah of idolatry and immorality.

During the period in which Asa was purging Judah of false worship, a prophet came to him and spoke this challenging word:

“Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. – 2Chr 15:2

Asa took the challenge, and he set about reconsecrating Judah to the Lord. He took this task so seriously that he removed his own mother from being the queen-mother because she openly harbored an abominable idol. Asa honored the Lord more than even family, so it is no wonder the Bible says that his heart was “perfect with the Lord all his days”.

There are two interesting things about Asa’s perfect heart for God. First, he still was not able to bring about complete purification of the land. Though Asa made immense progress, the “high places were not removed”. Commentator David Guzik points out that 2Chr 14.3 states that Asa did remove the high places dedicated to foreign gods, so evidently the high places that were not taken down were unauthorized places of worship to the Lord himself. Remember, this was not the New Covenant, where the presence of merely “two or three” represents an “official” quorum. Worship had to be done in authorized, formal ways.

The other thing I find interesting about Asa’s perfect heart is his stumble later on in life. After those ten years of peace a great crisis befell Asa. The nation of Ethiopia came against Judah with an army of one million men. Back then, Ethiopia consisted of much of the eastern horn of Africa, including the Sudan. Asa was vastly outnumbered and out-armed, and understandably afraid. In one of the most memorable prayers of the Bible,

Asa cried to the Lord his God, “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.” -2 Chr 14:11

I’ve prayed that prayer many a time when I’ve felt overwhelmed, and it always gave wonderful comfort. It invokes God’s sovereign purposes at work behind any situation, and gives us new perspective. One time the Lord supernaturally used this prayer as a sign to show me to go on the offensive in a situation where I seemed to be completely powerless. Glory to Him, I prevailed against the odds, and saved myself from a defeat that would have had permanent effects.

Asa too was blessed. “The Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah”. The implication is that the victory was wrought supernaturally, so that the Judeans were almost mere spectators to it. It was a great victory of faith over circumstances.

But it’s one of life’s ironies that we often do better in drastic, black-and-white trials than in the gray areas of subtlety. When our back is against the wall, we usually know it and call out to God. But when under lesser duress, we sometimes we rely on our own wisdom and fail to seek God.

That’s exactly what Asa did. Judah and Israel were constantly at each other’s throats at this time, and now Israel came against Judah, and by controlling the border began to oppress Judah and strangle its economy. At this point, Asa had a bright idea. Israel had a peace treaty with Syria up north. Asa would buy off the Syrians to break the treaty, thus opening up a two-front war against Israel. So Asa took even the gold from the Temple and bribed Syria to go to war against Israel.

The plan worked perfectly. Israel had to leave off fortifying its border cities with Judah in order to fight up north. Asa’s bribe not only bought himself temporary peace, but now he also marched on the abandoned border cities, confiscated the Israelite building supplies and used them for his own fortifications. Asa may have even turned a profit on his clever scheme.

There was only one problem: all this displeased the Lord. Asa’s plan fell short of the Lord’s standards for two reasons. First, Judah was not allowed to make alliances with the surrounding nations. God wanted His people to rely on Him alone for their defense, even when they were vastly out-powered, because He knew that if they formed alliances their defenses would be weakened and very soon they would be walking in all the ways of the world.

Second, though Israel and Judah were at odds, they were still brothers. The Lord himself had sanctioned Israel’s earlier revolt from Judah – a fact which Judah had recognized. Now Judah was enticing the heathen to punish a nation that bore God’s name, or, as the Bible puts it elsewhere, to “touch God’s anointed”.

This constituted a scandal against the name of the Lord. Now the heathen could cynically observe that being God’s people makes no difference at all; that just as with the world, any scheme, no matter how crafty, was legitimate for the Israelites when it suited their interests. The Israelites lost their witness, and the name of the Lord was “slandered among the nations”.

This is exactly the dynamic Paul was referring to when he warned the Corinthians not to go to law against each other in the courts of the unbelievers. Even when we have a just claim against a believer, dragging him to court is going to sully God’s name in the public square. God wants to build unity in the church and use the church to bring loving discipline to its members. He wants the church to grow up in judgment and in the ability to heal people and relationships. And that can’t happen if we take our disputes to outsiders for resolution.

(I wish the church had this in mind centuries ago, when it used the sword to persecute fellow believers. But that would have been impossible, because the church had corrupted itself by joining intimately to the state. Church went against church, and thus state went against state, and to this day the interminable religious wars and persecutions are an indelible mark that weakens our witness.)

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