As we continue in our new series, Going It Alone, we talk about the thing that has more power over our lives than just about anything else. Know what this is? Our habits. Israel set in place some habits and we have as well in our own lives. The question is: Where are these habits taking us? Join me as we look at where they took Israel and how we can be sure they’re taking us where we most want to go.
So, I have been told on occasion that I have a habit-forming personality. Personally, I think this is totally preposterous. I mean, sure, I have to eat grapes in sets of two (then my mouth is better balanced), carefully nibble the shell of jelly beans or M&Ms before I eat the core (then the gooey insides don’t get stuck in my teeth so badly and I can savor the flavor longer), I have to totally unpack from a trip as soon as I get home (then I don’t have to do it later), collect things obsessively when I buy part of a set until I have the whole thing (who wants an incomplete set of something anyway?), and generally get ready in the same order every morning (that way I don’t forget to do anything), but those hardly mean I have a habit-forming personality. Right?
The truth is that whether you have a habit-forming personality like…okay, fine, me…or are more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of a person, you have established some patterns, some habits, over the course of your life. Some of these habits are probably good, while others of them may not be quite so good. Whatever they are, though, they serve as the controlling narrative of your life whether you realize it or not. If your life is exactly the way you want it right now, then you’ve got good habits in place. You should do whatever it takes to maintain them. But if you have even a few things that are not quite like you want them to be, at least part of the reason for that is going to be the habits you have set.
Ultimately, the only way you are going to be able to make meaningful changes to your life of any kind will be to change your habits. You may have all the willpower in the world, but willpower is powerless before a well-ingrained habit. This is why you will sometimes see a professional athlete who wants to improve his game go through a timely, complicated, and expensive process of hiring a trainer to help him change a playing habit. Tiger Woods is famous for doing this. He’s actually done it three times. Once when he was a toddler and decided he liked the right side of the ball better than the left. Once when he was a teenager and aiming to bring more discipline to an otherwise outstanding swing. And then once again in 2013 to much derision from the broader sports world; derision that lasted until the end of the process when his swing was even better than it had been before. In order to do this, though, he had to completely break down his old swing and start from the ground up. He could have desired to make the improvement all he wanted, but without changing the habit that lay behind it, it just wasn’t going to happen. The same goes for our lives. We can want to make changes, but without changing our bad habits (or putting good habits in place in the beginning), we are going to continue down the path we are currently traveling.
Well, if you’ll remember, last week I told you that in rejecting the habits of their forebears after Joshua and his generation died, the Israelites set in place a pattern, a habit, if you will, that would bring them misery for a very long time. It would ultimately lead to their total downfall at the hands of the Babylonians about a millennium down the road. And while we could put a lot of details into play describing the habit they were setting it really boils down to a simple idea: they wanted to do life on their own. They didn’t want to live under the authority and commands of someone else—particularly someone else they could not see and whose commands didn’t really resonate with the desires of their hearts, desires that were being shaped by the exotic and externally attractive habits of their neighbors. No, rather than following the God who had led them thus far on their journey, they wanted to go it alone. They wanted to try life all on their own for a while now that they had settled into their new home.
And just so we’re clear: settled doesn’t mean perfect. If you’ve ever moved before, you know that you were settled in long before every single box had been unpacked and before everything had been put where it belonged. When we moved out of the parsonage in Virginia to come down here a few years ago, we discovered some boxes that hadn’t been unpacked since we moved to Virginia from Denver nine years earlier! When we arrived here, there were several boxes that remained completely untouched the whole time we lived in Lum’s old house. I am happy to say, though, that there are no more boxes remaining where we are now. But things still aren’t perfect. No, things in the land of Israel weren’t perfect by any means, but they were settled. And for a people weary from journeying, settled can easily be construed as good enough. And when we’ve hit the “good enough” mark, many of us are ready to call it quits. Especially if we’re tired. We want to put down the rigors of the previous journey and just relax. This is what Israel did…but it’s also what we do. When we’ve been working through a challenging phase of life—kind of like we are in right now—and finally hit a place where things seem settled again, we want to let our hair down, forget about everything that came before, and just go it alone for a while.
But when we do this, what we often don’t realize is that we are setting new patterns and habits in place that will go with us into our next phase of life. This is exactly what happened to Israel, and as we continue in our new series through the book of Judges called Going It Alone this morning, I want to look more closely with you at the particular habit the people of Israel put in place.
Let’s start by looking at it in practice and then we’ll step back and get a bit of a behind-the-curtain look. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to Judges 3:7 and take a look at this with me: “The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; they forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and he sold them to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim, and the Israelites served him eight years.”
So, what’s going on here? Well, after some amount of time in their new home, the people turned from the ways of the Lord and took up the religious practices of their neighbors—you know, the neighbors they never bothered to finish driving out of the land like the Lord had instructed them. This would have included wild, drunken parties, visits with “sacred” women at the temple, various blood rituals, along with more mundane practices like offering sacrifices to the various locally worshiped gods and goddesses. They insisted on going it alone and so the Lord let them.
At some point in this foray into what they thought was independence, a foreign king attacked. He is identified here as Cushan-rishathaim, the king of Aram-naharaim. Your translation might have Mesopotamia. Same place, easier name. Now, historians and archaeologists don’t know exactly who this is. But from an analysis of his name and title, this probably was not some local warlord as will be the case later on in Judges. This was an emperor reigning over a vast swath of territory that includes parts of what is now Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel—or, in other words, most of the Middle East. Now, how does a fledgling nation whose identity is still more tribal than national stand up to power such as this? Absent a powerful benefactor (like, say, God) they don’t. Cushan-rishathaim conquered the land and made Israel a vassal state. They were once again in the place they had left—owned by another more powerful nation. What could they do but what their ancestors had done?
Verse 9: “The Israelites cried out to the Lord. So the Lord raised up Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s youngest brother, as a deliverer to save the Israelites. The Spirit of the Lord came on him, and he judged Israel. Othniel went out to battle, and the Lord handed over King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram to him, so that Othniel overpowered him. Then the land had peace for forty years, and Othniel son of Kenaz died.”
The people cried out to the Lord and in contrast with what they deserved for leaving Him behind to go it alone, He came to their aid. He empowered Othniel, the youngest brother of Caleb, one of the two faithful spies Moses had originally sent into the land more than a generation before (the other was Joshua). In other words, Othniel was one of the very last of the generation who knew and served the Lord because they had seen what He had done for Israel. This was the elder statesman coming back to bring a steadying hand to the nation wobbling on its feet for its first solo walk. It’s like God knew this was going to happen and had one more member of that faithful generation on reserve to lead the people back to Him when the time came. Unwilling to give up on the people who had given up on Him because of His great love for them, God came to their rescue when they realized that going it alone was no way to go, and things were good again. The people…settled again.
But you see, that was the problem, wasn’t it? That was the catalyst for the habit. Indeed, look at v. 12: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He gave King Eglon of Moab power over Israel, because they had done what was evil in the Lord’s sight. After Eglon convinced the Ammonites and the Amalekites to join forces with him, he attacked and defeated Israel and took possession of the City of Palms [that is, Jericho]. The Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years.
Here we are again. They tried to go it alone again. They got settled, decided they didn’t really need God after all, and off they went. And so, in the course of history, when another foreign ruler came to power and decided to expand his territory into what these foreign invaders had taken from his ancestors, there was again no one to help them. What’s more, there were no more connections to the faithful past living among the people.
But God’s love just doesn’t quit. And so, when the people cried out again, “he raised up Ehud son of Gera, a left-handed Benjaminite, as a deliverer for them.” Ehud had none of the character or faithfulness of Othniel. Those kinds of individuals were in short supply now. He may have been chosen because he was just the kind of person nobody would expect God to pick. He does that a lot. Ehud is described specifically as being left-handed—which I, for one, appreciate—except that this probably meant he had lost the use of his right arm somehow. This is particularly ironic given that his tribe, Benjamin, literally means “son of the right hand.” He was a reject in every sense. In other words, He was exactly the kind of person God usually chooses for something like this. God used a crippled reject to take down the king of Moab. And take him down he did. The rest of the story is full of intrigue and deception and gore and humor. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster. You should all take some time this afternoon and read it and marvel that something like this is in the Bible.
Now, his deceptive methods probably weren’t what God would have preferred, but then Ehud doesn’t ever actually consult with God during this process. And while we don’t know anything about his leadership tenure other than that it was one of the longest of any of the judges, there’s a fair chance it wasn’t marked by anything like the spiritual revival the people needed. But sometimes God gives us leaders who merely reflect our current state rather than calling us forward to a better one. We’ll see this a lot over the next few weeks. In some ways it is reflective of where we are as a culture today. We see it rather clearly here in that the next judge, Shamgar, whose name suggests he wasn’t even an Israelite, delivered them from the Philistines through the rather violent means of slaughtering 600 of them with an oxgoad.
So, what is all this other than a fun set of stories that are hard to believe are really in the Bible? What we are seeing here is the start of a pattern. We are seeing the beginning of the pattern I’ve been telling you about. It’s the pattern I outlined briefly for you last week: the people go it alone, they experience the consequences of this, God rescues them when they finally cry out to Him, and they go it alone again. Over and over and over again this cycle repeats itself with the people falling a little further away each time. The quality and character of the leaders God raises up to rescue them deteriorates at about the same pace. As a result, each time they return, they don’t come back quite as much as they did before until finally everybody is just doing whatever they want. The nation is gripped by chaos. And where did this chaos come from? From the pattern. From the habit. Until they finally broke the habit, changed the pattern, it wouldn’t matter how much they hated the path they were on, they weren’t going to leave it.
But why? Why did they fall into this kind of a habit in the first place? Well, in what comes just before this in the text, we discover it was because they were determined to go it alone. God was willing to help them and keep holding their hand if they were willing to receive it, but they just weren’t. They set in place a pattern of disobedience, and like we saw last week, it had consequences. And one of the consequences was that God let them go when they went. He quit offering unsolicited help. He left them on their own surrounded by the Canaanites they didn’t drive out in order to test their faithfulness to Him. And because of their intention to go it alone they failed again and again.
Come back to Joshua 2:16 with me and check this out: “The Lord raised up judges, who saved them from the power of their marauders, but they did not listen to their judges. Instead, they prostituted themselves with other gods, bowing down to them. They quickly turned from the way of their fathers, who had walked in obedience to the Lord’s commands. They did not do as their fathers did. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for the Israelites, the Lord was with him and saved the people from the power of their enemies while the judge was still alive. The Lord was moved to pity whenever they groaned because of those who were oppressing and afflicting them. Whenever the judge died, the Israelites would act even more corruptly than their fathers, following other gods to serve them and bow in worship to them. They did not turn from their evil practices or their obstinate ways. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and he declared, ‘Because this nation has violated my covenant that I made with their fathers and disobeyed me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I did this to test Israel to see whether or not they would keep the Lord’s way by walking in it, as their fathers had.’”
The people of Israel established a habit of disobedience that led to nowhere but trouble. My question for you in all of this is simple: What kind of pattern and habits are you setting in place in your own life? Are you setting in place habits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Or are you setting in place habits that are more reflective of the works of the flesh—sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and things like these? Now, we talk about these being character traits both positive and negative, but all a character trait is is a habit we’ve developed in our interactions with the world around us. Responding with joy is a habit we develop. Something bad happens and by spiritual muscle memory we smile, thinking about our security in God’s hands, and rest in the lightness and sweetness of His kingdom. Being patient is a habit. Schedules or circumstances spin out of our control and into the hands of someone else and because we always do it, we enter a place of calmness and turn our thoughts toward the Lord. Practicing self-control is a habit. When we are presented with temptations of excess or indulge, we instinctively say no. At the same time, though, sexual immorality can be a habit—a highly addictive one at that. Jealousy is a habit. Someone gains something we don’t have, and we automatically hate them for it and secretly want them to fail. Envy is a habit. When we see the blessings of others, we desire them because that’s what we always do. Inappropriate anger is a habit. Some habits lead to pain and suffering. Some habits lead to righteousness and life. Israel was in the grip of a habit that was leading them on a path of death. Whether you realize it or not, you too are in the grip of a set of habits. On what kind of path are they leading you? My advice: Take control of your habits and set habits of righteousness in place. Establish a habit of righteousness.
Okay, but what does this actually look like? I mean, we can point to specific character traits, but while that’s good, it tends toward the abstract more so than something we can really get our minds around. So how about this: Israel’s bad habit was wrapped up in how much they were willing to accommodate to their cultural environment. God had told them way back in Deuteronomy not to mingle with the Canaanites and establish familial relationships and treaties because they would be led astray and that’s exactly what happened. That’s natural. We tend to look to minimize differences with family members so as to avoid conflicts even when those differences are large and significant. When we have an emotional attachment to someone we find ways to either justify away or even take on ourselves behaviors or beliefs that are out of sync with what we have long been taught to believe is true. Similarly, when we are in the minority when it comes to what we believe there is a natural tendency to move toward the majority—whether that is a majority of numbers or simply of volume.
How all of this plays out is that, like Israel, the church today is faced with a very great temptation to accommodate with our culture which is moving with increasing urgency in a direction rather directly opposed to where the Scriptures would point us. So then, which kind of pattern are we going to set both as a church and as individuals: standing apart and keeping God’s ways, or going along with the cultural current? Accommodating—adjusting our beliefs to the things the culture declares to be right and true and using twisted interpretations of Scriptures to try and justify such adjustments away from historical orthodoxy—will always be celebrated by the broader culture. Just look at the ways churches which come out publicly in favor of whatever the latest thing the culture has declared to be right and true are celebrated in the media. Those churches are hailed as courageous and standing against the flow of the others. They’re heralded as bold and fresh and modern. Their pastors get invited to appear on talk shows and even to the White House on occasion. The problem is: accommodating is a pathway of diminishing returns. The more we give in, the more we will be expected to give in. Once we start going with our culture and letting it be our guide, it will naturally expect us to keep up—even if only on the margins—all the way to the bottom. The fact is Scripture and life very often seem to diverge ahead of us. If we set in place a habit of going with culture at these forks, like Israel, we will gradually be led away from following after the ways of God. That path doesn’t end well. Instead, we need to establish a habit of righteousness.
That’s the alternative here. We stand apart and keep God’s ways. Now, let me unpack that idea a bit because it could very easily be understood to mean something other than what I’m trying to say. Standing apart doesn’t mean being stand-offish. Oh sure, it can come off that way. You remember the kids in school who stood out but in such a way that nobody liked them. Sometimes they were two or three levels of maturity below the rest of their classmates. Sometimes they decided that the best way to get the attention they craved was to either stay in trouble or just irritate other kids all the time. Sometimes it was simply that they took up a hobby other people didn’t understand and they weren’t very kind in their ignorance. You’ve heard about churches that everybody knew about but nobody really liked. Take Westboro Baptist Church as exhibit A. That’s how not to do this. That is not establishing a habit of righteousness, it’s celebrating a habit of being a pain-in-the-neck. God never called us to that.
Establishing a habit of righteousness looks different. Just like there were those different kids nobody liked in school, there were also some kids who were different but in such a way that everybody liked them. Not just their circle of friends. Everybody. What’s more, they seemed to like everybody else too. They were always kind, but never patronizing. They were inclusive and contagiously so—they included people from different social groups that wouldn’t normally cross paths and they found themselves suddenly wanting to broaden their borders to include these different folks. Everywhere these kids went the situations they walked into were automatically improved. Their being different served to draw others to them.
I had a friend like this in high school named Joshua Walsh. He was a senior when I was freshman. Joshua was an odd guy. He had a pet rubber chicken named Carmelito that went with him everywhere. His car was named Antoine. On his last day of school, he stood up on the table at lunch and sang Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to the whole lunchroom. He organized a band nerd revolt by getting all of us to rush to the front hall where all the “cool” people hung out after class one day thereby beating them there just to show the band nerds could be cool too. He was weird. And everybody liked him. He was a mentor to me, and I spent the rest of my time in high school trying to be just like him.
This is what it looks like when we as a church and when we as individuals establish a habit of godly righteousness. We don’t look like the world around us at all. We look better. We look better because we’ve established better habits. We don’t divide, we unite. We don’t rush to judgment; we reflect deep and wide on issues with Scripture as our guide before pronouncing them settled. We don’t exclude, we include. Yet we’re not wishy-washy. We know exactly what we believe and have great confidence in that. We’ve established firm habits of justice, of peace, of joyfulness, of mercy, of humility, of gentleness, of love, of holiness…in a word…of righteousness. Friends: this is a habit worth establishing. Establish a habit of righteousness.
That’s exactly what Israel didn’t do, and they paid for it over and over again. They walked down a long, hard, and painful path because they didn’t have good habits. Sure, God was merciful and came to their rescue because that’s the kind of God He is, but how much better to simply walk with Him in the first place? Now, will the culture around us receive these habits of righteousness well? Nope. And that’s made clear pretty much from start to finish in the Scriptures. The world never treats God’s people well. But that’s okay, because God does and He’s bigger. If He came to the rescue of a people who were running from Him, how much faster do you think He’ll come to the aid of those who are running after Him? Establish a habit of righteousness. Walk in the pathway of Christ. That road will always lead to life.