18 steps in the progression of unbelief

14 10 2008

 

 

This blog comes from a sermon I preached awhile back on Numbers 13:1-14:4. If you haven’t read Numbers recently, I strongly recommend it. If you’re a pastor and you haven’t preached through Numbers, you really should. Numbers is the story of God’s people in the wilderness wanderings, when they were called to go up and take possession of the Land of Promise but failed because of their unbelief. The Apostle Paul tells us that the things that happened to them were recorded for our example, so that we might learn NOT to repeat their mistakes.

 

The big turning point comes when spies are sent into Canaan to bring back a report to Moses and the people. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, encourage the people to trust in God and claim His promise. The others are intimidated by the size and number of the enemy, and they convince the people to abandon all hope of entering Canaan. Numbers 13:1-14:4 records these sad events, and shows us how unbelief is planted, takes root, and springs up in the midst of God’s people.

 

Here is a step-by-step progression of unbelief that every believer should avoid…

 

Step 1: Hesitating in the path of obedience (Deuteronomy 1:19-21)

 

God gave a command to the people to go up immediately and take the land that He had promised to give them. The first step toward the ultimate apostasy of the wilderness generation was a false step… they hesitated instead of instantly heeding the command of the Lord. Stopping to consider whether or not immediate obedience to a clear command of God is necessary inevitably gives doubt a foothold. Consider the good example of Peter and Andrew recorded in Matthew 4:18-20: “And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him.” In contrast are the hesitators, whose story is recorded in Luke 9:57-62:  “Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.'”

 

Step 2: Rationalizing procrastination through “practical considerations” (Deuteronomy 19:22)

 

Of course, the people were ready to provide a reason for their lack of instant compliance with God’s command.  After all, God expects us to be realistic.  He doesn’t want us to take leaps of blind faith without carefully weighing all of the facts, right? Surely God would not have us go up to possess the land without doing a demographic survey first to determine what we are up against! The fact that God graciously and patiently condescended to their weakness does not make their hesitation any more defensible. The longsuffering of God is a testimony to His goodness – not a justification of man’s weakness. God also bore with the people in order to test them, and in the end their initial hesitation would prove to be the beginning of a steady slide toward hardened unbelief. We may try to rationalize procrastination in the course of obedience, but given the inclination of our hearts toward sin, it is invariably dangerous to allow “practical considerations” to exercise a controlling interest in our decisions. Besides, when did practical considerations ever dictate what God is capable of doing?  The testimony of the Scriptures is the triumph of God’s power in spite of “practical considerations.” We are able to devise all sorts of reasons to put off immediate obedience to God’s commands, but in the end they only amount to excuses for our lack of faith and trust.

 

Step 3: Prayerlessness

 

There is no proof text in the passage before us to establish that the lack of prayer was an integral part of the people’s slide into sheer unbelief. It is an argument from silence… but the silence is deafening. Nowhere in the whole course of the narrative is there the slightest indication that the spies sought the face of the Lord in prayer as they set about their mission. We may be sure that Caleb and Joshua approached their task prayerfully, but it is clear from the conclusions of the other ten that seeking the direction and wisdom of God never occurred to them. The weeds of doubt grow thickest in an atmosphere of prayerlessness.

 

Step 4: Elevating man’s judgment above God’s

 

With gracious forbearance, God agreed to the proposal of the people and commanded that twelve spies be appointed to go up into the land. In His wisdom, the Lord designed the mission in such a way that possible disputes over the results would be less likely. There was to be a representative from each tribe, in order to eliminate any charge of partiality or vested interest. Those chosen as spies were to be recognized leaders in their tribes, so that their judgment would be respected. The design of God in this arrangement was that spiritually mature and seasoned men from each tribe would act as His representatives, reporting on the circumstances and encouraging a response of faithful obedience. God did not design the spy party as a means for group deliberation over whether or not to obey His command. Sadly, fallen man has an unfortunate knack in distorting a God-centered design into a man-centered one. It is a subtle shift that transforms God-centered representation into decision by majority vote. But in the process of the shift, the judgment of man is substituted for the will of God.

 

Step 5: Failing to discern God’s purpose in preparing His people (Num. 13:17-20)

 

God graciously agreed to permit the people to send out a spy party. His design, however, was not for them to evaluate whether or not they would obey. He allowed them to see the blessings of Canaan, along with the obstacles, in order to strengthen their courage. When God allows His people to anticipate the difficulties of their appointed tasks, it is not to discourage them, but to spur them on to greater resignation to Him and deeper trust in His ability to fulfill His promises. Failure to understand God’s purpose in revealing the obstacles ahead of us is the result of focusing on ourselves and our abilities rather than on the power of God to fulfill His promises. When God charged the spies to “be of good courage,” He was not calling on them to summon up their self-esteem, but to remember as they observed the challenges ahead of them that the Lord was with them. Rather than being overwhelmed with fear that they were not up to the task, they were to be moved to humble reliance on the Lord and filled with confidence that no challenge is too great for Him.

 

Step 6: Going through the motions of faith (Num. 13:21-25)

 

The twelve spies dutifully went about their mission, examining the lay of the land and its cities, and bringing back some of its produce as they had been instructed. But their minds were really made up before they left the camp. Once they caught a glimpse of the descendants of Anak, the rest of their mission was a mere formality.

 

Step 7: Dwelling on Circumstances (Num. 13:26-29)

 

It is not surprising that the report of the spies lists the positive and negative observations they  made with regard to the land.  This is what they were told to do. What is striking is that this is ALL they reported.   There is not a single mention of God, His power or His promises in the entire report!

 

Step 8: Magnifying the obstacles (Num. 13:28-29)

 

Also notable in the report of the spies is the decided “spin” they placed on their observations. Those given to doubt will always accentuate the negative. The blessings of the land are altogether lost in the emphasis placed on the down side. Worse yet, the power of God to conquer the mightiest of enemies, which the Israelites had certainly witessed in their deliverance from Egypt, is brushed aside.

 

Step 9: Dismissing the exhortations of the faithful (Num. 13:30-31)

 

The words of Caleb break through the gloom of the spies twisted report like a bright ray of sunshine piercing through the dark clouds of despair… But his words go unheeded by the gloom-and-doomers, casually dismissed as the unrealistic and impractical observations of a dreamer.

 

Step 10: Categorically denying the promises of God (Num. 13:31)

 

The strong statement of the unfaithful spies in verse 31 is nothing more than a bold-faced denial of the sure and certain promise of God. As doubters gain the support of the people, they become more and more bold in their unbelief.

 

Step 11: Stirring up discontent (Num. 13:32a)

 

Not wishing to lose their momentum in convincing the multitude to join them in their mutiny against God, the spies laid aside all pretense of “objectivity” and gave the people a bad report. The word used here is “dibba,” which means “whispering.”

 

Step 12: Distorting the truth (Num. 13:32b)

 

As the tension builds, a blatant contradiction becomes apparent in the words of the spies. In their initial report, they had said, “We went to the land where you sent us.  It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” Now, as their personal stake in convincing the people to follow their wicked counsel escalates, they reverse their initial statement and assert: “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants.” In retrospect, their lie is transparent, for they go on to emphasize the “great stature” of the men who dwell in the land – far from being “devoured” by the land, the inhabitants seem to have been quite healthy. Notice too how it is now asserted that ALL the people of the land were of great stature! But the people, now being in a mode of complete panic, seem to have been unable or unwilling to discern the obvious inconsistency of these statements. What mattered was convincing the people that disobedience was in their best interest, and whatever lies or exaggerations were necessary to accomplish that end were fair game.

 

Step 13: Exalting the power of the enemy (Num. 13:33)

 

The next step in the progression was to focus on the apparent power and strength of the enemy. Once the power of God is factored out, and the circumstances are reduced to the appearances of the flesh, it is quite easy to become paralyzed with intimidation at the supposed advantages of the opposition. History abounds with examples of the successful employment of this strategy by the devil and his minions. In reality, the biggest giant we face is our own wicked inclination to doubt the power and goodness of God. When we see ourselves as grasshoppers in the sight of God’s enemies, it is because God is seen as less than a grasshopper in our eyes. David was certainly a “grasshopper” in the eyes of the Philistine giant, yet he boldly predicted Goliath’s defeat, announcing, “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty… whom you have defied!”

 

Step 14: Wallowing in self-pity (Num. 14:1)

 

Having quite convinced themselves of the hopelessness of their situation, the people resorted to their tents and further solidified their doubts by weeping and wailing in complete self-pity. They did not cry out in prayer, asking the Lord for faith and strength and wisdom. Instead, they assured themselves that all was lost, and mourned their wretched predicament. The more they cried, the more sure they became of their plight. Self pity is like that.  It only serves to strengthen doubt. Weeping is good when it is the weeping of humble conviction and repentance. That kind of weeping proceeds from a heart that is deeply troubled by the offense it has caused to God. But the weeping of self-pity proceeds from a heart that is deeply troubled by the offense that God has caused to me!  It is the weeping of sheer rebellion and selfishness, and the more it is indulged, the tighter the stranglehold of rebellion becomes. Self-pity is like an intoxicating drug.  It is addictive and captivating.  It provides a deceptive sense of relief, but it is the illusion of a depressant that produces a temporary euphoria in those who take it in large enough quantities.  It merely feeds the selfish desire for affirmation, while ultimately plunging the soul into deeper despair.

 

Step 15: Discrediting God’s ordained authorities (Num. 14:2a)

 

Having fully indulged their foolish doubts in a night of weeping, the people had to face reality in the morning. When they awoke, Moses and Aaron would be waiting.  As God’s spokesmen, their task would be to proclaim the Word of God, calling the people to forsake their sinful disobedience and take hold of the Lord’s promise by faith. There is nothing the heart bent on rebellion hates more than a faithful preacher of the Word, especially when he is specifically appointed by God as a direct authority in his life! The best weapon of self-defense against such meddlesome preachers is to discredit them in the eyes of the people. So the people began to complain against Moses and Aaron.

 

Step 16: Giving in to irrational despair (Num. 14:2b)

 

The first part of the complaint of the people recorded in Numbers 14:2 is a glowing example of the irrational nature of unbelieving despair.  The people said, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in the wilderness!” This is not exactly a rational line of argumentation.  There is no reason given as to precisely how the people would be better off to have been killed by their Egyptian taskmaster, or to have dropped dead in the desert from plague or starvation. It is really pointless to inquire why death in Egypt or in the wilderness would have been better. There was no sound reasoning behind their statement.  It was the irrational expression of fear which had gripped the hearts of the multitude. At this point, they would have said anything to convince themselves that they were justified in their unbelief.  But what they did say amounted to this:  “We would be better off dead than trusting God to fulfill His promise to us!”  Truly, the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”  And the man who denies God in the face of opposition is a fool indeed.

 

Step 17: Seeking to justify disobedience (Num. 14:3a)

 

The next step in the progression of unbelief was to construct a rationale for the essentially irrational. Somehow, the people must convince themselves that the sinful course they desire to follow is really the way of prudence and responsibility. In his commentary on Numbers, Gordon Keddie aptly states:  “All unbelief comes down to this: a wicked and foolish decision is laundered by a show of rightness and wisdom.” And so the people come up with a justification for their cowardice. First, they imply that Moses and Aaron have obviously misinterpreted the will of God.  “Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword?”  Surely God would not do such a thing Moses!  You have clearly led us astray! Notice that by this point the people have firmly concluded that their entrance into the land of Canaan necessarily means that they will be killed.  There is not even a remote possibility in their minds that maybe… just maybe… they would prevail. Next, they concoct a high-sounding justification for their fear:  The truly responsible thing is to look out for the interests of our wives and children.  Those bent on pursuing a course of disobedience rarely come right out and admit it.  The heart is desperately wicked, and very adept at finding some plausible-sounding pretext to make foolish unbelief seem like the height of wisdom, and sheer cowardice seem noble.

 

Step 18: Formally rejecting God’s command (Num. 14:3b-4)

 

The course of self-deception being complete, it remains only for the people to formally announce their conclusion.  Having concluded that it would actually be “better” to walk in the exact opposite direction from the will of God, they said to one another:  “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” The majority voted to impeach God and His servant Moses. It wasn’t the last time that a faithful minister of God would find himself on the losing side of a vote cast by a rebellious congregation. Fear triumphed over faith in their hearts… unbelief dressed up as “practical wisdom” resulted in a formal repudiation of God’s promised inheritance. The lot was cast, and the plague of apostasy had smitten an entire generation.

 

The remedy is found in Psalm 27 and Romans 8:28-39

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 responses

21 10 2008
Phil Pockras

Splendid analysis of the failure at Kadesh. May we, may I heed and flee from such sin!

8 11 2008
Kent Butterfield

This sermon I remember from Doug’s ministry in Durham NC. It is an excellent sermon showing the progression of sin and the deceitfulness of the sin of unbelief. We all must examine our own hearts in light of these truths and take warning and make correction when needed. Thanks for your faithful teaching Doug!

5 05 2009
lawyermommy

Wow, excellent post! What I found most exciting was the reminder about EXALTING THE POWER OF THE ENEMY. What an awesome remark made by David “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty… whom you have defied!”
It is easy, especially with the mass hysteria surrounding media coverage of the economy, to become despondent. Lies, fear and despair are not of God. Jehovah is our victory!

May his blessings be! Amen.

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