Today I read the story of Gideon (found in the book of Judges chapters 7-9). I was struck by how God picked a coward to lead His people out of oppression and into peace.
The story starts with the Israelites at the breaking point in their dsyfunctional, cyclical behavior toward God. They had broken covenant with God, abandoned Him, and as a result were suffering the consequences and devastation of disobedience. This time the devastation was being inflicted upon Israel by the Midianites. "Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help." Why is that we wait to ask God for help until we've exhausted every other avenue?
Our hero, Gideon, is first seen in our story cowering in fear. Scared to death of the Midianites, he was hiding in a winepress threshing wheat. It was in this moment of weakness that the angel of God appeared to him and greeted him, "The LORD is with you mighty warrior." I had to laugh at the irony. A mighty warrior hiding in a winepress?
But God didn't see a coward. He saw a mighty warrior, one that would save Israel out of Midian's hand. How true is that in our lives? We see our weakness. Our vulnerabilities. Our inadequacies. But God sees something entirely different. He declares what He sees as truth then nudges us (sometimes gently, sometimes abruptly) forward into making that truth a reality.
Gideon wasn't too scared to lash out. He challenged the angel, "If the LORD is with us, WHY has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders?... But the LORD has abandoned us..." We do this. Life overwhelms us. Death. Disease. Financial struggles. Relational problems. In our darkest hours we often cry out, "God, why me? Why now? Where are you in all this?"
The angel doesn't let Gideon wallow in self-pity or insecurity. He tells Gideon, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" But Gideon doesn't buy it. He neither believes that God is with him or that he is a good leader. He backs this up by dashing off a laundry list of every inadequacy and flaw he has that disqualify him from both leadership and following God.
But God, in his compassion, keeps pushing back. He reassures Gideon, "I will be with you. You WILL strike down all the Midianites." Then He displays His power to renew Gideon's faith that God is big enough to do what He says He will do. As soon as Gideon's heart starts getting on board with the potential of leadership and freedom from oppression, God gives him an assignment. Tear down the altars to the false gods the Israelites had been worshipping and restore the LORD as the God the Israelites were to worship.
I thought it was interesting that Gideon obeyed, but in a cowardly way under the cloak of darkness. The Israelites had to hold a "careful investigation" to figure out who had defied the god Baal and set up an altar to the LORD. We do the same thing. God lays out a task that seems impossible and requires great courage. We timidly take wobbly baby steps of obedience and try to embrace this new identity and future that God is laying before us. The more we practice obedience, the more confident we grow in our ability to follow God and in His capability to lead us.
The same was true for Gideon. As the story unfolds, his confidence in God and in himself becomes apparent. He rallies the Israelites and calls them to arms. Then Gideon gets cold feet and secretly asks God for not one - but two - miraculous signs that God is truly with him. God grants Gideon the miraculous signs. And then stretches Gideon by weaning his army down from 32,000 soldiers to a mere 300! Throughout the process God continued to affirm to Gideon, "I will be with you. You will strike down the Midianites."
The evening of the battle comes. God wakes Gideon out of a sound sleep and says, "Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp." How compassionate of God! He knew both Gideon's desire to obey and the insecurities that stood in his way. God addressed both and equipped Gideon with EXACTLY what he needed to lead the Israelites into victory.
Gideon gathered his tiny arm of 300 men and laid out a bizarre battle plan. He instructed his men to surround the enemy camp in the middle of the night. Once they encircled the camp and at Gideon's signal, the men would blow their trumpets, shout "For the LORD and for Gideon!" and smash their torches. The last instruction was the craziest. The soldiers were supposed to just shine their light into the darkness and stand still.
Gideon had enough courage and faith that God would deliver the Israelites, that his men obeyed. As they held their position around the camp, the Israelite warriors watched the Midianites run, "crying as they fled!" God demolished their enemy. All Gideon had to do was be courageous and obey.
This compassionate, enemy-crushing God is the same God who sees us. He knows our fears and our pain. He knows our desire to follow Him and the insecurities that stand in our way. So He whispers and nudges and boldly declares, "I am with you! Do not be afraid. Follow me into victory. Be courageous and obey!" Won't you follow God out of oppression and into peace?