A friend and mentor blew my mind recently when he pointed out a subtlety in Scripture I had never noticed before ― a detail most people overlook, but one that has great significance for us.
The verse above is taken from Hebrews 13:5, but it doesn’t originate there.
The words were first uttered to the Israelites as they prepared for battle.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
It is significant that these words were spoken to the Israelites as they faced a terrifying ordeal ― war against a nation of giants who outnumbered them and outclassed them. Eleven of the twelve spies who had been sent in to reconnoiter the land came back with faces like paper.
“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…The cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.” (Numbers 13:31, Deuteronomy 1:28)
The Anakites were enormous, warlike people who were smaller descendants of the Nephilim, a race that dominated the pre-flood world. It is speculated that the Nephilim were the product of pairings between earth women and fallen angels (Genesis 6:2). They possessed superhuman size, strength and probably intelligence as well. They were a race cloaked in terrifying mystique. The Anakites were not quite as fearsome, being as they were the offspring of Nephilim and humans. However, their strength and size were still far out of the ordinary. Not surprisingly, the Israelite scouts declared themselves to be “grasshoppers…in their sight” (Numbers 13:33).
Such was the gauntlet faced by the Israelites, who didn’t have a Bible and lacked the benefit of hindsight and centuries of divine promises. We can appreciate their predicament even from a second-hand perspective. God was commanding them to walk in and attack a horde of 12-foot monsters with spears. At this precise juncture, Moses told the people not to worry. Yeah, right.
Modern students of the Bible tend to compartmentalize the provisions of God. When we read this story over coffee and crumble cake in our comfortable, well-lighted houses, we smile and imagine that it was easier for the Israelites to believe because of the miracles they had seen (but we have seen miracles as well). We read these stories in the context of other biblical tales and imagine that the people who lived them were carried along by the unbroken theme of God’s deliverance, when the prospect was certain death if they did as they were told. The terror of the moment overshadowed God’s promises to them, just as it does for us.
God could make our fear more manageable and our obstacles less daunting. But he doesn’t. He wants us to run the gauntlet and receive maximum benefit. There are two notable benefits of being pushed to the limit. First, the experience increases our faith, and second, God gains glory afterward. And although the second benefit sounds as though it is for God, it is really for us. God already knows his power is limitless. He’s not on some kind of ego trip. The more we know who God is and what he can do for us, the bigger our experience of his blessings and grace. Our confidence in him yields benefits to us in this life and even more in the next.
[N]ow for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6,7)
If we ever have occasion to wonder what “various trials” might mean, several gruesome examples are given in Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith.” After describing godly men who abandoned themselves to unimaginable risks, the writer then recounts many who actually paid the ultimate price for their faith.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-38)
In this most extreme of contexts, just two chapters later, God’s assurances from Deuteronomy appear again. But this time, the person has shifted. Instead of some giant of faith telling us God can be trusted, the Lord himself tells us:
“Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5)