Friday, March 9, 2012

Odds Are Terrible Gods

"But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites" (Numbers 14:10)

What a verse. Joshua & Caleb stand as two small islands battered by a sea of fearful and furius Israelites who are just inches from pelting them with stones.

Their crime? Faith.

They believed that God would protect and bless them as they battle the fierce armies and fortified cities that lay in their path.

The basis for this faith? The record.

They figured that if their God could conquer Pharaoh's Egypt by miraculous plagues, cut a dry path through the Red Sea, and provide meat and bread for thousands out of thin air, then He could probably help them win a few skirmishes. Plus, this was God's ancient plan in no uncertain terms, the promise that God had reiterated for centuries with the consistancy of a kick drum in a rock band. They remembered God's record of providence, and they remembered His promises. For Joshua and Caleb, that was enough. Case closed, they urged their comrads. Let's move!

What did everyone else base their fear on? What logic did they use to opt out of God's plan and voluntarily head back to bondage in Egypt? A little thing called Odds.

They do what we do every day. They weighed the probabily of success given a defined set of known variables, which specifically were: a band of wandering ex-slaves versus numerous large, well-trained, well-supplied, and well-armed forces fighting on their home courts. They didn't like these odds, so they checked themselves out of the game. So mightily did they cling to the security of their calculated outcome that they were prepared to kill anyone who challenged it with the logic of faith. Unless the odds are in our favor, they shrieked, forget God's record and promises. We're turning around. If you don't agree, keep it to yourself or plan to start collecting stones.

Odds can easily become gods. Life's decisions can be made with total deference paid to minimizing risk and maximizing safety. If it's dangerous, don't do it. If it could put you and yours in a safer, more prosperous position, then have at it. It's that simple.

Many single adults avoid living in smaller cities because they are more likely to meet a mate in a larger one. Many college students stear away from a given path of study because the average income for graduates with another major is significantly higher. Some grandparents scold their adult children for considering mission trips to nations less safe than America.

And we all do it. We look fondly at job opportunities or travel options that involve liesure, stable environments, and plenty of ammenities. We make pro and con lists to weigh the benefits of big decisions. We hope to get our kids into the best schools so they have better odds of better grades and access to a better college, which gives them better odds of a well-paying career so that they can afford a better house in a better neighborhood next to good schools so that their kids can...

Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with good neighborhoods, good grades, good schools, and good jobs. They are blessings from God. There's also nothing wrong with making good, common-sense decisions using logic and statistical information. God knows that we would have less chemicle abuse, cohabitation, crime, car accidents, single-parent households, and all sorts of social problems if people avoided activities that would likely result in deleterious outcomes. There's nothing wrong with "good" things, and there's nothing wrong with paying attention to the odds regarding risky behavior.

But it's wrong to turn from God's plan for my life because He may not call me to a "nice" nation or neighborhood, or because he may not provide an easy road with a high probability of success. Odds can calculate God right out of the picture. Living by the book of probabilities means that I may be opposed to God's plans whenever they involve a sort of countercultural risk (and they often do), and that I am not open to stepping out in faith to rely on His power and providence. Instead, like Israel I look with disdain or outright hostility at those who can muster the faith to do risky things for faith's sake.

Odds are simply terrible gods. Great inventors, explorers, businesspeople, athletes, and leaders throughout history have consistantly defied the odds. Each would have had a comfortable and forgettable life had they only pursued goals that came with a high probability of success. And pretty much every Biblical hero seems to have been chosen by God precicely because the odds were against them. The biblical God usually laughs at poor odds.

Joshua and Caleb experience two opposing power centers in Numbers 14:10, the same forces we face daily. First, they encounter the ferocious hostility of odds-worshippers who would do anything to silence their audacious faith in God's record and promises. And second, they encounter the glory of God as a reminder that they'd made the right call.

That these opposing forces are sandwiched together in one verse is no accident. They belong together. When we trust God against the odds, we recognize His coming glory as our joy and reward, and we live in ways that would otherwise be undesirable if not impossible. When we refuse to do so, His coming glory is an undesirable and judgmental threat.

Dear Lord, I thank you for the nice suburb, home, and school in which my family has been blessed. But please save us from worshipping the odds. Save us from savoring security above your glory. And make us willing to go anywhere and do anything if we recognize that it's your hand leading us. God, remind us of your record of providence, and give us faith in your promises. Dear Father, don't let odds be our gods. In the name of our unlikely Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

"But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites" (Numbers 14:10)

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