Lessons from Joshua: be careful what you pray for

Just because God opens a door with answered prayer, that does not mean it is the best path to take.

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After Israel’s three campaigns to take the promised land, which we read about in chapters 6-12 of the book of Joshua, Joshua began assigning each of the tribes their inheritance beginning in chapter 13. As we observed in our previous lesson, however, there was still much work to do be done within that inheritance as witnesses to the remaining inhabitants, making disciples for the Lord. In chapter 13, though, we are reminded of a request that two and half tribes had made to Moses regarding their inheritance:

The other half of Manasseh, the Reubenites and the Gadites had received the inheritance that Moses had given them east of the Jordan, as he, the servant of the Lord, had assigned it to them.

Joshua 13:8, NIV

Many commentators rebuke these tribes for settling on the hinterlands rather than entering into the land that God had specifically promised to Abraham. Warren Wiersbe, one of the favorite commentators on the Bible, even brings up 1 Chronicles 5:25-26, saying, “their location made them extremely vulnerable both to military attack and ungodly influence; and both of these liabilities eventually brought about their downfall.” Wiersbe further admonishes, “Don’t become a ‘borderline believer.’ Enter into the inheritance God appoints for you and rejoice in it. ‘He will choose our inheritance for us, the excellence of Jacob whom He loves’ (Ps. 47:4, NKJV). The will of God is the expression of the love of God and is always the best for us.”

However, as much as I respect Dr. Wiersbe as “the pastor’s pastor,” I must partly diverge from his opinion on this text. I say partly because I agree that it would have been best for the descendants of these tribes in the long-term if they had settled in the land where God was specifically bringing them. Yet, we never read that this request was wrong of these tribes to make as long as they continued to help their brothers and sisters in their Commission from God. It seems a stretch to suggest that these tribes are to be likened as “borderline believers.”

As we observed last week, Israel’s commission upon entering into their inheritance was to gain mastery over the land, to make disciples of the remaining inhabitants. We even read in Joshua 22 that when these two and a half tribes returned to their homes on the other side of the Jordan, they built an altar “not for burnt offerings or sacrifices” but as “a witness” – a witness not only between them and their brothers across the Jordan but also for “the generations that follow,” to show that they worship the One True God whose altar was in Jerusalem (Joshua 22:26-27).

The lesson here is that we ought to be careful in what requests we make to God. Wiersbe is absolutely right when he says, “their location made them extremely vulnerable both to military attack and ungodly influence; and both of these liabilities eventually brought about their downfall,” which we read about in 1 Chronicles 5:25-26. However, it was not wrong for the tribes to settle there; wherever they were they were witnesses of the One True God. God is not going to tell us not to be his witnesses somewhere. If we are earnestly desiring to go somewhere, God will often let us go as his witnesses. Yet, we should not consider any door he opens in answer to our prayers as an indication of what is best for us. The One of who served him best of all was refused in Gethsemane and said near his tortured death, “Why have you forsaken me?” C.S. Lewis said it well:

[L]ittle people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.

C.S. Lewis, On the Efficacy of Prayer.

God is faithful and does not give us more than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), but that does not mean that a door he opens in response to our prayers will not result in hard times. These two and a half tribes thought that the land on the other side of the Jordan away from their brothers would make them prosperous because from a human perspective, it seemed good. Yet, it ended up leaving them vulnerable. God still gave the land to them, though, knowing their descendants would be able to bear the hard times ahead as his witnesses. Therefore, we must count the cost and be careful what we ask from God and not rush through a door he may open for us.

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