When Faith Doesn't Seem to Work
Studies on the Life of Gideon
As a pastor, I read my Bible and my people, and I sometimes see my people having trouble when they read the Bible. The Bible calls us to faith in God, but our circumstances often call us away from that very faith. This article arises from the pastoral concern of helping believers to be believers when their circumstances seem to make faith very difficult, if not impossible.
These studies, while based on the life of Gideon and truly reflecting what Scripture says, are not meant to dot every "i" and cross every "t" of exposition. They are rather intended to get very quickly to the problem that is so vexing--faith that doesn't seem to work. Those who desire the in-depth exposition will need to go elsewhere, but those who are grappling hard with the issue will find, I trust, help and encouragement here.
Gideon was a man of faith. There can be no doubt about that. But he was also a man whose faith was in crisis. He would make that clear when the Angel of the Lord appeared to him (v. 13).
What was the reason for this crisis? There were two sides to it. One was the Midianites! For seven long years they had made life miserable for the people of Israel. Verse 2 says it all: "… the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel." Verse 6 adds: "So Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites …."
The other side to it was the Lord. Gideon thought that the Lord should have done something about the Midianites, but He had not. After all, the Lord had delivered Israel from her enemies on previous occasions, and He had promised to deliver Israel from her enemies (Leviticus 26:7-8; Deuteronomy 28:7). So Gideon was upset because the Midianites were doing lots of things and the Lord was doing nothing! Gideon must have felt that he was in something of a vise--the activity of the Midianites and the inactivity of God.
Gideon is not the only person in the Bible to be in this vise. Job found himself in it. Problems galore on one hand and the distance of God on the other! Asaph certainly felt himself to be in it when he looked at how the wicked were prospering while he was barely scraping by (Psalm 73). Many believers have been in Gideon's vise at one time or another.
What are we to do when we find ourselves surrounded by the cruel Midianites of life and God seems not to care? To put it another way, what are we to do when our faith seems not to be working? Gideon can help us. He rises from the pages of Scripture to teach us valuable lessons about faith.
The importance of understanding faith
First, we must examine our faith to make sure that we are not trying to obligate God to do something that He has not obligated Himself to do. Do we understand faith? It is not believing that God will do whatever we want done. It is not positive thinking. It is believing that God will do what He has promised to do in the time and way that suits Him. In other words, we cannot have faith apart from the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
Gideon was in a crisis of faith because he had been expecting God to do something about the Midianites. Gideon wanted them removed from the scene, and he seems to have convinced himself that God was obligated to do. But it was God who had sent those very Midianites!
The people of Israel were in a covenant relationship with God. One part of that covenant, as noted above, was God's pledge to give the Israelites victory over their enemies. This is evidently the part that Gideon had in mind, but there was another part to that same covenant, namely, the responsibility of obedience. In other words, God was not obligated to keep the promise to deliver Israel from her enemies if she did not obey His laws.
Furthermore, God had made it particularly clear that Israel must not go after other gods. Doing so would lead, not to Israel having victory over her enemies, but being oppressed by them (Deuteronomy 28:25). So the very Midianites who were so vexing to them were not proof that God had failed. They were rather proof that God keeps His Word! Gideon's mistake was to separate God's blessings from Israel's responsibilities. We often do the same. We want God to bless us regardless of the way we live, and when we don't get the blessings we want and expect we conclude that God has failed. Gideon also teaches us--
The importance of not giving up on God
For seven long years the Midianites had oppressed the people of Israel. It is probably safe to say that Gideon and other people of faith spent much of those seven years wondering why God did not do something. But now Gideon finds himself in the presence of the very God that he had been wondering about. And the Lord announces that He is ready to deliver Israel from the Midianites. This shows us that it is always too early to give up on God.
The experience of Gideon warns us to be on guard against snapshot theology. God's work in this world is like a movie. We oftentimes want to look at one clip from God's movie and start making our pronouncements. We see the clip, and we wonder why God has done this and why He has not done the other. And we are so sure that we are seeing everything and that we are right in our conclusions. But we are looking only at a single snapshot. Meanwhile God tells us to watch the whole movie, and He assures us that everything will make perfect sense at the end of it all.
These lines express it so well:
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.
Life's trials will seem so small when we see Him.
One glimpse of His dear face
All sorrow will erase.
So let us run the race
'Til we see Christ.
A third lesson for us to consider is --
The importance of feeding our faith with the faithfulness of God
The Lord had work for Gideon to do: "Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?" (v. 14). God is here appointing Gideon to the office of mediator. He is to be God's instrument to achieve God's purpose. He is to be God's man for achieving victory over the enemy. He is to secure that victory on behalf of all God's people.
We have established that the people of Israel were in a covenant relationship with God. The centerpiece of that covenant was God's promise to send a Mediator. That Mediator would be God's own Son, and He would come to this earth to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:23). He would come to secure victory over Satan on their behalf.
People of faith in Israel held to this belief. Yes, there were times when their faith in that promise would diminish. The seven years of Midianite oppression was such a time. But then God would raise up a man like Gideon to deliver Israel, and the people of faith would see in that deliverer a reminder of the great Deliverer who was to come. And their faith would be rekindled and renewed.
I am not saying that Gideon saw himself as a picture or type of the Messiah. But I am saying that others in Israel saw him in that way and we should as well. What does this have to do with us when we feel that our faith is not working? It gives us something with which to feed our faith so that it will work. I am saying that God kept His promise to send His Son. This demonstrates God's faithfulness.
When we feel that our faith is not working, we should think about that faithfulness. And think about it in this way in particular--the sending of His Son to be our Savior is God's big promise. If God was faithful in keeping His big promises, we should never doubt that He will keep all His lesser promises. Faith always lets the greater thing govern the lesser things.
Does it seem to you that your faith is not working, that it is all pointless and vain? Let Gideon help you. Look at his life and be reminded that true faith does not try to obligate God to do what He not promised, true faith doesn't give up on God on the basis of what it sees at the moment and true faith looks to the redeeming work of Christ as proof that God will never fail to keep His promises. With these truths our faith can forge ahead in a world that makes it seem pointless.
We find Gideon in Judges 6:11 threshing his wheat in a winepress. A poor place for the job, it was necessary in order for Gideon to hide from the marauding Midianites who were making life miserable for the Israelites.
Gideon was in more than a winepress (or was it his "whine-press?"). He was also in a crisis of faith. He could not understand why God was not doing something about the Midianites (v. 13). It all seemed so simple to him. The same God who had delivered Israel from Egypt should do the same for them with the Midianites. It appears not to have occurred to Gideon that those very Midianites were sent by God! (v. 1). Why would God do such a thing? As a punishment on His people for worshiping other gods! (v. 10). What can Gideon's experience teach us about what we are to do when our faith does not seem to work?
Our focus is on the word focus. So much depends on it! If we focus on the wrong things, we are discouraged. If we focus on the right things, we are encouraged. So when faith seems not to work, we must focus on the right things. One thing these verses show us is--
The need to focus on God and not on the Midianites
The whole problem with Gideon is that he became so focused on the Midianites that all he could see was Midianites! We must not be too hard on him. If we were in his situation, we would be much inclined to do the same.
The big thing that happens in the verses before us is that God shifts Gideon's focus away from the Midianites to Himself. He does so by appearing to Gideon as the Angel of the Lord. We are to understand that God temporarily took human flesh to appear to Gideon. This is nothing less than a pre-incarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself!
After a few minutes, Gideon realized that he was in the presence of the very God that he had been questioning. Verse 22 says: "Now Gideon perceived that He was the Angel of the Lord. So Gideon said: 'Alas, O Lord God! For I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face.'" The subject has now changed! At the beginning, of this chapter the subject is the Midianites. When Gideon realized he was in the presence of the Lord, the subject shifted to the awesome majesty of God and how he, Gideon, could stand before such a God! We might say the Midianites got lost in the glory of the Lord.
All of this is of immense importance for us. We have our own Midianites. We have problems and difficulties, and sometimes they are so severe that they take over all of life. We cannot think about anything else except our burdens and difficulties. With Midianites swarming all around us, it is hard to see anything else. And the more we look at the Midianites, the more there are and the bigger they are. The urgent need for us in the midst of the Midianites is to look to God. Let's try to get this message to soak into our minds and hearts by re-working some words of a familiar hymn:
Turn your eyes on Jesus,
Look full into His wonderful face;
And the Midianites of life will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.
Simon Peter can serve us as an example on this point. We recall that the Lord Jesus came walking to the disciples on a storm-tossed sea. Before He reached the boat, He commanded Simon to join Him on the water. And Simon began to walk toward Him. As long as he kept his eyes on the Lord, he succeeded, but when he took his eyes off the Lord and began to take note of the wind and waves, he began to sink (Matthew 14:22-33).
Let's take this lesson away from that account--when we take our eyes off the Lord and look at the Midianites, we begin to sink. The Lord gave Gideon no choice about this matter of focusing on Him and His glory. He graciously accommodated Gideon's request for a sign by causing fire to burst from a rock and consume Gideon's meat and bread! (v. 21). We are tempted to come away from this saying something along these lines: "If the Lord would do something like that for me, I would be able to shift my focus away from my problems to Him and His glory."
Are you prepared for this? The Lord has done even more for us than He did for Gideon! We have even greater signs! The Lord who appeared only briefly to Gideon came again as a babe to Bethlehem. He came to dwell among us for an extended period of time. He came to die on the cross for our sins. And He came to rise again from the grave and ascend to the Father who sent Him. The glory of the redeeming work of Christ is greater than the glory of fire leaping from a rock! And we have a full and accurate account of it in Scripture!
When the trials and adversities of life mount up all around us, the very best thing we can do is to look at that redeeming work until we are once again "lost in wonder, love and praise." That look will not make the Midianites go away, but it will surely make them shrink in size before our eyes, and it will make them much more manageable.
A second truth these verses urge us to consider is--
The need to focus more on the enemy within than on the enemy without
Prior to the Lord's visit, Gideon was aware of only one enemy--the enemy without. Those Midianites! The Lord's appearance turned his attention to a much more dangerous and sinister enemy--the one within! And what was the enemy within? It was devotion to idols!
After departing from Gideon that day, the Lord returned that evening to say: "… tear down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the wooden image that is beside it; and build and altar to the Lord your God …" (vv. 25b-26a).
Gideon had a problem a lot closer to home than the Midianites! So we have Gideon saying to God: "Why don't you do something about these Midianites?" And we have God saying to Gideon: "Why don't you do something about those idols?" The idols caused the Midianites, and the idols had to be removed before the Midianites could be removed.
The major idol of Gideon's day was Baal--a nature god who was supposed to insure good crops. We don't call him "Baal" today, but this god is still with us. He was the god of affluence and comfort, and we still worship those things.
An idol is anything that receives from us what properly belongs to God. When we give to anything the time that belongs to God, we have an idol. When we give to anything the money that belongs to God, we have an idol. When we give to anything the love and affection that belongs to God, we have an idol. How very easy it is for us to go about blaming the Midianites, while we refuse to address our own idolatry!
Let someone ask why the world is in its present condition, and we point to political leaders, the judicial system and to Hollywood. Meanwhile the Lord is telling His church to look at the idolatry in her midst. When their land needs healing, God's people are called, not to sign petitions and organize politically, but rather to humble themselves, pray, seek God's face and turn from their wicked ways (2 Chronicles 7:14).
We are so very much like Gideon! We ever want God to do what we think He should do, but we are never quite as eager to do what we should do. James B. Jordan writes: "Before any of us weak Gideons can be effective for God, we must fight our own Baals, and tear down our own altars."
What, then, are we to do when our faith seems not to work? Gideon rises from the pages of Scripture to tell us to focus on God and on our own sins instead of on the Midianites. Faith always works when it is lubricated with the glory of God and when its gears are free from the sand of sin.
Resisting the Temptation to Fleece God
These verses bring us to the best-known incident in the life of Gideon. They tell us that on successive nights he put out a fleece of wool for the express purpose of determining whether God had truly spoken to him.
On the first night, Gideon asked God to cause dew to fall on the fleece alone, leaving the ground around it dry (v. 37). On the next night, he reversed it by asking God to send dew upon the ground and causing the fleece to be dry (v. 39). On each night God did as Gideon asked.
This has been hailed by some as a great act of faith on Gideon's part, but it was really a great act of doubt. I call it that for this reason--in putting out the fleece, Gideon was asking God to make clear something that He, God, had already made clear. Gideon wanted confirmation that the Lord would use him to deliver Israel from the Midianites (v. 37). But he already had God's promise to that effect (v.16), and he had received confirmation of that promise. After being told he would deliver Israel, Gideon asked for a sign (v. 17), which was graciously granted by the Lord causing fire to shoot out from a rock (v. 21).
We can find even further confirmation in the Lord protecting Gideon from the mob that wanted to kill him after he, Gideon, tore down the altar of Baal (vv. 28-31). The Lord had commanded him to do this, and the Lord had seen him through. There was yet another confirmation. Verse 34 tells us that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon. Gideon had to know that God was stirring in him in a most unusual way. But with it all, he still had his doubts. He had a sure word from God, but he desired more.
The episode before us is of particular interest because it deals with something that we are inclined to do when our faith appears not to be working, namely, put God to the test. Many do this. They often speak about "putting out the fleece," and they commend the same to others.
It is doubtful that we should employ this approach even in gray areas, that is on matters on which God has not spoken. In such cases, we should ask God for guidance (James 1:5), seek counsel from spiritual people, and trust God to lead us in the way He would have us to go (Proverbs 3:5-6). But we should never ask God to confirm through some sign what He has already clearly revealed in His Word. Here is an example: a Christian should not put the fleece out to determine whether he or she should marry an unbeliever. Why? Because God has already clearly pronounced on the matter (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Here is another example: we should not put out a fleece to determine whether we should forgive a brother or sister in Christ because God has already revealed His will on this matter (Matthew 18:21-22; Ephesians 4:32). Let's be honest about it. The putting out of a fleece on matters on which God has already spoken is nothing less than an attempt to get around what God has said! Gideon and his fleece speak to us, then, about--
Our confidence in the Word of God
For us the Word of God is found in the Bible, which is a sure guide and a sufficient guide. The need before is to simply believe that Word, to be believing believers.
Gideon was a believer in God before the Angel of the Lord appeared to him. The Angel of the Lord did not appear to Gideon to make a believer out of him, but to call him to believe in the message that he came to deliver. Gideon was called to be a believing believer, but he was a doubting believer.
For faith to work right, it has to be fed. And the food for faith is the Word of God (Romans 10:17). If we want faith to work right, we must believe that Word and act upon it. We must not be questioning it and disputing with it. I can tell you from years of experience in the pastorate that the happiest Christians are those who believe most firmly the Bible. They trust its promises, accept its teachings and obey its commands. Things are different for those who harbor doubts about the Word of God. Their worship is muted. Their performance is spotty. Their sense of blessing is small.
My conclusion is this: those who believe most are blessed most. I come again to these words from Charles Spurgeon: "Brethren, be great believers. Little faith will bring your souls to heaven, but great faith will bring heaven to your souls." The crying need of the hour is that unbelievers should be able to look at the church and see people who have heaven in their souls. And this can only happen if the people of God believe the Word of God without dispute and debate. We can fall into the trap of believing our doubts and doubting our beliefs. We must learn to believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts.
The testimony of Jesus
There are many, many reasons that we should firmly believe in the Word of God. I will mention only two. The first is that Jesus Himself firmly believed in it and demonstrated that belief again and again.
First, He flatly affirmed that Scripture is the Word of God (Matthew 5:17-18; John 10:35). And He went out of His way to especially affirm those portions of the Old Testament that are often challenged (Matthew 12:39-41; 19:4-5; 24:37-39; Luke 17:28-32). He also demonstrated His confidence in it by using it to fend off the temptations of Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He also regarded it as the final court of appeal in His various controversies with the religious leaders of the day (e.g., Matthew 22:23-33).
Fulfillment of prophecies
A second major reason for us to believe the Bible is the astonishing fulfillment of its many, many prophecies. The probability that one man in history would fulfill just a few prophecies of the Old Testament are staggering. And Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies!
In very practical terms, Gideon's doubt in putting out his fleece tells us that we should never question anything that God has revealed in His Word. We are not to invent some kind of test for God to demonstrate that His Word is true. We are simply to believe it and rejoice in it.
By the way, the main message of the Word of God is the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be clear on that! Perhaps we can even see in Gideon's fleece a small picture of that work. The fleece was wool from the sacrificial animal, the lamb. On the cross, Jesus, the Lamb of God, had the dew of life wrung out of Him so that dew could fall on undeserving sinners! But we must go on to yet another matter and say that Gideon and his fleece speak to us about --
Our consolation in the God of the Word
How blessed we are to be able to close with this consideration! Here is something that helps our faith tremendously--God understands our weakness in faith and does not write us off for that reason. Think of what God could have done with Gideon. He could have rebuked him for his evident lack of faith, set him on the shelf and found someone else to do the job. But God graciously endured Gideon's weak faith and took the opportunity to strengthen it.
Every Christian struggles with his faith at one time or another. John Calvin rightly observes: "… in the course of this present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith … unbelief which reposes in the remains of the flesh, rises up to attack the faith that has been inwardly conceived."
But let us not despair because our faith is weak. Weak faith is still faith! And the God who loves His children so much that He nailed His Son to the cross for their sins will not abandon them in their weakness. With the tender love of a father, He patiently endures their weakness and works to bring them to greater faith.
What Faith Must Keep in Mind
This chapter begins with God preparing Gideon to face the Midianites and ends with God giving Gideon victory over them. But there is something here of even greater significance, namely, insight into those things that cause faith to work well. I would go so far as to say that this chapter provides us with pictures of three things that we must keep in mind for our faith to work.
For faith to work it must keep in mind the big picture (vv. 2-8)
This picture is supplied for us by the Lord commanding Gideon to reduce the number of his soldiers. Gideon had managed to muster an army of 32,000. This number must have seemed to him to be the bare minimum against the 135,000 of the Midianites. But just as Gideon was assuring himself that victory might very well be possible with his 32,000, the Lord showed up to tell him to send all the cowards home.
After his initial shock, Gideon may very well have consoled himself with the thought that only a hundred or two would fall into that category. He would still have an army of over 30,000. Get this--22,000 got up and went home! This shows us how little faith there was in Israel at that time. How could an army of 10,000 succeed against the Midianites? We can imagine Gideon furiously scratching out a plan of battle on the back of an envelope. Maybe it could still work! But God is not through. He shows up again to say: "The people are still too many; …" (v. 4).
Too many! Had the Lord lost His mind? But by this time Gideon had learned enough of God to obey even though questions and objections must have screamed within. If the Lord wanted a further reduction, there would be a further reduction. How was this reduction to be achieved? The Lord gave the answer. Gideon was to take his 10,000 down to the water for a drink. Those who put their faces down into the water were to be sent home. Those who scooped the water and drank from their hands were to stay (vv. 4-5).
Can you imagine Gideon's consternation as he watched these men drink! Thousands put their faces into the water. When all was said and done, Gideon had an army of 300! He probably thought that he would be far better off with 22,000 cowards than 300 crack troops, but that is what he had.
We must be careful that we do not give these 300 men too much credit. Most commentators seem to think that God wanted them because they were more watchful and alert. But God did not separate the soldiers in this way because the 300 were superior to the others. How do we know this to be true? Because God Himself was determined that Israel would not take any credit for the forthcoming victory. All the glory would go to God alone (v. 2). So the method of separation was entirely arbitrary. God could just as easily have told Gideon to keep those who squeezed their tubes of toothpaste at the bottom instead of in the middle! We have come, then, to what I have called "the big picture." It is the glory of God! (v. 2).
What does this have to do with us? Let's be honest. When our faith does not seem to be working, it is often because we have lost sight of the big picture. We have lost sight of what God is working toward. We want to believe that He is constantly at work to make our lives comfortable and easy. And when they are not, we persuade ourselves that God is not doing His job and faith is not achieving anything.
I come back to what I have so often said before--if you begin with the wrong job description for God, He will always fail in your eyes. What is God's job description? It is to glorify Himself! Does this seem to be a selfish motive to you? Remember this: God is perfect in every respect. As a perfect being, He must seek His own glory. To fail to do so would make Him imperfect!
In the pursuit of His own glory, God sometimes brings difficult circumstances into our lives. How do these circumstances bring glory to Him? Here is a believer who is stricken with serious illness. Unbelievers look at him and say: "Now we will see what comes of his faith in God" or "Now he will abandon God." But that believer continues to love, trust and serve God in the midst of his affliction. And now the unbelievers around have to say something quite different. They have to say: "What kind of God is this that inspires such love and trust from one whose circumstances are so difficult." And God is glorified!
The truth is that we Christians are called to be more interested in God than in ourselves. We are to be so interested in God that we say of our most difficult circumstance: "If God gets glory from this, it is okay with me."
Here is an example. The apostle Paul was in prison. A difficult circumstance! But he could see God using that imprisonment to further the gospel. So Paul was able to say: "… in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice" (Philippians 1:18). Some will say: "I'm sorry, but I just don't love God that much!" But you should, and so should I! Why? Because God, the supreme being who has been supremely good to us, is worthy of supreme love! Strong faith interprets its circumstances in light of the glory of God, and faith is most satisfied when God is most glorified. By the way, God has determined the same thing about our eternal salvation that He determined about Israel's deliverance from Midian, that is, that we will not be able to say: "My own hand has saved me" (v. 2). Salvation is the work of God, and we receive it only by His grace.
For faith to work it must keep in mind the hidden picture (vv. 9-18)
And what is the hidden picture? It is that God is always at work in unusual places and in unusual ways. Faith falters when we think that we are seeing the whole picture, and God is nowhere to be found in that picture.
When we first encounter Gideon, he is quite discouraged because God did not appear to be doing much (6:13). And now, standing there with what is left of his army, God still did not appear to be doing much! But Gideon was about to get a different perspective. God commanded him to go that very night into the camp of the Midianites (vv. 9-11).
When Gideon got there, he was in for a quite a surprise. One Midianite was talking about a dream in which he had seen a barley cake tumbling into the camp of Midian, striking a tent and knocking it to the ground (v. 13). The man with whom the Midianite shared his dream had no doubt about its meaning: "This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; for into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp" (v. 14).
The barley cake--the common cake eaten by common men--was Gideon. The tent was Midian. The barley cake destroyed the tent. Gideon would defeat the Midianites! The interesting thing is that the very same God who had been working with Gideon was also working on the other side of the fence. While He was encouraging the one, He was demoralizing the other. Gideon had been totally unaware of this until his trip to the Midianite camp. It had been hidden from him! What a blessed lesson there is for us here! God is always doing more than we think, and His doing is always for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28).
For faith to work it must keep in mind the final picture (vv. 19-25)
After visiting the camp of Midian, Gideon must have returned to his little army with the utmost confidence. God would indeed give them the victory! And God did in a most unusual way! Armed with nothing more than trumpets, pitchers and torches, the army of Israel prevailed. The trumpets were blown, the pitchers were shattered, the torches glowed and the soldiers cried: "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" (v. 20). The Midianites, completely bewildered were put to flight!
God delights in using unlikely instruments to achieve enormous things. Outside the city of Jerusalem stands a cross and on that cross hangs a carpenter turned rabbi. The world laughs at that cross, but God used that unlikely instrument to bring eternal salvation to all who believe. God will continue to use that cross to bring salvation, and all those who are saved will finally come into the glory of His presence. Satan will be defeated, and the Lord of glory will triumph. When your faith does not seem to work, look beyond the present to that time of triumph. Faith always prospers when it keeps the final picture in mind.n
1 James B. Jordan, Judges: God's War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries,1985), 125.
2 cited by Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 114.