Dear Christian, God isn’t on your side. Regardless of your gut reaction to that statement, please read on. There is no end to the mischief that has been done in the name of God. For example, we fight wars believing God is on our side. And perhaps that seems like a logical conclusion to make when we are fighting against foreign nations and the followers of other gods.
But what happens when those lined up against us, also happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ? Take the American Civil War. Two sides, largely (though not exclusively) populated by followers of Jesus, killing each other. Both sides believing firmly that God was on their side.
During that war, Abraham Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. Lincoln was not much of a church-goer but was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side.” Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight: “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”
Lincoln reminded those ministers that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. How shocking would it be to hear a politician speak like that today?
We have a tendency as humans to draw up battle lines. To divide ourselves from others. To separate ourselves from those who look different, or speak different, or hold different beliefs. We identify as democrats, or republicans, or independents, or conservatives, or liberals. Even within Christendom we divide ourselves as Methodists, or Lutherans, or Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or non-denominational.
And it doesn’t matter what side of any issue we find ourselves on. We tend to proudly assert that God is on our side. In doing this, we are doing nothing less than attempting to use God to further our own causes.
In contrast to this, I’m reminded of the surprising encounter Joshua had with God on the hills overlooking Jericho. For context, remember that the battle for Jericho was to be the first of many battles that Israel would fight against the Canaanites as they entered the land that God had promised to them. On the eve of the battle, Joshua had gone off by himself a little way to survey the city.
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went up to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my Lord say to his servant?’” -Joshua 5:13-14
It’s hard to get around the oddness of this encounter. When Joshua sees the man standing before him with a drawn sword he asks the obvious question. ‘There is a battle about to be fought, so whose side are you on? Ours or theirs?’
But the man stops Joshua short. “No,” he says. In effect, God says, “Wrong question.” This battle wasn’t about the Israelites versus the Canaanites, with God on the side of the Israelites. This battle was about God furthering His agenda and working through the Israelites to accomplish it.
Azariah, a prophet many years later, expressed something similar to King Asa of Judah. After the Spirit of God came upon Azariah, he said, “The Lord is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” – 2 Chronicles 15:2
In Jesus, we are freed from the constant need to assert that we’ve got God on our side. We are freed from the need to constantly and continually separate ourselves out, one from another. We should all be less concerned with asserting that God is on our side, and more concerned with seriously reflecting upon whether or not we are on God’s.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:29-30