The Consequences of Spiritual Failure
Years ago when I was a young Christian, I was, of course, keen on learning how to live the Christian life. An older believer told me the secret to victorious Christian living was to trust in the Lord completely at every moment, just like Joshua.
But my question was, “What happens after a week and I fail? Does that mean I have now lost God’s blessing? Am I now on the path of the Lord’s ‘second best’?”
Many Christians are confused, as I was, about their relationship to God and spiritual failure. Or, to be more blunt, they are confused about sin. They wonder, How can I have a relationship with God and be blessed when I am still a sinner and still sin?
The Israelites faced the same dilemma. What does it mean to be in covenant relationship with God whereby God promises to bless (Abrahamic Covenant, Gen. 12:1–3) while at the same time expecting you to be responsible to Him in faith or be disciplined for your unbelief (Mosaic Covenant, Ex. 20—24)? The answer is depicted in the history of Israel.
The book of Numbers is a history of unbelief and failure as seen in the first generation of Israelites (those freed from Egypt in the Exodus) who turned back at Kadesh-barnea and then died in the wilderness. Their children, the second generation, are the ones Joshua led to victory.
But was Joshua always victorious? What we find in the book of Joshua is that the road to victory is a bumpy one, and learning to live by faith is not easy. Yet God is faithful and keeps His promises.
Defeat and Victory at Ai
The story of the Israelites’ battles at Ai is really a continuation of the Battle of Jericho. Jericho is a high point in the Israelites’ faith in the Lord and His miraculous working on their behalf. The whole point of the event is that, despite the odds (Jericho was a strong city militarily), when Israel trusted God and obeyed His word, He gave the victory.
The Lord had also commanded the Israelites not to take any of Jericho’s riches because the city was under the ban (Hebrew, cherem). Because the Lord was the real Victor, all Jericho’s riches were to go to Him (Josh. 6:17–19).
But when Achan saw a beautiful mantle from Shinar, two hundred shekels of silver, and a fifty-shekel bar of gold, he must have thought something like, I have hit the lottery! The Lord has blessed me with early retirement. Unfortunately for Achan, taking the Lord’s riches was an act of unbelief and disobedience.
Joshua and the other Israelites were unaware of what Achan had done when they attacked Ai the first time. Since Ai was a small town compared to Jericho, the Israelites did not even bother to send the whole army, only a few thousand men. Imagine their shock when they were defeated.
At first they blamed the Lord, saying He had abandoned them. But the Lord was not unfaithful. Israel, specifically Achan, was. A lot was cast, Achan was chosen, and eventually he confessed to his sin. The stolen riches were found, and he and his family were stoned to death and all his possessions burned. After the sin was dealt with and the Lord’s justice meted out, Joshua wrote, “The LORD turned from the fierceness of his anger” (7:26).
The Lord then encouraged Israel to attack Ai again. This time Joshua took no chances. He not only used his whole army, he used great military strategy to defeat the men of Ai and capture the city. The inhabitants of Ai were killed and the city burned, and Israel was victorious again. Thus defeat was turned into victory.
Spiritual Lessons from Ai
The Israelites’ experience at Jericho and Ai teach much about one’s responsibility to the Lord and the consequences of sin while in covenant relationship to Him.
1. Achan’s actions clearly depict the process of sin. Achan himself confessed that when he saw the mantle, silver, and gold, “I coveted them” (7:21), a direct violation of not only the Lord’s command to the Israelites at Jericho, but also the tenth commandment (Ex. 20:17). As with all sin, Achan’s behavior was an act of unbelief. In taking the riches for himself, Achan denied that he could trust in the Lord to take care of him.
2. Achan’s sin affected the entire community of Israel. The Lord did not look at Israel as a number of individuals but as a nation with whom He had a covenant relationship. Therefore, when one Israelite sinned, the entire community was punished.
Although our relationship to the Lord as a church under the New Covenant is much different, the principle of an individual Christian’s sin affecting the community still applies. As Paul told the Corinthians, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). Sin is never just an individual, personal matter. It affects all those around us. In Achan’s case it affected all of Israel, and eventually his entire family perished.
One caveat: We must be careful to discern between suffering as Christians, which is “normal,” and suffering because of sin. Apparent lack of “victory” is not necessarily due to sin. If two Christian schools have a soccer match and one loses, does that mean a member of the losing team was an “Achan in the camp”?
Perhaps we need to redefine what it means to be victorious. After Paul referred to suffering for Christ, he said we “are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37, emphasis added). Conquering means being victorious over sin in our hearts, not “making it to the top” outwardly.
3. Although Achan’s sin had negative consequences for Israel according to the Mosaic Covenant, it did not affect God’s promises to Israel in the Abrahamic Covenant.
Thus Achan’s sin did not sever the relationship between the Lord and Israel. Rather, God’s discipline of Israel is part of the relationship. As the author of Hebrews wrote, quoting Proverbs 3:12, “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Heb. 12:6).
God disciplined the Israelites with defeat to teach them about the seriousness of sin and its consequences, so they would be “a holy people.” The Lord, as a good father, does not shun His children who sin but, rather, like a good father, is most concerned about getting them back on the right track. Therefore, the negative consequences of sin, although painful, are not mere punishment but are intended to lead us to repentance and faith.
and Victory with the Gibeonites
In contrast with the Israelites’ experience at Ai, their failure with the Gibeonites was not so much due to willful sin as negligence.
The Gibeonites had learned from watching what had happened to the Canaanites at Jericho and Ai. They knew they could not defeat the God of Israel by force. So they decided to try tricking the Israelites into making peace with them by pretending to live outside of Canaan and thus not under God’s ban.
They succeeded. Joshua recorded candidly that Israel did not consult the Lord before making a treaty with them (Josh. 9:14). Therefore, they did not take advantage of His knowledge.
The consequences of this treaty are quite remarkable. On the one hand, although the Israelites were tricked into making peace, they still felt obligated to keep their word to the Gibeonites. This fact is demonstrated by Israel’s willingness to fight to protect the Gibeonites from the other Canaanites who attacked them for making such a treaty. Because Israel came to Gibeon’s rescue, the Lord gave Israel a great victory over the five Canaanite kings who attacked Gibeon. Essentially the whole southern half of Canaan was conquered as a result of this deceptive treaty. One could say the Lord turned Israel’s negligence into victory, a case of all things working together for good (Rom. 8:28).
On the other hand, the Gibeonites were Canaanites who were allowed to live and become Israel’s servants (Josh. 9:21–27). This arrangement was the best solution to the problem of being in covenant relation with the Gibeonites while wanting to punish them for their deception. But this policy of allowing enemies to become servants initiated a dangerous precedent. As recorded later in Judges 1:28, it became Israel’s downfall in the land because the Israelites thought the Canaanites were not a threat once they were out of military power. Unfortunately, the Israelites did not realize the consequences of violating the Lord’s command (Dt. 7) or the power of evil resident in the Canaanites’ idolatry.
Spiritual Lessons from the Gibeonites
As with Achan, Israel’s dealings with the Gibeonites was another learning experience in becoming a holy people. And here are some lessons for us.
1. Jesus says believers are to be “wise as serpents, and harmless [innocent] as doves” (Mt. 10:16). This means recognizing that Satan also knows what the Gibeonites knew, namely, that he cannot defeat Christians by spiritual force but may be able to deceive us into sin.
Paul warned against “the wiles [schemes] of the devil” and told us how to combat them (Eph. 6:11–18). Paul told believers to stand firm in the truth of God’s promises so we are not deceived, but then also to pray and be on the alert. Just because Christ is the Victor and the outcome of the war with Satan is clear, the battle is not over yet.
2. Jesus also said, “If thy right eye offend thee [makes you stumble], pluck it out”; and “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off” (Mt. 5:29–30).
By that He meant that sin cannot be tamed. It cannot be made to serve you. It must be totally eradicated. Any thought that conscious sin can be kept in check in one’s life demonstrates the deception of sin. As Paul said in Romans 6:12–23, you cannot serve the Lord and sin. God wants us to be free from sin’s mastery by presenting ourselves to the Lord to be used as instruments of righteousness.
Victorious Christian living means focusing on what Christ has done for you, not on your own experiences. John referred to believers as “overcomers,” victors over the world, because of our faith in Christ (1 Jn. 5:4–5).
Believers will battle with sin all their lives. When we fail and confess our sin, the Lord is there to forgive us and cleanse us (1 Jn. 1:9—2:2). As His children, we know He will never forsake us. But shall we “continue in sin, that grace may abound [increase]? God forbid!” (Rom. 6:1–2).
Sin, although forgiven, always has negative consequences for our families, our fellow believers, and certainly for us. And although there is restoration, the effects of sin, like the Gibeonites, may be with us a long time.