The Loving Knife of God
‘At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time." So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth’ (Joshua 5.2-3).
Here's the Big Idea: God loves us enough to roll away the reproach of our past life so the we can enter the fulness of his purposes for us. We can't long to be in Egypt and effectively step into his promises. To go forward with God, we've got to let God cut us in deep places.
Say ‘No’ to the Brownie
In 1992 I was invited to preach at a church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (trust me, that’s a real place). The same night I was preaching, the pastor had invited a young woman to sing who had grown up in that church. She had a great voice. I recognised her from somewhere, and after the service, in chatting with her, we realised that we had been at the same Christian summer camp together in the early 80’s.
This church had a great hospitality team, and after their service, I was enjoying an amazing home-made brownie. I suggested to Leanza that she ought to get one, she graciously declined, saying that she had a competition coming up and had to look out for her figure. I didn’t notice an ounce of extra flab, but whatever. I admired her resolve! The competition happened to be a beauty pageant called ‘Miss Florida’. She won – Miss Florida, 1992. And the next year, she went on to win the biggest beauty pageant in the United States, Miss America, 1993. Her name is Leanza Cornett.
In looking back on that night in Big Stone Gap, I didn’t learn anything about singing from Leanza. But I did learn something about commitment. Apparently, part of the price of being Miss America is saying ‘No’ to the brownie. Here’s the question: if Leanza is willing to say ‘no’ to a brownie for the sake of a crown that fades, what commitments are we willing to make for advancing the eternal gospel of Jesus?
The Knife of God
God does not mind asking us to pay a high price to be part of his plan. His blessings far outweigh whatever price he will ask us to pay. But to help us secure our commitment to him, he asks us to make a commitment. And this has been true since God called Abraham to follow him. In Genesis 12, we read that to enter into God’s plan for his life, he had to leave his home, his family, and the place he was living.
In Genesis 17, God expands on the previous promises he made to Abraham. In this encounter, the Lord changed his name from Abram (‘exalted father’) to Abraham (‘father of nations’). The Lord said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations’ (Genesis 17.4). But the Lord didn’t leave Abraham with just words. God gave Abraham a sign of this commitment to leave the former life and enter into a new relationship with God and his mission. After promising to be God to his descendants, the Lord said, ‘This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised’ (Genesis 17.10). Circumcision (the cutting off of the foreskin) was the covenant sign God gave to his people; it marked them as ‘his’.
When he had brought them out of Egypt, God renewed his covenant with his people, and they were circumcised. The text notes that ‘All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not’ (Joshua 5.5; see also Exodus 12.43-46). That is, the ‘Red Sea’ generation had been circumcised; they had been cut. To identify with God, they had given up something personal. But the new generation had not entered this covenant with God; they did not carry the sign of belonging to God.
Every generation must be cut by God to participate in his purposes; each new generation has to be marked by God as ‘his’. For the Promised Land generation – those who had been born in the wilderness - even though circumcision was commanded in the law of Moses (Lev. 12.3), this new generation had not been circumcised; they had been living in the wilderness without the sign of the covenant. Before God brings people into his promises and purposes, before he let them enter the new land, he cuts them – he does a deep work in their hearts to mark them as his own.
In his farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses promised that ‘The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live’ (Deut. 30.6). Even in the new covenant, Paul says that ‘Circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit’ (Romans 2.29).
Physical circumcision was ever only a picture of God’s work on the heart in which, by the sanctifying work of his Spirit, he calls us to separation from our flesh (sinful desires of the mind and body) and the world – the value system of the age in which we live. According to Moses, the result of God’s heart circumcision is that we will ‘love him with our heart and soul’.
What does all this mean as it relates to faith for the future God has for us? Very simply, to enter into the future God has for us, we have to do business with God. Before we can lay hold of his purpose and destiny for our lives, the Lord will mark us – not physically, but in our hearts. There may be things of the past – things of the flesh, things of the world – that we are trying to hold on to. Or that have a hold of us. We can’t be double-minded; we can’t simultaneously cling to the past and step into the future. We have to let God cut things out of our lives so that we can enter into his purposes.
Sometimes, the things we need to let go of aren’t sinful; they are simply distractions. Vladimir Lenin dreamed about trouncing both government and church by accomplishing revolution in Russia. His 1902 book ‘Что делать?’ (‘What must be done?’) lays out the plan by which this was going to happen. But more than just ideas on paper, Lenin had to pay a personal price to accomplish this result.
Beyond exile and the typically difficult life of a revolutionary, Lenin had to make a personal sacrifice. Lenin loved playing chess; it was his ‘gymnasium of the mind’. But when Lenin returned to Russia after his exile, he focused on advancing the revolution the main devotion of his life, and he decided to give up chess. ‘Chess is too absorbing’, he said; ‘it interferes with your work’. His work was setting up an atheistic regime that persecuted millions of Christians. If Lenin can give up chess to promote a godless revolution, what can you give up to accomplish spiritual revival?
Take a look at your own life. Consider your passions – what gets your best time? What gets most of your energy? What is the centre of your focus – the objective towards which your life is moving? To play a central role in gospel advance, not only does it mean we have to say ‘yes’ to kingdom values and kingdom activities; it also means we have to say ‘no’ to those things that, even if they are not sinful, distract us from whole-hearted devotion to Christ and his purposes.
Imagine someone who wants to run a marathon, but they are 15kg overweight. Can they run the marathon with those extra kilograms? Sure they can, but it will be much more difficult to win. When we think of God’s cutting, it shouldn’t be in negative terms, but in positive: God cuts things out of our lives so we can win. This is how the apostle Paul encourages us to run:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9.24-27.
‘Run in such a way that you might win’. What does this mean? How are we to run? Notice Paul’s instruction: strict training; running on purpose (not aimlessly); a boxer who punches on target, making our bodies our slaves’. All of this points to a very focused process developed to accomplish a big purpose. He says something similar in Philippians:
But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3.13-14
What’s your brownie? What do you need to leave behind? What’s the brownie to which you need to say, ‘No, thank you!’. Remember … eye on the prize. Straining towards what is ahead. It’s ridiculous to say ‘No’ to chess … unless you want to foment a revolution. It’s the silliest thing in the world to say ‘No’ to the brownie … unless you want to win Miss America.
God has great purpose for your life in his great plan of gospel advance. But to participate fully in the way that will make a difference, we have to let God work on our hearts. We are all susceptible to distractions that will pull us one way or the other. Ask the Lord to work on your heart, to cut off fleshiness and distraction, to draw you into whole-hearted devotion to him
Remember: Every generation has to be cut by God. The generation that came out of Egypt needed the reproach of Egypt - their old identity as slaves - to be cut away. To cross the Jordon into God’s purpose for your life, to lay hold of the Promised Land God has for you, to participate effectively in God’s great mission of redemption, there are things to be cut off. Open your life to God and let him do a deep work.