Whose Side Is God On?
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”— Joshua 5:13-14
Have you ever noticed how many individual Christians and incorporated religious institutions assume that God is exclusively on their side? Many seem to think that God is a member-in-good-standing of their denomination. Many seem to assume that God carries the same national passport they do and that he always supports their country in any military altercation. Some even act and talk as if God supports their favorite athletic team and their particular political party.
But if you think about the whole idea of God being polarized and politicized for about three seconds, it really doesn’t make any sense, does it? After all the Bible clearly teaches that God loves all mankind equally.
The man who appeared to Joshua could have been an angel of the Lord, or this incident could have been yet another example of a theophany, an appearance of God himself. Whether it was the Lord or an angel of the Lord is really not all that important—what is important is the message given to Joshua and the context of that message.
As the book of Joshua begins, the nation of Israel (after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness) is poised to inherit the land God promised to them. Joshua has taken over for Moses as the national leader. As he is preparing for war against Jericho, the first city-state that he and the nation of Israel will conquer, Joshua has a visitor. In the midst of Joshua’s military preparations the Lord (or his angel) appeared with a drawn sword. As the commander-in-chief of Israel’s army, Joshua’s first question is natural: “Are you for us or against us? Are you a friend or foe?”
The answer is profound. In effect God says to Joshua: “Whether I am on your side is not the real issue. The most important question is whether you are on my side. You follow my directions and decisions—not the other way around.”
If you are an American, I presume you know that the words “God bless America” are not in the Bible. If you are a citizen of another country you probably understand that “God bless Canada” or “God bless England or Nigeria or Germany or Afghanistan or India or China or Indonesia” does not appear in the Bible either.
I love my country. I tear up when I hear the stories of those who have sacrificed for the freedoms we Americans enjoy. I sing the Star Spangled Banner and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with respect. I am thankful I have been given the opportunity to live in the United States. For that matter, I recognize and give thanks for the blessings of friends and family, and spiritual brothers and sisters who experience life within any democracy, in a country where freedom of thought, assembly and worship is given. And there are many such places in our world today. My wife and I lived in the United Kingdom for a number of years, and enjoyed the blessings of life in such an environment.
As an American, I am deeply moved by the beneficial work of Americans as they help people both within our country and abroad. But I am not blind to the sins of our country. I am not blind to the fact that no country or any political system is without sin. I am not blind to the fact that many wars are contested by countries and nations that are both wrong in their motives for fighting and killing. I do not worship my country any more than I worship a church or a religion. I worship Jesus alone.
When all is said and done, when we read history carefully, we find out that warfare is a dirty and corrupt business, and that there have been few times when one side is absolutely clean and righteous in their motivation for fighting and in the way they have prosecuted and carried out warfare. There are times in any country when a day of celebration focuses on remembering those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice as they served in the armed forces. During such times, and during other annual national celebrations, many focus on the country and its values, extolling the nation as exceptional and superior to other nations. While we should honor those who have sacrificed and served, and while we should appreciate the freedoms our country affords, it is important for Christians to maintain their focus on Jesus Christ, rather than falling into the ditch of nationalism.
John 3:16, the most often quoted and memorized verse in the entire Bible, tells us that God loves the entire world. Romans 2:11 tells us that God does not show favoritism. God loves us all, and that all-encompassing, all-embracing love is one of the things that makes him God. He does not have favorites. He is not partisan or political. He is above the kind of petty squabbles and conflicts that we humans get into. God is not involved in the struggles that often define us and consume us.
He is truly above it all—he doesn’t take sides!
And that’s exactly how God replied to Joshua’s inquiry as to whether he was on Joshua’s side or on the side of Joshua’s enemies. God (or the angel who conveyed God’s message) said neither. The ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark records a fascinating story from Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ disciples came to him and told him about a man who was driving demons out of people, in Jesus’ name. The disciples told Jesus that they had told him to stop healing people, because, as Mark records them saying to Jesus, he was not one of us (Mark 9:38).
“He or she is not one of us!” How often has that been said, over the centuries, in those exact words or something similar, by those who thought they were faithfully following Jesus?
Some within Christendom become so confident in their creeds, doctrines, dogmas, practices, ceremonies and beliefs that they actually believe their position is one and the same as God’s position. Pride and arrogance are not far behind. And, of course, pride and arrogance produces intolerance and condemnation. Sometimes those who say they are following God become physically abusive to anyone who disagrees with them—for after all, “those” people are disagreeing with God, aren’t they?
When we get caught up in thinking that God is on our side and when we start making critical comments about those who do not seem to be one of us, we are not reconcilers—we are not peacemakers—but instead we become divisive—we become angry and hostile to others. When our focus leaves Jesus, the Prince of peace, we cease to be connected with others, whatever their beliefs may be. The love of our own interests, our own nation, culture, religion and values turns us away from the love that God has for all humanity.
We make judgments that “God is on our side” and “those other people are not one of us” because we are living out of fear. Fear, along with shame and guilt, is a product of Christ-less religion. In Mark 9, when the disciples complained about someone who seemed to be healing and helping people, in Jesus’ name, but someone who wasn’t in their club, someone they didn’t know, someone who didn’t appear to be “one of us”—what did Jesus say?
Jesus said, Do not stop him (Mark 9:39). Please excuse my paraphrase, as I put words in Jesus’ mouth, but is seems to me that he was telling his disciples something like this: “Listen up guys. The gospel is not about whether God is on your side—it’s about the decision you make to be on his side. The gospel is not about whether someone is one of you—it’s about the incredible news that God is for all of us —not just you guys— but everyone. Taking sides is not part of God’s grace. That’s not how his love and grace work.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the end of the eye-for-an-eye response, a response which, of course, makes everyone blind (Matthew 5:38-42). Christ-less religion often squelches the gospel, with fever-pitched cries for vindication, politically or militarily. May God forgive us when pulpits of Christian churches are used to cry out for bloodshed. The kingdom of heaven is a multi-ethnic, international, irreligious kingdom—it most certainly is not a war-mongering, nationalistic kingdom. One of the major lessons of the book of Revelation is that religion and the state often combine as enemies of the true gospel, so much so that Revelation 18:4 calls to the people of God, who follow Christ alone, to “Come out of her, my people.”
The book of Revelation provides a warning and a chronicle of what happens when those who profess Christ jump into bed with either Christ-less religion or the idolatry of Caesar worship—the worship of a nationalistic human empire—or a combination of both. Just as there have been religious institutions in the past that were merely pawns of a nationalistic state worship, so too religious institutions today fall into the same idolatrous worship. They fly the flag of Christ, but they are no more part of him than those who do not even claim to be followers of Jesus. It’s so easy to respond to martial music and join the crusade of demanding an eye for an eye, but we are clearly told that our citizenship primarily lies in heaven:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ… (Philippians 3:20).
Our true, eternal citizenship is in heaven. As Christ followers may we realize that as we live here on this earth, wherever we may live, and under whatever form of government, that we, as Christians, refuse to bow down and worship our country just as Daniel refused to worship the golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had formed and fashioned.
As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we worship no golden idols here on earth. We bow the knee to the Prince of peace, not to any god of war. Our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is based on God’s incredible love, which flows into our hearts and our lives by his grace.
In Luke chapter 9 we read that when the Samaritans refused to welcome Jesus and his disciples, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume these enemies of the gospel. How dare they stand in the way of truth? But Jesus rebuked James and John—and then, in the very next chapter, on the heels of his rejection by the Samaritans, Jesus chose a Samaritan as the good guy of his parable about the love of God—a parable we call the parable of the Good Samarian!
The life of Christ involves turning the other cheek to the enemy who wrongs us, blessing the enemy who curses us and praying for those who abuse us. That is the radical grace and love of the kingdom of heaven.
Whose Side Is God On? He’s on your side and on my side. God is on the side of our next-door neighbors whose dogs bark and bother us, the neighbors who never mow their lawn and who have loud parties. He’s on the side of people who don’t attend your church—or people who don’t attend any church—or people who are not even Christians. God’s love is big enough—there’s enough of it to go around, even for people who don’t even believe in him—at least not yet.
Whose Side Is God On? He’s on the side of people who live outside of our borders and boundaries, who speak languages we don’t understand and practice and love a culture we don’t know or appreciate. God does not take sides as humans do. He is not against anyone. He doesn’t have favorites. The real question for you and me is whether we are on God’s side.