When God Says No
When we come to God with our faithful obedience to make a case for our just cause, we expect to hear his deliverance in the form of a "yes."
"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 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?" And the Commander of the Lord's army said to Joshua, "Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so" (Josh 5:13-15).
Joshua has just taken over as leader of the Israelites. He has led them safely across the Jordan River and into the promised land as God, yet again, miraculously parted the waters. He has overseen the circumcision of all the adult men, and he has prepared for battle - for wars - that he is probably well aware will span the rest of this lifetime. In other words, Joshua has been faithful. He knows and trusts in God. Nothing he has done would lead us to believe that God does not stand for him. It's for these reasons that the Commander of the Lord's Army's, "No," to Joshua's question comes as a shock to us.
We are shocked because when we come to God with our faithful obedience to make a case for our just cause, we expect to hear his deliverance in the form of a "yes."
Yet here we read, the messenger of God – the pre-Incarnate Christ himself – gives Joshua nothing more than a simple, solitary "No."
No. He is not for the Israelites.
No. He is not for their adversaries either.
If this were the only information we were given about God, there would certainly be cause for anxiety and concern. Why fight for a God who isn't for us? Why believe in a God who doesn't care about us and yet demands our loyalty all the same?
We might even assume Joshua would feel the same way. But when Joshua hears these answers and the Commander reveals his true identity, all Joshua can do is fall on his face and worship. God doesn't answer "no" and then abandon Joshua; God answers "no" to remind Israel's new leader of who he is. He is not just the Commander of the Lord's Army, but the Savior of his people. Thus a "no" from him can't contradict what he has already done or what he has promised to do. Joshua's fears, the ones he comes to the Commander with in hopes of receiving a yes, are still answered because that "no" reveals God won't deter from his path to save us in exchange for what we would settle for as victory.
No. He's not for you in your battle to the top.
No. He's not for your adversary in their assertion of power, either.
His purpose is not to prop up one side over another, even if it's the side of his father's chosen people. Why? Because he knows the hearts of his creatures all too well.
We will always do our best to turn the Commander of the Lord's Army into our mouthpiece of propaganda, a tool to fit our purpose and spread our cause.
Even when we have the best intentions, we are apt to stuff Christ into our causes. In today's language, we might say we are prone to use Christ to confirm our own biases. We will always do our best to turn the Commander of the Lord's Army into our mouthpiece of propaganda, a tool to fit our purpose and spread our cause.
But Christ came for more than the needs of the poorest and least among us and for more than the arguments of the smartest and wisest. He came for more than the rage of the righteous and for more than the loyalty of the most dedicated servants.
And so we see how despite his people's insistence that God fight for their desires, their wishes, and their good, that he continues to save them according to his plan. He does this from Joshua onward – despite rebellion, betrayal, doubt, and selfish manipulation. And eventually, he reveals exactly why he won't be defined by just one cause for one people: on the cross, he goes into battle with sin, death, and the devil to die for each and every one of us.
It's on the cross where we finally understand this "no" in terms of Christ's resounding "yes" because it's on the cross that Christ reveals what he's fighting for:
He's fighting for the redemption of the entire world. He's not just fighting for us, but for our adversaries - the worst of the worst and the best of the best.
On the cross, the Commander of the Lord's Army fights for us by dying, and in dying, he takes our sin from us, including the sin that diminishes our God into nothing more than a weapon in our self-serving, self-justifying fights.
There is a danger here in assuming that God's "no" means that he doesn't care about what makes us grieve or suffer or lament: that he doesn't care to protect us and that he isn't for us when we really need him to be.
But it's because he is a God that says "no" to our demand for him to take our side alone that we can approach him as Joshua did: honestly, with all passion and fervor for the fight we think is right. We can approach him without fear that he will knock us down because of what side we stand on. And so too can our adversaries. So can those who have wronged us, hurt us, and broken us. God's "no" for one side allows him to say yes to drawing near to us. Near enough where we can hear both his words of law and gospel. Near enough where we can weakly and half-heartedly repent (as is our tendency) when we are in the wrong and be renewed by his forgiveness.
His victory doesn't shore up our argument for why we should win and others should lose. To these fights, he answers with a resounding, "no."
No. I won't be for what you think I should be for. But yes, I am here for you as you cry out in anger and pain and suffering all the same. He goes to battle to die for our enemies and us, so his "no" is the best "yes" we could ask for.