The following is a revisit of a topic originally written for the now-defunct Examiner.com, where I had a column about Christianity for a time.
I have heard more sermons on David killing Goliath than I can count. It's a popular topic, and one which is easily recognized by our culture even by individuals outside of the faith. This isn't surprising--we all face massive and frightening forces in our lives, whether they are embodied in a person or a government or an employer or whatever else, and it is nice to believe that we can still hope for victory over them. So we keep coming back to this passage, and looking for ourselves in David, and seeking ways to apply the lesson of David to our own trials.
Now, this is fine. It is a valid lesson to teach, that we can trust God like David did, that God is always more powerful than whatever stands against us, that boldly stepping forward in the name of God under His promises is better than relying on the best armor or the best weapons or our own read of the circumstances. We should be teaching these things. I would simply like to add a consideration to the list of ways David and Goliath can be understood, and one that I have never heard from a pulpit. I submit that we are more often like the army of Israel than like David.
I should clarify. I do not mean to suggest that this is a better read of the point of the story of David and Goliath. The point of that story, in its original context, is about David. What I am saying is that this story also contains imagery that can help us understand the gospel, and if we are going to look at it through that lens, I submit that this approach is just as valid as the one that posits David as an example for us.
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; and they were gathered at Socoh which belongs to Judah, and they camped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. Saul and the men of Israel were gathered and camped in the valley of Elah, and drew up in battle array to encounter the Philistines. The Philistines stood on the mountain on one side while Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with the valley between them. Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span...the Philistine said, "I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man that we may fight together." When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
1 Samuel 17:1-4, 10-11 (NASB)
So much of what the world sees of Christianity in public these days is reactionary. In lawsuits about civil rights being infringed, in opposition to selected media, in political backlash, in trying desperately to hold off a feared possible future condition. We so often accept this as boldly standing up for our faith, but it is never the church that really steps forward and starts something new, or bold, or supernatural in the public eye. It's just boycotts, and campaigns, and court dates. We do not look like we are fueled by anything different than the world around us. We talk in church about how Christ promised to build His church and how the gates of Hell will not stand against it, but then we just...wait for it to try, and then react.
So often, we hide in our little camps, and we cower when we feel our way of life is threatened, and then we champion everyone we see as trying to bring some form of deliverance, even if the benefits only really apply to themselves.
Israel was in a bad way when this story kicks off. The nation has a king who has started to go mad, the people are facing down an enemy they have been dealing with for generations, and now the entire army is cowering from a single warrior who stands and insults them all day. Goliath is a frightening guy, and his offer is a pretty grim one for whoever steps forward. The passage above cuts out most of the description of how scary he is and the details of his insult, but the basic facts are that he is large, well armored, well armed, and is demanding to face a single combatant knowing full well there is not a single man in Israel that can match his raw physical power.
The armies of Israel were waiting. They hid in their camp and cowered when Goliath stepped forward and waited for a deliverer. Saul tried to bribe someone, anyone, to stand up as a deliverer, even if only to gain the king's daughter as a wife.
The thing is, this state of being makes sense before a true deliverer arrives. Before the victory is won. We knock on the Israelite army for enduring Goliath's taunts without answer, but the fact is that unless God was with them, they really didn't have any other choice. And this is the way it is with the lost in our world. Every human being is born in need of a deliverer. We face the power of sin and death, which stands over us strong, well armed, seemingly immune to defeat. The fact is, the state of the Israelite army in that day is a great picture of the natural state of all men.
All men, save one.
David arrives on the scene to a lost battle that has yet to even begin. For forty days, Goliath has been taunting Israel, and no one has taken any action. They draw up in their battle lines, they listen to the words of the Philistine, they tremble with fear, and then they just go back to waiting. Goliath has basically already won his prize: the offer he makes in his taunt is that whichever champion wins the single combat, his side will have the other as servants. No one has yet faced Goliath, but they can't very well leave the valley until someone does; if they leave the scene, the Philistine army will advance on their homes, but if they risk sending someone out, they'll lose everything. If they ignore the charge of Goliath and advance, they not only have to contend with him, but the whole of his army which would still hold the high ground. They are at the mercy of Goliath and his army for as long as they wait there. They are as good as slaves already.
Now, I've said that there is value in trying to find ourselves in David, or in trying to apply the lessons learned from David to our lives. And I stand by that. I also believe that when that is all we talk about with this story, we lose sight of finding Christ in this story.
Because David is a type of Christ here. Christ steps into history, in the midst of a war against sin and death, where mankind has been functionally enslaved and no amount of fighting or not fighting can change that fact. We can't just leave sin unchecked, or it will overrun us. We can't advance on it in our own power, because we are ill-equipped to handle the forces it can muster. And who among us can step forward to conquer death itself, sin's greatest champion, and hope to prevail?
Both David and Christ leave their homes to enter a battle they had no need to fight. Both strive after God's glory, and in the process, set aside earthly tools of defense and conquest, and step forward into a confrontation that promises death. David lays his life on the line to prove that there is a God in Israel, and Christ lays His life down to prove that God has come among Israel. David and Christ both conquer not as a king, or as a warrior, but as a shepherd who puts his life between his flocks and that which threatens them. But where David deals the killing blow, Jesus receives it.
Thus David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and he struck the Philistine and killed him; but there was no sword in David's hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. The men of Israel and Judah arose and shouted and pursued the Philistines as far as the valley, and to the gates of Ekron. And the slain Philistines lay along the way to Shaaraim, even to Gath and Ekron. The sons of Israel returned from chasing the Philistines and plundered their camps.
1 Samuel 17:50-53 (NASB)
When David kills Goliath, the Philistines realize that they've lost and begin to run. The army of Israel rises up and enjoys the spoil of a battle they could not lift a finger to help win. David has acted on their behalf, and now they get to enjoy the victory. The Philistines flee before them, the power to do war is completely lost among the Philistines and they fall by the swords of Israel. It was David who won the day, but it was the people who sat on a hill for forty days who get to savor the victory and go forth in power and courage against a foe they could not have defeated just moments before.
The analogy between David and Christ begins to break down here, but it isn't because any part of it isn't true for Christ. It's because we, despite living in the glow of Christ's victory, despite watching our greatest foe fall, despite knowing that if we will only rise up the enemy will flee, we continue to sit on our hill. When we take a reactionary approach to the world around us, when we refuse to go out because we fear how the world will receive us, when we expect new deliverers, we fail to embrace the victory that has been won for us. The spoils are waiting. The enemy flees. But until we begin to press forward, we will continue to live as slaves to a defeated enemy, waiting for a deliverance that has already come, hiding from a threat that has been slain.
The battle is won! Go forth boldly in the victory of Christ!
Between my experiences in church planting over the last decade, and the people I know at school and at various gatherings, and just my life in general these days, I meet a number of people who take some measure of interest in church planting. Which is great! I love talking about it, and expect that I'll be talking about it a lot here. But I have picked up the habit of beginning by warning people that if they intend to get involved in church planting, one of the most important things they need to do (aside from prayer and normal planning matters) is adjust their definition of success.
What I mean by that is actually fairly simple: success in church planting is more about faithfulness to the call than about money raised, or seats filled at launch, or baptisms in the first couple months. These things are important, we should strive to be actually making an impact on the lost in our cities, but for a church planter the primary means of measuring our success is whether or not we are doing what God has called us to do. Let me point you to some examples.
One church that was deeply important to my growth as a Christian and to my move toward full-time ministry was a decent little church in the middle of the Pioneer Valley. This church was planted about ten years before I arrived at it, and wasn't what most people would consider a successful church. It still relied on donations from outside (and still does, to some extent), people mostly in Texas and Oklahoma that believe in the mission and faithfully give month after month. Why? Well, when the original team came to the area, they had very southern ideas about church planting methods, and none of them worked. But in working near a major college campus there, they found themselves acquiring a handful of students. At first, the temptation was to turn these students around and use their energy to recruit adults and get the type of people they had been told to get: stable families who can invest for multiple generations and can be convinced to give enough in tithes and offerings to get the church financially sound within a few years.
But nothing they did in that sphere worked, and more students were beginning to show up. The day came when they had to take a step back, realize that God was actively giving them a body of new believers that needed to be taken seriously as disciples, and give up on the idea of making a church that looked like what they had always been taught was a successful church. In the years since redefining their idea of success, that church has never reached full financial freedom, still holds more students than locals, and watches its population turn over almost completely every four years. But hundreds of people have come to Christ, been put on mission, and sent out as maturing disciples to impact the world wherever they went. The church has seen massive returns on their investment in the lives of people who would have been largely ignored in a different model, and God has been glorified throughout.
My third church planting work was also the first one that I led. My wife and I returned to a town that had already seen a church plant fold after the planter walked away from the faith, because we knew the work wasn't done and that we were being tasked with doing something about it. We went in with high hopes. God was going to do amazing things in that city through us! It was going to be awesome, we were going to really make an impact and start a church that would be in a prime position to send new plants out throughout a region seriously lacking in active churches. We met regularly with another family who had signed on to the work. We did the legal stuff to make it a real church. We bought supplies and started doing meetings outside and inviting people to join us. And...nothing happened.
In our prayers, we felt convicted to really give the task our all, for a short time. We didn't know what would come of that, but we were willing to do it. I was working at a college and got laid off every summer, and it was appearing that my time at that job was coming to an end anyway, so we talked and prayed and pondered and came to the understanding that when I got laid off, instead of picking up sporadic hours or looking for something else, I should devote my time to the work for the entire summer. Treat it as my job until September, and then revisit and see what God was doing. So we did. We bought some more supplies, especially Bibles, and I began making daily trips downtown and praying over the city and talking to people and seeking opportunities to share the gospel. An opportunity came to attend an upcoming conference as a church planting pastor, and I leapt at it. It wasn't until the following February, but man, think about how far we may have come by then! And then my health rapidly deteriorated. And problems started arising, and by the time September came around, we seemed to have actually gone backward.
When we took all this to God and got confirmation that our time working in that town was over, at least for now, it was heartbreaking. I felt like we'd failed. I didn't know why God would have even called us to the work if He didn't intend to do anything with it. But then some other things started to happen.
We had had what many would call a real failure under our belts, and it tested us in a big way. And it wasn't until we were dealing with that that we found ourselves more committed to church planting than ever. This was the first real confirmation that we weren't just following a fad, but that God had really placed something on us that could burn bright and survive even a catastrophic collapse of everything we thought we knew. We needed some time to recover, but we were hungry for what God had lined up next. The months passed, and I had trouble finding a new job, and our reliance on Him became ever more apparent, to the point where what resolve we had to make things work for ourselves was broken. We came to really understand that God will provide, even if we don't see any way for Him to do so.
When I went to that conference, wearing a badge that labelled me as the pastor of a church that no longer existed, I was confronted with a host of opportunities and lessons and was able to connect with God about the mission and my place in it in ways I never had before, and I realized I never would have been there if it hadn't been for that plant. And then, when we had the chance that summer to meet with another church planter and offer our help if needed, and our brief lunch meeting turned into a two-hour blast that revealed that this was where God wanted us next, I learned that God had not wasted any effort. The supplies we still had from our plant met needs this new plant had, and my experiences gave me insights that pastor was eager to hear. We were a month into working at that plant when we realized that our closed church had, among other things, prepared us for this specific opportunity, and our willingness to follow every step He laid out for us and then apply it all where He intended meant that we had been, in the end, successful. We faithfully did the task set before us, and there is nothing more that could have been asked of us.
I wrote the following a year ago in an attempt to explain one aspect of this:
Consider the church in America.
There are places in this nation where the land is soft and yielding, where you can throw a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and a thousand weeds, and the church will praise the massive amount of growth.
And there are places in this nation where the land is rocky and dry, where you can throw out a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and they will stand alone in an otherwise barren field.
And it is growing increasingly frustrating to see people from the first land mourning how hard it is to see growth in the latter, and proclaim that they alone can farm it.
People come to church planting with settled ideas on what success looks like, and as someone working in New England, this is nowhere more apparent than in the people who come from the south and expect their systems to work here the way they do there. I can't count the number of times I've listened to people from the south talk about how churches in the northeast are dying and need some of whatever is working in the south when they first arrive, and then bemoaning how hard the soil is and how the gospel just can't penetrate the culture after they've been here a little while.
Listen: the ground here is tough, but it will always feel more tough when you use the wrong tools and expect a crop that doesn't grow in it.
What is happening is that people come here expecting to use the systems they've always known and seeing the results they've always seen. And if they don't adjust their definition of success, to at least accommodate the possibility that the church will look a little different once it gets going, they will always feel like a failure. It is always more important to faithfully follow the call on your life, and to find how to get the gospel to people in your context, and to nurture whatever crop may grow from it, than to make your dream church or a copy of the church that sent you. Do not change the message of Christ; but learn to recognize what you are used to from your culture rather than from the Bible, and be prepared to lose those things in the face of a different culture. And when God closes a door, or a church plant, don't jump straight to looking for a window. Be sure you are on the path you are supposed to be on, thank Him for using you in the way He has, and then start looking for what He has next. Learning to follow His leading, regardless of outcome, will put you in a better position than anything else you can ever learn.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation