What to do when God leaves out the instructions

Believers sometimes look around for specific instructions from God, and find nothing we like. Sometimes it seems that God has forgotten to give us enough instruction, so we end up taking the wrong steps or even refusing to take any steps to follow Christ.

But are we as direction-less as we suppose?

A curious thing happens when Joshua is finally able to lead the people into the promised land. We’re probably familiar with Joshua 1:8 (ESV):

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

This passage is cited frequently as an encouragement to pay diligent, consistent attention to the word of God. It’s used to encourage Bible reading, memorization, and meditation. And, less legitimately, to lay claim to a broad promise of “prosperity” and “success” for every believer, no matter the endeavor, leading the hapless five footer to claim the ability to dunk a basketball while muttering I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Earlier in the passage God promised Joshua that he had given him every place he walks (Joshua 1:3), that no man would stand before him (Joshua 1:5), and that, therefore, he should be strong and courageous (Joshua 1:6, 9).

Where’s that instruction manual?

But the glaring omission is any specific instruction about what to do to take the land. No battle plans. No strategy explanations. No timetables. No suggestions for the military brain trust, civilian leadership and organization, city planning, school boards, production lines. Nothing.

God had previously given some hints about taking the land:

  • In Exodus 34, God tells Israel to avoid making covenants with the land’s inhabitants, to refuse intermarriage with them, to tear down their altars, and to avoid making idols
  • In Numbers 34, God explains the geography of each tribe’s possession
  • In Deuteronomy 20, God gives general instructions for how to wage war as God’s people (provisions for soldiers; terms of engagement — destroy everything)

But on this occasion, as Joshua is about to move millions of fighting men and their civilian families together with the tabernacle and priestly classes into enemy territory, nothing.

All God says is that Joshua will have success in the mission and prosper in carrying out God’s plan when he meditates on this Book of the Law. This refers to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. What God had provided before. What was already written.

A tiny fraction of the Book of the Law related to taking the promised land, and that tiny fraction isn’t the sort of instruction that military leaders prefer. The Book of the Law is the record of God’s creation, his call of a people to himself, his rescue of those people and the covenant (promise) he made with them, and, interestingly, his detailed, meticulous, exacting plans for the tabernacle and eventual temple, as well as painstaking instructions for how to live as his people and worship him properly.

What sort of relevance does this have for us, beyond encouragement to Bible study, memorization, and meditation?

Prosperity & Success Relate to God’s Mission

First, we must recognize that prosperity and success can’t be terms that we permit the world or our own personal desires to define. Instead, when God promises prosperity and success to his people, he is promising the fulfillment of the mission that he has sent us on.

For Joshua, prosperity and success taking the promised land.

For the New Testament believer and church, it is  living as God’s people in the world and making disciple-making disciples of Jesus (Matthew 5:13-16; Matthew 28:18-20).

The prosperity Christians should seek is not full bank accounts, but treasures laid up in heaven through zealous deeds of righteousness (Matthew 6:19-24; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:14). The success that Christians should seek is not a church building full of people, whether or not they are holy, but men and women following Christ and increasingly full of the Spirit of Holiness.

Prosperity & Success Rely on God’s Mandate

Second, we must recognize that we cannot neglect what God has already said when we turn our attention to fulfilling the mission.

Many times we think that fulfilling God’s mission — living as his people in the world and making disciple-making disciples of Jesus — is actually hampered by doing according to all that is written in God’s word. So we ignore, obscure or twist God’s word in order to attain a prosperity and success in ministry that ends up looking like neither.

How many times do we hear that preaching the word of God is not the way to increase the size of churches, either because modern man doesn’t want to be preached (his pride too big, his attention span too small) or because modern man doesn’t recognize the authority of God’s word?

How many times do we hear that placing expectations on those who call themselves “disciple of Christ” is not the way to lure people to church, because modern people don’t want to be told what to do, and even Jesus said his load was easy and burden light?

How many times do we hear that churches certainly can’t practice discipline, because it has no right to tell people how to live?

How NOT to be Prosperous and Successful

God hasn’t given us detailed instructions for managing the demands of work, family, culture, and church; for evangelizing coworkers at a media conglomerate headquarters; for witnessing to the neighborhood characterized by affluence, security and health, or the one characterized by poverty, violence, and fear.

God frequently doesn’t even let us know, for sure, whether we have actually been prospered or attained success, in his eyes.

But there is one thing we can be absolutely certain of: we will NOT be prosperous, we will NOT be successful, if we do not do according to all that God has already told us in his Word.

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