November 12, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up!”
Historians of science debate who discovered the property first. Some say Galileo. Others credit René Descartes. Still others think the third-century-B.C. Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu identified the phenomenon. Irrespective of who had the epiphany first, most of us attribute to Sir Isaac Newton what he coined as the first law of motion in his Principia Mathematica: “A body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.” We know it as the law of inertia.
Bewildered by the defeat against Ai, all Joshua knows to do is pour dust upon his head (v. 6) and prostrate himself in lamentation. To don the detritus of the earth was an ancient Near Eastern statement of humiliation. If you thought you’d acted insolently toward God, forgetting your entire dependence on Him, you dressed yourself in the very dust into which you would one day deteriorate. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
From the Lord’s perspective, however, this was not a time for contrite stillness. Joshua had to be roused from his languishing, and God’s Word would be that external force to act upon him. So twice in chapter 7, the Lord issues a bracing “Get up!” (vv. 10, 13). The first was to prepare him to hear—the second to act.
First, Joshua needed to rise to his feet to hear that Israel had placed her trust in something other than her covenant with God. Their defeat was not the result of simple misfortune. God had engineered their drubbing due to His displeasure over an Israelite’s sin.
Then Joshua needed to hear again, “Get up!” to know how to act. As we said last week, only by casting off what they’d come to value more than their fidelity to God would Israel be able to survive external onslaught. God’s curt command made plain the need for decisive action.
Our frenzied pace often belies a spiritual inertia. Kathleen Norris warns of the ancient and insidious sin of acedia, that spiritual indifference that slowly nests in our souls: “We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.”
We can be lulled into languishing for any number of reasons. Forgetfulness of our identity in Christ. Cynicism that our efforts will be of no effect. Fear of what might happen if we do listen and act. But each of those tend to be effects of our more everyday habits. As Norris puts it, “In this hyped-up world, broadcast and Internet news media have emerged as acedia's perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology"—all of which "makes us impervious to caring.” They can drain us of any vitality for listening to and heeding the word of God. Brought to a standstill, we need something to rouse us either from our inattention or inaction.
Have you lost your edge in listening for God? Paul Miller’s instruction for cultivating a praying life begins with the simple exhortation of “get to bed” and (ironically!) “get up” to pray. What you do in the evening, he argues, correlates to your readiness to pray in the morning. Hearing again what is true from God keeps you from the spiritual torpor the culture can inflict; it can also rescue you from a bewildered disorientation, like it did for Joshua.
Once you hear from Him, you might be reminded of what the next holy thing you need to do is. Is there a neighbor or a colleague you have yet to meet and befriend? Is there someone from whom you need to ask forgiveness? Someone to whom you need to offer it? (Matt. 6:23–24) Is there some act of generosity calling for your Christ-centered participation (2 Cor. 8–9)? Distracted by much, we often need a divinely authored, “get up!” to move us on to those good works prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). What good work has He consecrated you for that remains undone?
Near the end of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, he quotes a fragment of what many scholars believe to be an early Christian hymn: Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Eph. 5:14). Christ alone is sufficient to rouse us from our spiritual slumber, because only someone who loves us like that is able to compel loving attention and service.