Idolatry is making a good aspect of creation – marriage, mountains, business, and so on – into the ultimate source of security, identity, and power. And so false gods are a thorn. When we make something into an idol, it continually makes us miserable. If we fall short of it, or if we might fall short of it, it robs us of joy. If our children are our false god, when their lives are troubled, we will lose our joy; and even when their lives might become troubled (which is all the time!), we will worry, and lose our joy.
There are three general categories of ‘can’t’ justifications for disobedience:
Forgiveness: I can’t forgive this, or him, or her. But God commands forgiveness (Matthew 18:35). So we can, in fact, determine to put aside anger and soften our hearts with the knowledge of the gospel of grace, and act as though the wrong had not happened. When we say we can’t, we mean we won’t; that we want to hang on to our anger, our bitterness, our ‘right’ to get even, under the excuse of being ‘unable.’
Difficult truth-telling: I just can’t tell him the truth. It would destroy him/me. God tells us to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15, 25). Often, we are excusing cowardice or pride under ‘can’t.’ What we really mean is: If I tell him that, he may not like me anymore. I would be humiliated. He would be upset. I won’t risk that cost— I would rather disobey.
Temptation: I can’t resist doing this, though I know it is wrong. We must be careful here, because sin has addictive power—it is true that we may not be able, through sheer willpower, to stop doing something by ourselves. But we can get help, admit our problem, humble ourselves, cry out to God for mercy and transformation, become accountable. God always gives us a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13)—no sinful thought or action is inevitable and irresistible. If we don’t, it’s likely that we would simply rather keep sinning in that way, excusing it with our ‘inability’ to do anything else.
True discipleship is radical and risk-taking, because true disciples rely on God to keep his promises to bless them, and not on their own instincts, plans, or insurance policies.
It is hard to be truly brave without faith in God. The kind of bravery that does not arise out of faith in God is adventurism, or macho heroism, or plain cruelty. It can be rooted in insecurity, or a desperation to prove oneself, or hopelessness. Only faith-based bravery will walk the line between atrocities on the one side, and cowardice and ineffectiveness on the other.
On the one hand, God is holy and just and cannot tolerate or live with or bless evil. On the other hand, God is loving and faithful and cannot tolerate the loss of people he has committed himself to. This is a tremendous, seemingly irresolvable tension in the narrative—and also in the whole Bible (see, for instance, Exodus 34:6-7; Hosea 11:1-11). This tension is what should keep us in suspense throughout Judges. Will God finally give up on his people (but then what of his faithfulness)? Or will he finally give in to his people (but then what of his holiness)?
It is only on the cross that we can understand how God is able to resolve the tension. On the cross, our sin was given—imputed—to him, so that his righteousness could be imputed to us. On the cross, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the cross, God poured out his wrath on his people in the person of his Son. He satisfied both justice, because sin was punished, and loving faithfulness, since he is now able to accept and forgive us. Only through the cross can God be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). This is the only way the tension of Judges can be resolved; the only way that God can love us both conditionally and unconditionally.