Sometimes we can’t help but notice how much God is blessing our efforts to do something. Everything goes extra smoothly. There are no snags, our timing is perfect, we get everything we were after, and in the end we think to ourselves, “Huh. God sure is smiling on me today.” Indeed, He is, however we must be cautious. Just because God helps us accomplish something doesn’t mean He approves of our motivations. Let’s be honest: sometimes we set out to do what we know is wrong. Maybe it’s college test answers we’re after and God lets us slip in and out of our professor’s office without getting caught. Or maybe we get away with shoplifting something. Or perhaps we buy one movie ticket, and then spend the next five hours sneaking from theater to theater so we can see multiple features without paying for them. When we get away with doing wrong, it’s pretty easy to start getting cocky. But before we start thinking that God has become our useful assistant, we’d better get a few facts straight. God doesn’t assist anyone, nor does He care about helping us accomplish our carnal agendas. Instead, we’re the ones being manipulated by Him to accomplish His own plans. When God is done using us, He’ll then turn around and discipline us for our rotten attitudes.
Suppose God wants the pianist on your church’s worship team to take a break from performing so He can work with her one-on-one. When she doesn’t respond to His convictions right away, He brings you in to drive her out by spreading a false rumor about her. His plan is very effective: people believe your nasty bit of gossip just long enough for the elders to ask her to step down. By the time her name is cleared, she’s too burned to get back on stage. Now God has her where He wants her and He used you to do it. But you weren’t trying to be God’s helper in all this. You were just envious of her stardom and you wanted her to quit so you could steal her spot. Your motives were evil, even though your actions were useful to God. He let you get away with your trick because it furthered His plan in the first woman’s life, but now He’s going to take you in hand for being such a little twerp. This is how it works with God: we are judged by our motivations. We don’t get any points for furthering His plan on earth when He knows we were only thinking about ourselves.
There are many ministry organizations alive today which God is using to draw many souls closer to Him. But while He reaps a great harvest of spiritual fruit off of the efforts of the ministry workers, He is quite displeased with many of them because their motivations are evil. They are being guided by their flesh and the world instead of by Him. They are using carnal marketing strategies and manipulation tactics to get their funding. They are leading souls astray with false teachings, and at the same time taking the glory for the things that God accomplishes in spite of them.
It is awe-inspiring the way that God so skillfully brings good out of our rotten intentions. We set out to do evil, yet He accomplishes good. What an absolute Genius He is. And for all this His justice is not compromised, for He judges us by our hearts, which is what we deserve. A liar should be disciplined for lying, even if he manages to fool a thousand people with his tales. A thief should be disciplined, even if no one catches him in the act. In this world, justice is broken, and we see evil going unpunished every day. Yet our consolation comes in knowing that God is in this world with us, and what the human courts excuse, He deals with justly. No one ever gets away with anything in God’s court of law. The Holy Spirit sees all and knows all. Instead of locking us in manmade prisons, He has much more effective means of discipline at His disposal. What fools we are to think we could outsmart the One who holds our very souls in His hands!
In Isaiah 10, we find a fascinating passage where God spells out the dynamic we’ve been discussing. Because the sinful nation of Israel is being such an impossible brat by refusing to repent of her wickedness, God has decided to give her a violent beating on earth. He has chosen the mighty Assyrian empire to be His spanking paddle. Assyria was a greedy, land gobbling kingdom, that had taken over much of the land on Israel’s east. Pinned between Assyria and the Mediterranean Sea, the coastal nation of Israel had nowhere she could hide, nor could she begin to defend herself against the mighty Assyrian army. Right on schedule with God’s Divine Plan, the king of Assyria came with his men and massacred Israel’s northern kingdom. But then God became quite angry with His spanking paddle. Let’s find out why.
“Woe to the king of Assyria, the rod of My anger, in whose hand is the club of My wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger Me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets. But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations.” (Isa. 10:5-7)
God wanted Assyria to beat on Israel so that the Jews would realize what idiots they were being to defy an Almighty God. His plan was to drive Israel back to God, but this wasn’t Assyria’s plan. The king of Assyria was only interested in expansion. He wanted more territory and more power so that he could rake in the glory on earth. Turns out our king is a pretty pompous fellow.
“The king of Assyria boasts, saying: ‘Each of my princes will soon be a king. We destroyed Calno just as we did Carchemish. Hamath fell before us as Arpad did. And we destroyed Samaria just as we did Damascus. Yes, we have finished off many a kingdom whose gods were greater than those in Jerusalem and Samaria. So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods, just as we destroyed Samaria with hers.’” (Isa. 10:8-11)
In this passage, the king of Assyria reflects on his past victories—other major cities that he has successfully toppled in other nations besides Israel. In those times, many gods were believed to have physical territories on earth. This led to the conclusion that if you managed to conquer a nation, it was because your god was stronger than theirs. At this point in time, Israel is split into two warring kingdoms. The king of Assyria has already sacked the capital of the northern kingdom, which was Samaria. He is now rubbing his greedy hands together in anticipation of sacking Jerusalem.
Notice how the Assyrian king refers to Jerusalem’s “images” and Samaria’s “idols.” Why the reference to multiple deities? Doesn’t this foreign ruler understand that Yahweh is Israel’s one and only God? No, he doesn’t, because when he goes marching through this chosen nation, he sees a land covered with many different kinds of idols. Inside the city of Jerusalem, he finds a Temple stuffed to the gills with ugly gods of every kind, while male and female Jews engage in “sacred” prostitution. This was how terrible Israel was behaving. She was so steeped in idolatry that even the pagans around her had no idea that Yahweh was supposed to be anything more than another local deity that their own gods could overpower. How pathetic for Israel to sink so low. But let’s be honest: how many Christians today have done a similar job of completely destroying their witnesses by acting like the world around them? It’s pretty obvious why Yahweh was so furious towards His chosen people thousands of years ago. But let’s not be stupid about this: He’s pretty ticked at us today as well. Having our sins forgiven doesn’t make it okay to publicly dishonor our God. When we invest our time and energy into blending in with those who worship false religions and chase after the lies of Satan, we have no right to be surprised when God finds some group of pagans to come and give US a thorough beating. So before we start whining about being persecuted for Christ, we’d better make sure that that is in fact what’s happening. Too often we mistake Christ’s discipline for persecution that we can later exchange for heavenly rewards. There are no rewards for the rebellious children of God.
Now then, the king of Assyria is feeling pretty cocky. His motivations for stomping all over Israel have been totally self-serving, which is why he’s now in line to receive his own personal dose of Yahweh’s discipline.
When Yahweh has finished all His work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.” (Isa. 10:12)
Nothing gets God mad faster than people trying to steal His glory. Our pompous king has quite a problem in this area. He says:
“‘By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings. As one reaches into a nest, so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations; as people gather abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing, or opened its mouth to chirp.’” (Isa. 10:13-14)
Boy, what an ego! Notice how he compares conquering nations to the effortless task of plucking eggs out of an abandoned nest. Now God has something to say to this arrogant little man:
“Can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it? Can a wooden cane walk by itself?” (Isa. 10:15)
The only reason the king has conquered anything is because God gave him victory. Assyria has merely been a pawn in God’s hand—a tool He has used to further His own agenda on earth. Yet now the tool arrogantly thinks it is superior to the One it relies on for life. Hm. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if your ax tried to take the credit for a large pile of firewood that you had prepared? Without you, the ax would have lain on the ground completely useless. In fact, you had a hundred other axes available to you with one quick trip to the hardware store. You are the only reason the ax accomplished anything because: you picked it up, you aimed it, you added your strength to its chop, and you kept its blade sharp. And yet suppose it still insisted that it didn’t need you for anything—what would you do? Toss it onto the blazing fire, of course. That’ll show it who’s boss.
“Therefore, Yahweh, the Lord Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon the king of Assyria’s sturdy warriors and a flaming fire will consume Assyria’s glory. Yahweh, the Light of Israel, will be a fire; the Holy One will be a flame. He will devour the thorns and briers with fire, burning up the enemy in a single night. Yahweh will consume Assyria’s glory like a fire consumes a forest in a fruitful land; it will waste away like sick people in a plague. Of all that glorious forest, only a few trees will survive—so few that a child could count them!” (Isa. 10:16-19)
Since the king of Assyria thinks his army is all that, God is going to strike the Assyrian soldiers with a nasty plague which will cause their bodies to waste away. God then describes Himself as a fire that goes roaring through many forests and fields in one day—that’s a pretty frightening image. He warns the pompous king that all of Assyria will be destroyed.
God made good on all of His threats. The Assyrian empire was eventually destroyed by one of the nations it had devoured, and the Babylonian empire was established in its place. In time, the kings of Babylon made the same mistakes as their Assyrian predecessor. They started taking glory for the things that Yahweh did through them, so He smashed them as well. This arrogance-before-devastation theme is repeated all throughout the Bible. To avoid seeing it play out in our personal lives, we need to remember that God judges us by our hearts, not by our external successes. What we do is not nearly as important as why we are doing it. We can do glorious things for all the wrong reasons, and end up with nothing good to show for our lives in eternity. A nobody Christian who has a humble heart before God is far more pleasing to Him than a superstar evangelist who is winning thousands of converts for Christ, while at the same time soaking in the glory of their applause. Pleasing God must be our primary motivation in life. When He does something wonderful through us, we need to give all the glory to Him alone. While there are many in the Church who will try to convince you that you must prove your devotion to God through external acts of service that everyone can see, this is not true, and you won’t get any points with God for trying to earn the approval of others. Your motivations are what matter to God.