By Missionary Juan Alvear
Text: Numbers 32.
In the early years of my Christian experience I thought that maturity had to do with how much faith I could muster. I believed that, either, all my prayers would be answered or that I would be so spiritual that nothing would bother me.
The years have since modified my understanding of being spiritually mature. I know now that prayer doesn’t solve every problem, and that even spiritually mature people still have them.
I really appreciate a definition of maturity that Charles Simpson once gave. He said, “To be spiritually mature is to be able to act redemptively in every situation–and those situations that create the most problems for us involve relationships.” The mark of a mature Christian is his ability to handle his problems with other people.
We will talk, constructively, about dealing with the accusations, suspicions, and the subsequent condemnations that come out of our misunderstandings with one another.
A story from the Old Testament serves as a good illustration of the causes of misunderstanding and the proper way to resolve them. In the thirty-second chapter of Numbers we find the children of Israel
nearing the end of their forty years wilderness wanderings. They were poised on the bank of the Jordan river ready to enter the Promise Land. Moses’ life was almost over and his call from God nearly fulfilled when they approached him with a request.
“Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying, Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and
Elealeh, and Shembam, and Nebo, and Beon, Even the country which the LORD smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle: Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan.”
However, Moses reacted negatively to this request. For forty years his intention had been to bring all the children of Israel across Jordan into Canaan. He also remembered how, once before, the evil report of the
spies had discouraged the people from entering the Promise Land. So, he chastened the two and a half tribes with the following lecture:
“And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben, Shall your brethren go to war, and ye sit here? And wherefore discourage ye the heart of the children of Israel from going over into
the land which the LORD hath given them? Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadeshbarnea to see the land. For when they went up unto the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land which the LORD had given them.” Numbers 32:6-9.
“And the LORD’S anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed. And, behold, ye are risen up in your father’s stead, an increase of sinful men, to augment yet the fierce anger of the LORD toward Israel. For if ye turn away from after him, he will yet again leave them in the wilderness; and ye shall destroy all this people.” Numbers 32:13-15.
Moses heard what Gad and Reuben were saying from a prejudiced perspective, resulting from an unhappy experience forty years previously.
We can understand why Moses felt as he did, but he was misunderstanding the situation. So the tribes of Gad and Reuben were moved to prove their loyalty to him.
“And they came near unto him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones: But we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in the fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on yonder side Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side Jordan eastward.” Numbers 32:16-19
The nature of the problem was this: Gad and Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh interpreted their destiny differently from the other nine and a half tribes. They saw their calling to be a different calling
and their place in God’s kingdom to be in a different geographical location than that of the other tribes. They became a misunderstood minority; they became a group of nonconformists.
The story continues in the book of Joshua. The two and a half tribes occupied the cities east of the Jordan and built pens for their cattle and homes for their children. Then the men, forty thousand of them, went over Jordan to fight the war to conquer Canaan with the other nine and a half tribes of Israel. When the battles were over Joshua gave them permission to return to their inheritance across the river.
On their way home to Gilead, before they crossed the river, Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh decided to erect an altar on the land that belonged to the other nine and a half tribes. To their great surprise, the altar they had built became a point of great misunderstanding and contention.
“And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them.” Joshua 22:12.
MANY TIMES MISUNDERSTANDINGS COME BECAUSE WE FEEL OUR FUTURE WELFARE OR DESTINY OR GOAL IS BEING JEOPARDIZED BY WHAT IS HAPPENING!
The majority immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion that the minority was rebelling against God. On the basis of what they saw and heard, the nine and a half tribes came to the drastically wrong conclusion that Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had rebelled and had fallen into apostasy and were going after Baal. In order to defend their “true faith,” they were willing to go to war and slaughter their brothers. They would defend the true altar at Shiloh and put down these rebels–all for the glory of God, of course.
We must understand that the basis for this hasty response had been established earlier–the suspicions were already present. Why? Because these two and a half tribes wanted to settle on the “other side” of the
river. Even though forty thousand men from Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had fought side-by-side with the other tribes; still, they were “different.”
Fortunately, some cooler heads prevailed before they went to war. They chose the son of a priest and ten elders–each one a head of a tribe–as a council to talk to Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. However, even
this delegation was angry and had already made up its mind about the problem.
“And they came unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, unto the land of Gilead, and they spake with them, saying, Thus saith the whole congregation of the LORD, What trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the LORD, in that ye have builded you an altar, that ye might rebel this day against the LORD?” Joshua 22:15-16.
In addition to the prejudice and half-truths, there also was an attitude of superiority that was a cause for the wrong conclusions drawn by the nine and a half tribes. Listen to their “invitation:”
“Notwithstanding, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the LORD, wherein the LORD’S tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the LORD, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar beside the altar of the LORD our God.” Joshua 22:19.
Now, all of this came as an utter shock to Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh. They were completely dumbfounded to realize that the other tribes could so thoroughly misunderstand what they had done. Immediately they rose to explain and defend themselves.
“Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh answered, and said unto the heads of the thousands of Israel, The LORD god of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the LORD, (save us not this day,) That we have built us an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the LORD himself require it; And if we have not rather done it for fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the LORD God of Israel? For the LORD hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the LORD: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the LORD.” Joshua 22:21-25.
What happened here was a tremendous misunderstanding that almost led to the tragedy of nine and a half tribes wiping out the other two and a half.
CAUSES OF MISUNDERSTANDINGS
This kind of situation, with its potential for tragedy, has repeatedly plagued the Church. Any group that has a different vision, or dares to become prophetic in its understanding, or innovative in any way, immediately becomes suspect. Others, acting out of religious enthusiasm and out of mistaken or hasty conclusions, have opposed them, at times putting them to death–“Thinking to do a service to God,” even
Jesus prophesied they would. Thus, it is important for us to recognize in this story the factors that lead to misunderstandings, today, between various Christian groups.
The first factor is non-conformity. The two and a half tribes deviated from the “norm.” They had a vision from God that was somewhat different from the other nine and a half tribes. When somebody behaves
in a different way from us or says something differently than the way we believe or feel, we immediately think they are wrong and out of order.
The second factor is lack of communication. There was wrong on both sides. Gad, Reuben and Manasseh were at fault because they built a replica of the altar on the territory of the other tribes without bothering to explain what they were doing.
The third factor was hidden suspicion. This was especially true in the case of the “orthodox” nine and a half tribes. “There must be something wrong with those men, they don’t want to go along with Moses; they want their inheritance on the wrong side of the river.”
The fourth factor was a real absence of love and trust. For years forty thousand of those Gadites and Reubenites and the half tribe of Manasseh had fought shoulder to shoulder with the other nine and a half
tribes in helping them win their place in Canaan. Yet, after all these years, they still didn’t trust them!
The fifth factor was protective self-interest by both sides. Any time people turn inward and pre-occupy themselves with their own peculiar little interests, the ground work is laid for misunderstanding and division.
The sixth factor was tribal jealousy.
The seventh factor was a misreading of the evidence. The nine and a half tribes thought, “They are rebelling; they are going to have their own altar and their own sacrifices.” But, even though there was physical evidence to justify their fears, they still misread it.
The eighth factor was that they interpreted the situation in the light of previous problems. When Moses heard these two and a half tribes say, “We want to settle on this side, ” he thought to himself, “You are
just like your fathers who brought back the evil report at Kadesh-barnea and kept the whole nation from going in and possessing the land.” Previous problems tend to prejudice people against what you are doing.
The ninth factor is that the people are ready to believe the worst rather than the best, to be pessimistic instead of optimistic. Some humorist said that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is
that the pessimist believes that the bottle is half empty and the optimist believes that it is half full. How you interpret or misinterpret a situation can create great problems, and in this situation, the nine and a half tribes were prepared to believe the worst.
The tenth and final factor is the fear of the future. Many times misunderstandings come because we feel our future welfare or destiny or goal is being jeopardized by what is happening. This fear was expressed
by the two and a half tribes who said, “The reason we built this altar was not for ourselves but for our children, because we believe that in the future your children are going to mistreat our children.”
Fortunately, in spite of the misunderstandings and suspicions, the story has a happy ending. The delegation from the majority accepted the explanation of the minority and the battle plans were canceled.
Nevertheless, many other stories from the history of God’s people do not have such endings. Misunderstanding has often led to tragedy in the church. Sincere Christians have been persecuted and martyred by their own brothers and sisters. We may ask, “Why can’t God’s people get along?” There are many reasons, among which are included, the weakness of human nature and the ongoing spiritual warfare of the enemy. Beyond these, I believe that God has some special purposes which He accomplishes through opposition and persecution within the Church.
THE PURPOSE OF OPPOSITION
When Paul writs in II Timothy chapter 3 about things he has suffered, he insists that “everyone who tries to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” To live a holy life is to invite misunderstanding and persecution; it’s part of the package.
We must bear in mind that, in God’s plan, enemies are as much a part of His purpose as friends. However, what is that opposition meant to accomplish?
First of all, opposition strengthens character. Blessings and miracles are wonderful, and prayer will do great things–but in the arena of human relations prayer alone will not produce character. Neither will miracles; in fact, miracles often prevent or postpone the development of character. If you were to live by miracles all the time you would be living a sheltered life where nothing evil or difficult would ever put pressure on you to change. You’d pray your way out of every squabble or crisis that came along. Happy times don’t produce strength of character; struggle and persecution and misunderstanding does.
Opposition will also work to our benefit by keeping us humble. The Scriptures say, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.” However, if we don’t humble ourselves, God will see to it that we are humiliated. Opposition knocks the pride out of us. It helps to keep us humble.
The third thing that opposition does is to make us examine and purify our motives. Most of us do things out of a mixture of motives. If we were never challenged then these motives would tend to become more
and more selfish. We would tend to take it for granted that it was our right to make whatever decisions we want and to do whatever things we desire.
The forth purpose of opposition is that it will reveal our faults and flaws. Many times we receive criticism and condemnation because we are not doing things well. Especially, when we are trying new ventures,
we will make mistakes. We would like to think that we are one hundred percent right all the time, but we are not. Persecution reveals our flaws.
The fifth thing that opposition will teach us is endurance. Jesus said of the last days, “Many shall be offended and shall hate one another and betray one another, and because of iniquity the love of many
shall wax cold.” (Matt. 24:10- 13). Persecution, betrayal, and misunderstanding teach us endurance. They teach us to count the cost of what we are doing and to realize that there is a price to pay for moving in the purposes of God.
The sixth purpose of opposition is that it makes us less prone to error and more apt to exercise caution. Persecution and condemnation drive us to be more careful and to make sure that we are not getting
into error. They cause us to exercise diligence in the things that we are doing.
HANDLING OUR DIFFERENCES REDEMPTIVELY
In conclusion, here are twelve steps for dealing with opposition.
1. Do not jump to hasty conclusions. This is what got the nine and a half tribes into trouble–they jumped to conclusions that later were not borne out by the evidence.
2. When a problem arises, delegate responsible leadership to deal with it. The Misunderstanding at Jordan was prevented from becoming a tragedy primarily because the delegation of elders had enough maturity,
in this situation, to talk rather than fight. The Israelites decided to put the problem in the hands of responsible leadership.
3. Get all the facts. Ninety-five percent of all controversy that we find ourselves in today comes from a lack of having all the facts. Most of the accusations that are exchanged within the Body of Christ are full of half-truths, but they are accepted as gospel because opposing groups will not get together and ferret out the whole truth.
4. Don’t repeat rumors and half truths. This follows from step three. If Christians could just learn to keep quiet, many misunderstandings could be avoided.
5. Communicate fully. There are times when we simply must press in to communicate with one another, even though things are tense and painful because of misunderstanding.
6. Believe the best and not the worst. That means to attribute honest motives to the people we disagree with. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” (I Cor. 13:7).
7. Allow for human error. None of is perfect, we all make mistakes.
8. Recognize and allow for legitimate differences. The fact that we are different doesn’t mean we are wrong; the fact that somebody else is different doesn’t mean he is wrong. There are differences in traditions, yet we are still Christians. If God accepts them, we ought to be able to accept them even if we have differences with them.
9. Be patient. The battle will go on for a long time. We have much to learn in the struggle, and very seldom will any important thing be resolved overnight.
10. Work to build and strengthen bridges of trust. One of the reasons why it is difficult to communicate with some people is that we have no bridge to cross over to them. There must be some bridges of trust built, and they come only through effort.
11. Have a three-fold goal in mind: acceptance, commitment, and covenant. We work, at first, for acceptance of one another, and, then, on the basis of our acceptance, we walk together and begin to commit
ourselves to one another. Out of that commitment we eventually will come into covenant.
12. Remember to work it out openly before God. The things with which we are dealing have to do with the kingdom of God; there is a divine purpose and a divine will at work in all. To work it out openly before God means to see it from God’s perspective. God doesn’t see our differences as right or wrong; God sees us as different children whose differences must be resolved in the light of His purpose.
In the story of Israel at the Jordan, there was a happy ending because the people chose to deal with their differences redemptively. Instead of going to war, they met and talked and heard one another out.
They discovered that what had seemed to be a great crisis was really a misunderstanding. May God grant that the time will come when more and more we will solve our problems this way–then it will no longer matter that some of us find our inheritance on the other side of the river.