In Joshua 1, God gives Joshua his marching orders, as it were, and Joshua jumps into the task, head first. Invading and conquering Canaan is a tall order, to be sure, but Joshua has the confidence and assurance of God’s presence in this task, and so he dives into it. But before any real progress can be made, he has to enlist the confidence of the Israelite people. So he gives instructions to some of the Israelites, and then waits for their response. There was no doubt some tension in his feelings as he awaited their reply: would they listen to him? Would they follow him? Would they accept him as their leader, as they did Moses?
The reply of the Israelites comes quickly and positively. Not only that, but the reply of the people is probably better than Joshua could have expected. They assure Joshua that they will obey him in all things, just like they did Moses. But then they “double down” and declare that any rebellion against Joshua will be met with the death penalty. So their response is basically this: “We will obey you totally and completely. And if anyone doesn’t obey you, they’ll be put to death.”
Now, that’s a pretty high bar to set for yourself: perfect and complete obedience. In one sense, this response by the people is admirable: it is good and right for them to want to obey Joshua (and thereby obey God) – may my zeal for obedience match that of the Israelites! In another sense, this response is ill-conceived, unwise, and reveals a lack of self-awareness on the part of the Israelites. As their history progresses, they will fail and fall. They will disobey Joshua (and thereby disobey God). They will fall short. They will not do as they have been commanded. And in Joshua 7, one person (and his whole family) meet the fate promised to those who would disobey.
In a very real sense, the Christian’s experience can, and often does, mirror that of the Israelites: we set the bar very high for ourselves, and because we are still sinful people struggling with sin and holiness, we fall short. And although we won’t have to be executed for our disobedience, we can put ourselves through our own sort of punishment, as our failures can lead to guilt and depression. So what do we do when we fail? We know failures are coming. How should we respond?
More than anything, those times where we have godly aspirations but fail to keep them, should serve to ground us in the reality of our need for a Savior. Do you know why you can’t live up to your commitments? Do you know why you struggle and fall? Because you’re a sinner. And you need a Savior. The Bible says you can’t save yourself – you can’t perfect yourself. You still struggle with sin – you still fail and fall. That’s the biblical self-awareness that we sometimes lack when we make lofty commitments. But those failures should push us to the cross.
1 John 2.1 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” I, as a sinner, need the gospel every day, because every day there’s something I’m not living up to – some standard of which I’m falling short, some requirement that I can’t keep. So every day I need to be reminded that there is a gospel that deals with my shortcomings and failures. It doesn’t mean that I get “re-saved” every day, but that my continual struggle with sin points me back to the cross to remind me that this with which I am still struggling has been taken care of. So I don’t have to feel like a failure. I don’t have to spiral into depression. I don’t have to feel sorry for myself. Because the cross has taken care of all my sin, and that’s where I need to live: at the foot of the cross.
And when I’m at the foot of the cross, I am at the perfect place to turn from my sin and get back to the business of obedience. Israel didn’t live up to their end of their commitment. They made a commitment to Joshua (and to God), but they broke it numerous times. But also in this process, when they realized their sin, they repented of it and got back to the work of obedience. And God is OK with that. In fact, that’s what God desires for us. He’s not going to cut us off. God loves it when we acknowledge our failures, confess them, and get back on track. So don’t let your failures pull you into the doldrums. Remember that there’s a cross that has taken care of your failures, repent (confess your sin to God and turn from it), and then get back to work doing what God says to do.
One of the themes we see in the story of the people of Israel is that they struggle to obey God – they fail, and sometimes, hard. Time and time again they fall, but time and time again God takes them back, as they turn from their sin and follow him, because he has promised to never leave them or forsake them, just as he has promised to those who are trusting in Christ. There is nothing your sin can do to separate you from the love of God – nothing can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. Remember that when you fail.