Giants threaten. How do you respond to them? With fear? Or with faith? In July 1739 John Wesley was just getting untracked in outdoor preaching. Joining with George Whitefield the two began advancing England’s eighteenth century awakening. Giants menaced their mission. Bishop Joseph Butler was aghast at their unauthorized preaching. He confronted John Wesley. Bishop Butler was no slouch. He was the Bishop of Bristol and the renowned author of The Analogy, a hallmark defense of orthodoxy. Their interview was often in my mind as I frequented Bristol City Library just yards away from the once episcopal residence. The Bishop spoke plainly to John Wesley: ‘You have no business here; you are not commissioned to preach in this diocese, therefore I advise thee to go hence.’
How John Wesley would respond to the bishop would have historic consequences. Would he respond with fear? Would he stop offering Jesus Christ to church outsiders? Would he respond in faith? Would he trust God for the call on His life? Would he continue to preach salvation in Jesus Christ in the highways and by-ways? What ‘giants’ threaten you? What threats would deter you from fulfilling God’s purposes in your life? Are you responding with fear? Or with faith?
Moses and the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert at the borders of the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve men into Canaan to assess the land. They bring back a mixed report. The report’s positive is the land is great. It flows ‘with milk and honey’. The report’s negative is the people are great too! They are physically strong. Their towns are fortified. The people are of ‘great size’. Literally, they are ‘men of measurement’: ‘Giants!
The majority of Israel’s spies came to this conclusion: ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.’ In some sense, this was the right conclusion. They ‘were not able’. The Canaanites had well-defended towns. They were more powerful people. Israel was ‘grasshoppers’ next to these giant Canaanites.
Jesus was talking to his disciples about how hard it is for the rich to be saved. He told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. He disciples shot back, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus led them to recognize salvation is not the province of humans, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’. We are not able!
King Jehoshaphat had Moabites and Ammonites threatening war. He stood at the temple with the Israelites assembled together praying to God, ‘For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us’. We are not able!
The kernel of the Gospel, Martin Luther insisted, included this point: ‘In fact, we are not sick and in need of healing. We are dead and in need of resurrecting.’ Luther said if we don’t recognize we need eternal life from the hand of God, we remain in our sins and are eternally dead. We are not able!
The children of Israel came to the right conclusion but made the wrong response. They said ‘we are not able’ and responded with fear. They weighed the strength of the towns. They noted the size of the inhabitants. They feared. Fear supplants God with the threat. It deifies the threat. The threat carries more gravitas than God. The Israelites responded with fear to Canaan saying, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we…Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword’? Let us choose a captain and return to Egypt.
Had not God told them many times what he told the Israelite spies before he sent them out, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites…’ The Israelites overvalued the threat and undervalued God.
Remember when disciple Peter got out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus. When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.
A second respond to the conclusion ‘we are not able’ is faith. Both Caleb and Joshua saw the same threat as the other Israelite spies. They responded to the Canaan giants with faith. They believed God was able. Caleb said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ Joshua joined in with Caleb and said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us.’ Faith puts a threat in God’s perspective. Yes, we are not able…but God is.
When Bishop Butler said to John Wesley, ‘You have no business here’, John Wesley stood his ground. He argued that since he was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, he had a commission to preach the word of God in any part of the Church of England. Therefore, he did not conceive that in preaching in the brickyards in Bristol that ‘I break any human law’.
This was John Wesley’s argument not ecclesial policy! The greater point for John Wesley was if the Bishop’s protestation prevailed, he would effectively not be able to offer Christ outside church walls! This would annul God’s call on his life. Giant of a bishop or not, John Wesley told a friend, ‘God being my helper, I will obey Him (Jesus Christ) still, and, if I suffer for it, His will be done.’ John Wesley did not fear Bishop Butler. He put His faith in Jesus Christ.
The threat of giants can be watershed moments. Israel’s refusal to go into Canaan was a momentous watershed moment. The children of Israel listened to their fears. They paid dearly for it. After this, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Worse yet, they never made it into the Promised Land. Caleb and Joshua believed God. They did enter Canaan. John Wesley believed God rather than fear Bishop Butler. Consequently, he entered a historic ministry of preaching Jesus Christ to persons who never darkened a sanctuary door.
Is there a ‘giant’ threatening you? ‘We are not able’…but God is. Respond not with fear. Respond with faith. The way of fear leads to the way of curse. The way of faith leads to finding your providential way!